Tag: choking

Joe Thornton

Has Joe Thornton really ever been a ‘choker’ since he came to San Jose?


More than a few people will be shocked to learn that Joe Thornton is currently tied for the playoffs scoring lead with 17 points. A lot has been made about Thornton destroying previous old notions about his supposedly inferior postseason play, but a breakthrough at this level still must raise a few eyebrows.

It’s not wrong to say that he’s dispelling old myths, but here’s the rub: those notions were shaky – if not totally inaccurate – in the first place.

Yes, it’s true that Jumbo Joe struggled in a few series earlier in his career with the Boston Bruins. Going pointless in two different series will give critics plenty of firepower and Thornton’s care-free attitude probably didn’t help matters. That weak-in-the-playoffs perception ultimately polluted any good feelings the Bruins held about the over-sized playmaker, leading to the lopsided deal that sent him to San Jose.

Since then, he’s actually been quite strong in each playoffs run with the Sharks, unless your only barometer for success is a Stanley Cup victory.

Thornton has been a steady playoff performer since being traded from Boston.

The Sharks were a middling bunch in their first post-lockout season until Thornton came along and powered them to a powerhouse level with his peerless passing. While linemates and opponents have changed over the years, two things haven’t: the Sharks/Thornton are still without a Stanley Cup victory and people still assume that Big Bird goes Fun Size in the postseason.

There’s little doubt that the 2011 playoffs have been the greatest, most demonstrative set of postseason games in Thornton’s career, but the difference is subtler than one might expect. Thornton has 12 goals and 52 assists for 64 points in 72 playoff games with San Jose, with the only “troubling” number being his -16 rating. (I think his 24 power-play points dulls the bitterness of some of that 5-on-5 play, anyway.)

Sure, Thornton seems more comfortable on the ice this year, but he’s also getting some fortunate bounces (for once?) and can rely on his teammates for more offensive support this time around. His increased luck might be best exemplified by the goal he scored against Roberto Luongo in Game 1.

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Now it’s true that Thornton’s playoff numbers typically pale in comparison to his regular season pace, but most high-scoring players see their averages drop in the playoffs. That’s what happens when every goal is much more crucial, defenses key on your tendencies and players clog up lanes by blocking shots with much greater frequency.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to take anything away from how special this postseason has been for Thornton. My point is simple: his improvement hasn’t been nearly as drastic as many would believe.

In the long run, it might come down to how we perceive his body language. To some, it would seem like a playoff monkey has been lifted off Thornton’s back. Then again, when it comes to the way people depict Thornton, it really has been all about perception. Perhaps we’ve just been imagining that monkey the whole time.

Bruins ‘choking’ talk obscures superior play from the Lightning

Boston Bruins v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Four

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many sports fans truly delight in calling teams and/or players “chokers” even though that label is rarely accurate or fair. Beyond the armchair psychology one can implement in studying how “normal people” critique millionaire athletes, there are at least two fundamental problems with making these claims.

1. The premise ignores the accomplishments and talents of the opposing team.

2. Calling someone a “choker” hinges on the assumption that they truly have control over their successes and failures.

Both of those issues factored into the analysis of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s come-from-behind victory against the Boston Bruins in Saturday’s Game 4 match. While the Bruins should be deeply disappointed with how they played in the final two periods after building a 3-0 lead, that score was misleading in the first place. All three goals were the result of baffling blunders by the Lightning, but there was also more than a little bit of good fortune involved in each Boston goal. Michael Ryder’s 2-0 goal might symbolize those lucky bounces the best.

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Yes, there were moments in the first period when the Lightning looked rattled – especially after Dwayne Roloson allowed Patrice Bergeron’s 3-0 shorthanded goal to squeak through his five-hole – but they actually came out with a lot of energy in the opening frame. A lot of teams might have given up a little bit in that situation, but the plucky Bolts kept at it and their steady pressure was rewarded in the form of a three-goal outburst in the second period (and eventually the win).

Tampa Bay’s effort has been more consistent through the first four games.

In the big picture view of this series, the Lightning are consistently out-playing the Bruins. Both teams had one clunker of a game (Boston’s Game 1 was worse than Tampa Bay’s Game 3, but they were both contests the teams would like back) while the Bruins won a toss-up in Game 2 and the Lightning outlasted Boston in Game 4. Shot totals can be a bit misleading at times, but it’s still telling that the Lightning have out-shot the Bruins in all four games, with an overall 143-123 advantage.*

Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said “We knew they wouldn’t quit” and there’s good reason to believe that he wasn’t just providing lip service. My feeling was that the Lightning were getting some lucky breaks while being occasionally outplayed through much of the first two playoff rounds, but Tampa Bay is flipping that situation on its head in the Eastern Conference finals. Now the Bruins are the ones who are staying in the series thanks to some timely goals and sporadically brilliant goaltending from Tim Thomas.

The Bruins have been a bit schizophrenic in this series. They laid a total egg in Game 1, won a wide-open Game 2, played “Bruins hockey” in Game 3 and then went from high to low in Game 4. Meanwhile, the Lightning seem like they are getting the most out of their team more often than not, even if Dwayne Roloson is starting to look human again.

A lot of Bruins fans probably feel like their team choked this afternoon, yet the truth might be more unsettling for them. More often than not in the first four games, the Lightning have just been better.

* – If you want the game-by-game shot totals, here they are:

Game 1: 34-33
Game 2: 41-35
Game 3: 31-25
Game 4: 37-30