Joe Thornton return among Sharks’ possibilities for Game 4

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When asked about the San Jose Sharks’ lineup for Game 4 against the Vegas Golden Knights, Peter DeBoer repeatedly deflected questions, hammering the phrase “game-time decisions” in each instance.

That hasn’t stopped people from speculating about who might be in or out of the mix.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The most interesting name popping up is Joe Thornton. The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz notes that Thornton said that he’s probably not ready for Game 4, yet Kurz believes there’s some possibility for a pleasant surprise once those game-time decisions are in.

Kurz isn’t the only reporter who’s showing some optimism about a possible return for “Jumbo Joe” tonight. The Mercury News’ Paul Gackle goes as far as to label Thornton as “likely to play.”

Thornton’s already gone through some of the vague-if-positive steps of recovery, even warming up with the Sharks recently. If nothing else, it seems like the 38-year-old has a shot at playing sometime during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Really, it would be a shame if he did not. That’s especially true if the pending UFA doesn’t re-sign with the Sharks, as that would make for an unceremonious end to his decade-plus with the team.

Thornton underwent surgery in late January, and even at his previous “bringing the game to his own speed,” it was reasonable to wonder how he’d fare against the lightning-fast, aggressive Golden Knights. That would be an even more valid question if Thornton plays at less than 100 percent.

Even a hobbled Thornton could make a big difference, whether he skates with Evander Kane and Joe Pavelski on a top-heavy first line or gets eased into the mix as a third-line center.

The Sharks’ official Twitter feed acknowledged the uncertainty at hand while pointing to another tweak to monitor: it looks like Joakim Ryan will replace veteran defenseman Paul Martin tonight. Do note that DeBoer wouldn’t give a concrete answer on that subject, either, though:

If that swap stands, Ryan will be making his first-career appearance in an NHL postseason game. The 24-year-old played in 62 games for the Sharks during his rookie season, averaging 16:45 TOI and scoring 12 points. His possession stats are fairly promising, all things considered.

It’s actually remarkable that Paul Martin has been able to stay in the lineup for this long considering how often he was a healthy scratch (or demoted to the AHL) during the regular season. Let’s just say that this is a mere sample of the less-than-positive reviews of his recent work:

After the Golden Knights throttled the Sharks 7-0 in Game 1, the two teams have traded overtime victories. Game 4 will go a long way in determining if this could be a long, fascinating series or if Vegas might continue to dominate in ways that still seem shocking.

You’d have to think that even a less-than-optimal Thornton would give the Sharks a serious boost, but we’ll have to see how the game-time decisions play out.

Game 4 takes place on NBCSN tonight with puck drop slated for 10 p.m. ET. This is the livestream link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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