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Will Joe Thornton finally lead his team to the Cup finals?

Thornton.jpgSan Jose Sharks vs. Chicago Blackhawks 3:00 p.m. EDT, May 16, 2010 Live on NBC

Join us at 2:45 p.m. for a live chat during today’s game!

The San Jose Sharks needed a difference maker on their team. Fresh off the lockout and just a season removed from a painful exit in the Western Conference finals the Sharks traded for Joe Thornton, sending Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau to the Boston Bruins. The talented center was known for his playmaking ability and Thornton instantly sparked the offense of the Sharks, putting up 92 points in just 58 games after being traded in the fall of 2008 and has since remained one of the top playmakers in the NHL. Just one problem:

He completely disappeared in the playoffs.

Thornton’s struggles have been directly tied to the failings of the Sharks in the playoffs and for good reason. This was the player the Sharks needed to be at his best in the postseason, the one who worked so hard to get them to that point and the last player they needed to fade into the background.

The past four seasons he’s averaged less than a point a game in the playoffs, managing just a goal and four assists in last year’s first round departure against Anaheim. In the first round this season, it looked as though his postseason struggles would continue. He had just three assists in six games against the Avalanche and was certainly a non-factor in his team’s series victory.

He can thank Joe Pavelski and Dany Heatley for picking up the slack.

With the pressure taken off of Thornton, he emerged against the Red Wings and just with the rest the Sharks seemingly smacked that monkey right off his back. Three goals five assists in just five games against the Red Wings saw Thornton’s energy and playmaking vigor renewed. You could see the weight lifted off his shoulders as Pavelski took over the role of leading scorer for the Sharks, and while you’d prefer that Thornton would be able to step up perhaps having the pressure off has freed him up.

Unfortunately, Thornton will always have the stigma of flailing in the postseason until he leads his team to at least the Stanley Cup finals. Getting to this point is great, but it’s tough to say that Thornton actually was “leading” the Sharks. He’s coming on strong now, and has a chance to prove that everyone claiming he’s a failure in the playoffs was wrong.

If he continues his strong play against a great team like the Blackhawks, his critics will be momentarily silenced. That is, at least, until the Sharks get to the Cup finals and he manages just three points in a five-game series loss. Then he’ll be a failure all over again.