A fight away from the infamous Gordie Howe hat trick on Nov. 13, Shawn Thornton sat on the bench and watched teammate Milan Lucic pummel Montreal Canadiens defenseman Mike Komisarek with his right fist at center ice.
Since last season, the Bruins tough guy has had a little help from Lucic in the fisticuffs department. That hasn’t made Thornton get away from his enforcer side, but it has given him a chance to put the rest of his game on display.
Very rarely do NHL heavyweights showcase anything other than throwing their hands on a regular basis, but Thornton has been able to prove that he’s worth a lot more than just five minutes in the penalty box.
“When it comes to his hockey skills, he’s pretty humble, but he actually has a lot more skill than people give him credit for,” said Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas. “He’s one of the rare breeds that you can play on a regular shift, not only just to get by, but to actually get a lot of positives out of.”
Said Thornton, “I took on that role as sort of a necessity to get where I am. When I was younger, that’s what I did to try to make it to the next level, but I always thought I could bring a little bit more. Now I’m trying to play, and that stuff takes care of itself as I get older.”
Thornton, 31, isn’t making any trips from the fourth line to the top two lines, and nobody’s handing him the Art Ross Trophy, but to say that his importance doesn’t go beyond fighting is simply not true.
Just 2:31 into the first period against Montreal, Thornton stole the puck at the Canadiens’ blue line and found himself alone with goaltender Carey Price. From forehand to backhand, he scored for the first time this season to give his team a 1-0 lead.
He then assisted on linemate Stephane Yelle’s eventual game-winner later in the first period, as the Bruins went on to win 6-1, snapping a 12-game regular-season losing skid against Montreal.
“It felt good, finally,” he said. “It’s been a while. I don’t even know how many shots I’ve had point blank that haven’t gone in, so it’s nice to get that monkey off my back.”
Added Thomas, “Especially considering it was against Montreal, it was great to watch. I wasn’t surprised by it because I know he can pull those moves off. In practice, I’ve seen it out of him the last couple of years.”
Thornton rejoined the team in Chicago on Nov. 12 after missing the previous two days of practice following the loss of his grandmother. Not long after, Thornton played a major role in one of the Bruins’ biggest wins of the season, and it didn’t involve fighting.
“It was a rough week,” said Thornton. “At least I was rested. I felt pretty good out there, so maybe everything happens for a reason. I’m sure Irish eyes are smiling tonight.”
Said Bruins coach Claude Julien, “I thought that was good for him. He had a tough week, took care of some personal matters back home, came back and scored his first goal. Again, it was a big goal because we haven’t played with a lead much against [Montreal]. It was nice to get that early lead and take control of the game.”
The Bruins entered the week in first place in the Northeast Division and second in the Eastern Conference. Thornton entered the week with four points in just 17 games. This is his best start to a season since 2006-07, during which he recorded one goal and seven assists in his first 20 games with Anaheim. Thornton only had one more point, a goal, the rest of the season, but he finished with the ultimate team prize, the Stanley Cup.
“Big-time, big-time important,” said Julien of Thornton’s presence. “You can’t say enough about that. First of all, he’s a great guy in the locker room. He’s a great team man. You’ll never see any kind of reaction from him. His minutes were limited in Chicago, and I’m sure he wanted to play more, but you don’t hear a sound out of him. He’s all about team.
“And when he’s out on the ice, I don’t care if you’re [Montreal winger] Georges Laraque,” added Julien. “Georges Laraque knows that if something’s going to happen, Thorny’s going to step in there. He doesn’t back down from anything. It certainly makes your team bigger. That’s the importance of those guys. It’s not always a fun job, but it’s a role that everybody on the team respects and admires.”
Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at email@example.com
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