There is only one way to remove the label of playoff choker: Win.
The label is rarely fair, especially in a sport like hockey. When we consider the amount of time a player like Joe Thornton actually plays and is able to impact the game, it becomes clear that a name like the “Tin Man” is not truly earned, but virtually impossible to shed. Win the Stanley Cup and your name goes down forever as a winner. Fail to and it can haunt even Hall of Fame players.
It is a simplistic judgment, but it is a media/fan created burden that Thornton carries around the ice on every shift. Thornton has not only carried this burden, but is four wins away from removing it behind a strong run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.
After a slow start against the Kings, Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl continually drive the play at even strength. The Predators and Blues couldn’t contain this Sharks top line and they were a primary reason for San Jose’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Entering the Final, Thornton has continually been able to create in the offensive zone off the cycle, and with his elite passing ability and vision, has been able to use Pavelski’s strengths to his advantage. All three can play a heavy game along the boards and create havoc in the high percentage scoring areas located in front of the net. While quick accurate passes have earned him a reputation as a premier setup man, the Sharks turned their Western Conference opposition into chum with their net front presence.
This is obvious when we look at Joe Pavelski’s individual shot chart.
Pavelski has been the beneficiary of Thornton’s vision as he has been the recipient of quick passes to the same side of the slot line that have denied goaltenders of clear sight and the ability to gather information. He also has been magnificent at creating high-end opportunities (indicated in green, low probability in red) through deflecting pucks and gathering up rebound chances.
Successful goaltenders require clear sight of the puck to gather information and formulate a plan. Average clear sight distribution is just over 84% and Pavelski’s producing clean shots at a rate of 68%. When you couple that with the high probability home plate area from where his shots are originating, we get an understanding of why he is leading the playoffs in goal scoring.
The problem is the Penguins speed.
The Penguins speed isn’t just evident through the neutral zone and creating offensive chances, they are extremely quick and efficient in their routes to the puck and are a great loose puck recovery team. They pressure in the defensive zone and take away time and space, and this has short circuited Thornton and the Sharks through the first two games of the Final.
When Thornton has time and space, we can see how effective he can be.
Against St. Louis, Thornton was able to manipulate time and space to create multiple opportunities to exploit. Once he was able to draw Blues defenders to him, he was able to execute the option with the highest probability. Many offensive players like to shoot from low probability areas, but Thornton wheels through five-to-six different options before committing to the eventual scoring play.
In the above example, we can see that he has Pavelski sneaking in for backdoor pressure. This is the preferred play because it exists in the goaltender’s blind spot and exploits his lack of net coverage. But a low percentage shot to the outside pad can also set up a high probability rebound opportunity because of the difficulty for St. Louis’ Jake Allen to maintain control and position a rebound away from his backside.
Thornton also has Hertl setting up layering in front which offers the possibility of a deflected puck or a screen. A puck down low can also create a lower percentage rebound opportunity for Hertl to Allen’s front side. Thornton ultimately makes the right choice for a Pavelski tap in.
The problem for Thornton is the Penguins have taken away his time and space through two games and it has resulted in absolute zone dominance on both sides of the puck. The Thornton line, which had produced 82% clear sighted shots for opposition goaltenders entering the series, has had that number rise to 94% through the first two games.
Overall, the Penguins have produced high quality chances that have resulted in a 7.566 expected goal total. Only 79% of the shots Martin Jones has faced have been of the clear sight variety. But like Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy before him, Jones has been able to maintain the façade of a close series. The Sharks are struggling to force Matt Murray into difficult scenarios and this has resulted in a poor expected goal total of 3.055.
With depth and speed being a huge part of the Cup Final so far, Thornton finds himself in a familiar place where the perceived and real burden falls on him to find a way to produce against a team that’s strengths seem to neutralize his. The Sharks lack the depth to gift him a ring and the winner label that goes with victory, and the Penguins ability to recover loose pucks with pressure and speed at both ends of the rink has neutralized what makes the Sharks top trio so good.
The Penguins goaltending is still their Achilles heel and after watching the Lightning come close to exploiting it, I can’t count the Sharks – or Thornton – out.