Joe Thornton: Goat or scapegoat?

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jumbojoe2.jpgOne of my general rules of life when it comes to less-than-concrete debates is “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” A great example of this logic comes in the case of Joe Thornton’s playoff “choking.” On one hand, I think that he’s the victim of circumstance and his numbers aren’t that bad. Then again, there is that feeling that maybe he could give more; it’s probably the typical reaction that comes with seeing such a big, talented player be so quiet at times, but it’s hard to ignore that instinctive urge to question his efforts. Even if he’s probably trying too hard.

John O’Connor of the National Post wrote the typical “step it up, Joe” type column.

The playoffs are a different kind of hockey beast, an annual rite of spring that is far more life and death than the 82-game preamble. April, May and June are set aside for greatness. The stakes are high, expectations are elevated, and the best players are supposed to find that extra gear.

But you never seem to change gears, Joe. While everybody else is stepping up you always seem to take a step sideways. Or worse, back.

That is what happened last year when your Sharks captured the President’s Trophy as the best team during the regular season and then face-planted in the opening round of the playoffs. You had one goal and four assists in six game. You were a playoff bust. You always have been.

Look, I understand that 5 points in 6 games might not match Thornton’s regular season averages, but that’s still close to a point per game and hockey players – even the stars – tend to see a dip in production in the playoffs. Someone might bring up Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, but there’s two counter-points to that argument: 1) they play in the Eastern Conference/against weaker, less defensively sound opponents and 2) it’s probably fair to say that Thornton is a rung lower on the elite ladder. Not far from those two, but there’s a gap.

O’Connor critiques Jumbo Joe for only having two points in four games so far but conveniently fails to mention how infrequent scoring has been in the Sharks-Avalanche series. Aside from a 6-5 anomaly that was Game 2, the series scores were: 2-1 Colorado, 1-0 Colorado in OT and 2-1 Sharks in OT. Overall San Jose only scored 9 goals in four games with 2 of those coming after regulation. Naturally, one could say that San Jose needs Thornton to step up and that’s true, but it’s clear that he’s in contests where goals are a precious resource. No one is putting up big numbers.

Does that completely excuse Thornton when his team could lose to an eighth seed for the second year in a row? No, it doesn’t. I just think that his problem might be style more than heart. He’s one of the most transparently pass-first players in the league, so maybe in a 7-game series a team can devote more time to learning his tendencies and cutting off his wingers.

It’s unfair to say that he chokes in the playoffs, but is it unfair to say that he needs to make more of an impact? Either way, that perception will be a part of his legacy until he either “snaps out of it” or finally gets lucky.

Andrew Hammond to start Game 5 for Avalanche

AP
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When the Colorado Avalanche hit the ice in Nashville on Friday night they will be facing elimination. They will also need to rely on their third-string goalie to help get them a win if they are going to extend their season.

The team announced on Thursday that Andrew Hammond will be getting the start, replacing Jonathan Bernier who had to leave Wednesday’s game after two periods with a lower body injury. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said Bernier’s injury has been a nagging one and that he could still be available off the bench on Friday if needed.

The Avalanche had been starting Bernier because their regular starter, Semyon Varlamov, is out for the remainder of the season due to a lower body injury of his own.

Obviously, this puts the Avalanche in a pretty tough spot. Not only because they have to go on the road against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Predators, but also because they have to turn to a goalie that, including Wednesday’s brief relief appearance, has appeared in just eight NHL games over the past two years. He has faced only 127 shots in those appearances and managed only an .874 save percentage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

 Hammond’s career has been a fascinating one to this point.

Late in the 2014-15 season he came out of nowhere as a 25-year-old rookie to lead the Ottawa Senators on an improbable late season run (where Hammond put together a 20-1-2 record) to qualify for the playoffs. Nicknamed “the Hamburglar,” his initial run in Ottawa was highlighted by fans throwing hamburgers on the ice to celebrate his wins.  That run earned him a contract extension with the Senators and a bunch of free hamburgers from McDonalds. It was a crazy year.

After that, though, injuries and a decline in his production have limited him to just a handful of appearances in the NHL.

The Avalanche acquired him from the Senators earlier this season as part of the Matt Duchene trade.

Now he has to jump into the crease in an elimination game.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Predators’ Ryan Hartman to have hearing after illegal check to the head

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Ryan Hartman had a tough night at the office on Wednesday night and will have to answer to the NHL’s Department of Player Safety because of it.

Hartman’s hearing stems from a charging penalty he was assessed after lining up Colorado Avalanche forward Carl Soderberg‘s head with his shoulder at the 4:42 mark of the third period.

Soderberg was forced to leave the game after the play.

Earlier in the game, Hartman tried to line up Sven Andrighetto from a mile out in the second period but missed, prompting the latter to come and give Hartman some business, which included a stick below the belt to Hartman.

The Predators took Game 4 by a 3-2 margin, holding off a third-period comeback attempt from the Avalanche to take a 3-1 series lead.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Seinfeld’s Puddy attends Devils game to ‘support the team’

NJ Devils on Twitter
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The man known affectionately as Puddy (aka actor Patrick Warburton) was in New Jersey last night trying to rile up the Devils prior to Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

You’ll remember Puddy, the face-painted Devils fan from the hit TV show Seinfeld, for such lines as, ‘We’re the Devils… The Devils’ and ‘Don’t mess with the Devils. We can beat anybody.’

That’s pretty much it, but he didn’t need to say much else to become an instant cult classic among Devils fans.

Warburton resurrected the character on Wednesdat night, doing his best to get the Devils and their fans amped up prior to the game.

Unfortunately for New Jersey, the tactic didn’t pay off as the Lightning took a 3-1 series lead on the back of a 3-1 win.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Ducks wake-up call; Crosby passes Lemieux

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.
• For Ducks, getting swept should be a wake-up call (Los Angeles Times)

• Takeaways: an unlikely hero emerges as Sharks sweep Ducks (San Jose Mercury News)

Sidney Crosby passes Mario Lemieux for Penguins’ playoff points lead (USA Today)

• The Penguins are still too much for the Flyers (SB Nation)

• Hey, Saint Patrick. It’s a sin you missed how Avs refused to quit in 3-2 loss against Nashville. (Denver Post)

• In defying odds, Golden Knights’ success is not so good for sports books (USA Today)

Marc-Andre Fleury‘s ex-teammates with Penguins happy for his success in playoffs (NHL.com)

• Bodog: Golden Knights are Cup favourites (TSN.ca)

• Foligno brothers savouring first simultaneous NHL post-season (Toronto Star)

Blake Wheeler‘s path to being an elite player in the NHL took a winding road (Winnipeg Sun)

• How a financial advisor became the NHL’s only active black official (Sportsnet)

• Bill Peters has the inside track in Calgary, but there’s a lot of local blood to consider (The Hockey News)

• Von Miller just discovered hockey and he is WAY into it (The Loop)

• Humboldt Broncos tribute concert aims to bring in NHL players, alumni (Sportsnet)

• Town puts ‘giant hockey stick on our porch’ in Humboldt tribute (CBC)

• The case for each Vezina Trophy finalist — and a few snubs (The Hockey News)

• Why the Stanley Cup gets names removed every 13 years (Sportsnet)

• Up top, watch how the Penguins are coming alive in the postseason and the energy being displayed by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin should be worrying their opponents.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck