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Thornton gets feet wet

Newest Shark jumps right in with two assists in first game

BUFFALO -- Joe Thornton should have taken it as an omen. Wednesday afternoon he comes home from practice and ''Jaws" is playing on his flat screen. That night, he turns into a Shark. The metamorphosis was nearly Kafkaesque -- a man wakes up as a brown bear and goes to sleep as a Great White.

''The first night I was really shocked," the former Bruin captain said yesterday before his first game as a Silicon Valley employee. ''Yesterday morning I felt great -- and today was even better."

By last night, Thornton was exuberant after he and his new sun-dappled playmates ended their 10-game losing streak by ripping apart the Sabres, 5-0, before 18,007 hooting customers at the HSBC Arena in a non-contest that was over in less than a dozen minutes.

''I was feeding off them and they were feeding off me," said Thornton, after he'd set up Jonathan Cheechoo for two goals and earned the third star. ''It was a nice first game to come in here."

His fellow Sharks, who hadn't won a game in nearly a

month, did everything but strew rose petals along the corridor to herald his arrival. ''There's a buzz around our team in the locker room," said coach Ron Wilson, who immediately had Thornton center the first line alongside cousin Scott, and put him on the power play.

After sinking to the bottom of the Pacific Division, San Jose was so desperate to get someone of Thornton's stature that the club shipped three players (defenseman Brad Stuart and forwards Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau) to the Hub for one Jumbo version. On Thursday, in walked the man himself with his big easy grin, rumpled hair, and day-old whiskers, and took the same number (19) he wore with the Bruins.

''It's a little strange," conceded Scott Thornton, who'd never played with his eight-years-younger relative. ''After seeing him in Boston for his whole career, that image gets embedded in your mind. But it's great to see him in our team colors."

After more than seven seasons in Black and Gold and with a three-year contract signed this year, it seemed that Thornton might be on Causeway Street forever. But when the Bruins kept losing and losing and losing, even their high-priced captain became expendable. ''Something had to change," said Joe Thornton, ''and everybody knew that."

Still, the trade was a thunderclap, just as was Phil Esposito's departure for New York 30 years ago. Was Thornton being scapegoated? ''It's a team sport," he said. ''Maybe the Boston management is pointing fingers, but it's a team sport."

His spoked-B brethren acknowledged that they'd let their leader down, and Thornton was heartened by their comments. ''I'm all over it," he insisted. ''I'm fine. I love being with my new team and I wish my former teammates the best of luck. I'm glad they got out of their little slump. Hopefully, we can turn it around as well."

Thornton, who became the Sharks' leading scorer (by 10 points) as soon as he suited up, is expected to be the catalyst. The San Jose Mercury News, which labeled the deal a ''seismic trade," asked its readers whether Thornton would reverse the team's fortunes. Three quarters of the respondents said yes.

''We can't sit back and expect Joe to score three or four goals and we jump on his back," said Wilson, who warned against draping the savior mantle around Thornton's big shoulders. ''He has to do his job and we have to do our job."

Thornton dropped an immediate calling card last night, dinging the post nine seconds into the game, then deftly set up Cheechoo for the second goal that accelerated Buffalo's implosion and the fifth tally on a five-on-three. ''Joe was great," saluted Scott Thornton. ''He just brought a lot tonight."

After his maelstrom of a week, Joe Thornton was both elated and relieved to be back on the ice and have an impact. ''I haven't been sleeping too much lately," he said. ''It's been a pretty stressful last few days."

Changing from a bear into a shark is no overnight evolution. Pulling on the game jersey last night was merely the first step. ''It'll take Joe a little while to accept that he's not a Bruin anymore, and I can understand that," said Wilson. ''You tend to think about the team that didn't want you as opposed to the team that did want you. Those feelings are going to be there and we'll help him deal with them."

It'll be weird playing against his original blood brothers next month in the Garden, Thornton says, but he's pledged a new West Coast fraternity that offers balmy winters. ''I'm going to get a sports car now," he said. The shock, the disappointment, the anger of being shipped out of his old frat has passed. It was, Thornton understands, a business decision. The Bruins were in free fall, so their chapter president had to go. ''Yeah, I'm the fall guy, but I'm man enough to move on," Thornton said. ''I'm glad to be a San Jose Shark. What can I say?"

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