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

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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.

Lightning vs. Stars: 3 keys to Game 5 of Stanley Cup Final

Stanley Cup Final Game 5
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The Tampa Bay Lightning will have a chance to win the Stanley Cup in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, Livestream) when they take on the Dallas Stars.

Injuries will again be a big factor as Steven Stamkos is set to miss yet another game for the Lightning as he continues to recover from a lower-body injury.

On the Dallas side, Roope Hintz, Blake Comeau, and Radek Faksa will all be unavailable, leaving a significant dent on a penalty killing unit that has already struggled in this series.

The Stars need to put together another improbable run this postseason, and it has to start on Saturday night.

Let’s take a look at three keys to the game to get you ready.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. The Lightning power play vs. the Stars penalty kill

You could also go back to the No. 1 key from Game 4 and say that the Stars have to remain disciplined, but that ship seems like it has already sailed in this series. Plus, with the way the Lightning are clicking on the power play right now they may not need many opportunities to change the game and get a big goal.

The Lightning have scored on six of their 15 power play opportunities in this series and are coming off of a Game 4 performance where they found the back of the net three times, including on Kevin Shattenkirk‘s overtime winning goal.

This group is just too good, too talented, and too precise to consistently slow down. Add in the fact that the Stars are without Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, and Roope Hintz (three regulars on the PK, with the former two being two of their most utilized players) and it becomes an even bigger challenge.

That is a lot to replace.

2. Goalies on the back-to-back

Most teams do not like playing their goalies in both ends of a back-to-back during the regular season, and we even saw a lot of teams use their backups during this year’s postseason to help reduce the workload.

But no coach is going to sit their starter in the Stanley Cup Final, especially in a potential elimination game.

So you are going to see Andrei Vasilevskiy and Anton Khudobin again on Saturday even though both goalies played an entire overtime game just 24 hours earlier.

Back-to-backs are always a lot for goalies, but when you consider the workload these two have taken on this postseason they have to be running on fumes at this point.

That has to be especially true for Vasilevskiy as he has played every single minute for the Lightning since the postseason began in late July.

Given the way this series has played out the Stars are going to need Khudobin to carry them again.

3. Tampa Bay’s top line

The trio of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat has been dominant all postseason, and they are somehow getting stronger in the Stanley Cup Final.

They have aleady combined for seven goals in the first four games of the series (four for Point, one each for Kucherov and Palat) while Kucherov has five assists.

They have not only helped get the power play rolling again, but their 5-on-5 play has been equally dominant.

Just take a look at the numbers this line is producing when all three are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play:

  • Total shot attempts: Tampa Bay 64, Dallas 26 (71.1 percent in Tampa Bay’s favor)
  • Shots on goal: Tampa Bay 31, Dallas 13 (70. 4 percent in Tampa Bay’s favor)
  • Expected goals: Tampa Bay 2.92, Dallas 1.06 (73.3 percent in Tampa Bay’s favor)
  • Goals: Tampa Bay 4, Dallas 1 (80.0 percent in Tampa Bay’s favor)

All of that in just 48 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time.

The Stars have no answer for them, and it hasn’t really mattered which defensive pairing they have tried to use as both Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg have been unable to slow them down. The Klingberg pairing has especially struggled, as the Stars have been outscored 2-0 and out-attempted 25-4 in the 20 minutes that pairing has played against the Kucherov line.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 3-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2. (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2. (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 4 [OT]. (recap)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

‘Black Aces’ in bubble have toughest job in NHL playoffs

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EDMONTON, Alberta — When Joel Kiviranta capped a hat trick by scoring the series-clinching goal in overtime in his playoff debut in the second round, the young Finn had one real desire.

”I hope I get more games,” Kiviranta said.

Kiviranta hasn’t come out of the Dallas Stars lineup since, and he’s emblematic of the impact a player can have in the fight for the Stanley Cup after practicing but not playing for weeks on end. They’re part of the taxi squad of extras called the ”Black Aces,” a 19th century poker term brought into hockey by Hall of Famer Eddie Shore 90 years ago.

They’re woven into the fabric of the NHL playoffs, and these players have never had it tougher, given the confines of the bubble and no guarantee they’ll get into a game. They’ll gear up to get on the ice to join in the fun when the Cup is handed out, which could be as soon as Saturday night.

”They’re the guys that never get talked about and probably have the most difficult job in this bubble,” Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”To be practicing and working and doing all the other things to stay ready and not getting in, it’s a mental grind.”

Some have grinded it out and been rewarded with a chance to shine on the big stage. In the Cup final alone, the Lightning got defenseman Jan Rutta back for his first game since Aug. 5, and the Stars plugged in Nick Caamano to replaced injured forward Blake Comeau.

Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos returning doesn’t really count, even though he hadn’t played since February and was practicing with his teammates. Dallas may have to dip into its extras for Game 5 on Saturday night after Roope Hintz was injured in Game 4 a night earlier.

Caamano hadn’t played since March 11, and that game was in the minors. But he tried to stay as ready as he could.

”It was weird going through your game day routine and stuff, but we knew as ‘Black Aces,’ you’ve got to be ready to go if your name’s called,” Caamano said. ”A lot of guys in that room have battled hard all playoffs here and you don’t want to come in and disappoint them, so you want to give your best foot forward.”

Before that opportunity arises, it’s a lot of thankless work practicing and biding time. Rutta watched a lot of hockey while rehabbing an injury, and tried to stay in shape and ”not go completely mad” inside the bubble.

”When you’re a black ace in a regular playoff year, you’re at least with friends and family and all those things you get to enjoy while the ride’s going on,” Cooper said. ”Here, it’s just different. And so you make sure that you have these guys feeling involved because it’s a really tough job.”

Stars assistant coaches have tried to mix up practice routine to break up the monotony.

It has worked. Kiviranta scored a big goal in the Western Conference clincher and then again in Game 1 of the final.

”Our coaches have done a great job keeping them fresh on the ice with different drills and games and doing everything we can to keep them as fresh as is possible mentally and physically,” Dallas interim coach Rick Bowness said. ”I give those kids credit, and we needed them. They were ready to go. Your hat to them and our coaches, who are doing a great job with them.”

The other challenge is making extra players feel like part of the team, even if they’re not contributing to the results. Caamano said his teammates did a great job with that, involving him in card games and other activities.

And these guys could also play a major role, either in these playoffs or the future.

”What I’ve told our players is, ‘You may not feel like you’re helping right this moment,”’ Cooper said. ”They are helping and they may be helping the organization in a depth way today, but tomorrow they might be in our lineup. And so getting this experience I think is great for them.”

Lightning-Stars stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final

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NBC’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Saturday’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Lightning and Stars. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

In by far the most competitive and only back-and-forth game this series, the Lightning came out on top in the first overtime game of this Cup Final. Tampa trailed 2-0 and 3-2 before taking its first lead of the game when Alex Killorn scored 6:41 into the third period to make the score 4-3. Joe Pavelski tied things back up with 8:25 left in regulation, forcing each club’s first overtime game since their respective Conference Finals series-clinchers. Offseason signee Kevin Shattenkirk, playing on his fifth team and in his first Cup Final, then netted the winner, 6:34 into the extra session to move the Lightning one win from their second-ever Stanley Cup (2004).

Tampa can become the first team in the NHL expansion era (1967- present) to win the Stanley Cup the season after being swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last season, the Lightning tied the NHL regular-season record with 62 wins but lost four straight games to the Blue Jackets in the opening round for an early playoff exit. Over the last six years, no team has more playoff wins or Conference Finals appearances than Tampa, and now they’re one victory away from their first title in the Jon Cooper era.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Pat Maroon, who the Lightning signed in the offseason, is the only player on the team who has won a Cup and he can become the third player in the expansion era (since 1967) to win a title in consecutive seasons with different teams after helping the Blues win their first-ever championship last year (Cory Stillman 2004 with Tampa and 2006 with Carolina … Claude Lemieux 1995 with New Jersey and 1996 with Colorado).

Historically, a 3-1 series lead in the Cup Final has almost guaranteed an eventual Cup victory, with teams converting 33 times in 34 total tries. The only time a team blew a 3-1 lead in the Cup Final was in 1942, when Detroit lost to Toronto after leading the series 3-0.

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Saturday, September 26, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
ON THE CALL: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 3-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

Stars will not have Roope Hintz, Blake Comeau for Game 5

Stars Game 5
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The Dallas Stars will be without several key forwards for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC, Livestream)  as they look to fight off elimination and extend their season.

Coach Rick Bowness announced that forward Roope Hintz will not be available for Saturday’s game after he was injured in Game 4 on Friday night.

Hintz logged just five minutes of ice-time in the Stars’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That is a pretty significant blow to the Stars’ lineup, not only because Hintz finished the season as one of their leading goal-scorers (19 goals in only 60 games), but because they are already dealing with injuries to a couple of key depth players.

In addition to Hintz, the Stars will again be without forwards Radek Faksa and Blake Comeau.

Comeau has missed the past two games in the Stanley Cup Final, while Faksa has been sidelined since the middle of the Western Conference Final.

What really makes this an issue for the Stars is Comeau and Faksa were two of their most used forwards on the penalty kill during the season, with Hintz also playing a minor role in that spot.

Tampa Bay’s power play has caught fire in the Stanley Cup Final, scoring on six of its 15 opportunities. Taking those three out of the lineup is not going to help the Stars’ chances of containing the Lightning power play.

More: Stars need one more improbable run to complete improbable season

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 3-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2. (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2. (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 4 [OT]. (recap)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.