When the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks take the ice this weekend to begin the Western Conference Finals, two players will take center stage for different reasons.
For the Sharks, 30-year-old Joe Thornton has long been one of the better centers in the NHL. Over a 14-year, 915-game regular season career, Thornton has scored 285 goals and has 646 assists for 931 points – an average of more than one point per game. He has 46 career game-winning goals and is +131 in his regular season career, all numbers that deserve (and receive) a great deal of respect.
However, Thornton has also been ridiculed as a “choker” for somehow making his 6’4, 230-pound frame disappear in the postseason. In 10 postseasons (including the first two series of the 2010 playoffs), Thornton has 64 points (15 goals, 49 assists) and is -18 in 87 games. This spring, Thornton has 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 11 games, but is -6 again. The falloff of more than a third of a point-per-game and the less-than-mediocre plus/minus has led to Thornton being labeled a postseason loser for years.
On the other side of the ice is the youngest captain in the NHL, 22-year-old Jonathan Toews. In his young, three-year career, he has posted good regular season numbers; in 222 regular season games, Toews has 83 goals and 108 assists for 191 points and a +45 rating. He also has 14 game-winning goals already in three seasons that have been dotted with injuries as well. Unlike Thornton, Toews is not yet averaging over one point per game in his regular season career.
Then the playoff start.
In a stark contrast to Thornton’s playoff career, Toews has made his 6’2, 210-pound frame get bigger when the lights get brighter. In only two postseasons (including this year), Toews will already play in his second conference finals series and has participated in 29 playoff games. In those games, he has scored 13 goals (only two fewer than Thornton in less than one-third as many games) and has 20 assists for 33 postseason points, over one point-per-game.
There are two numbers that jump off the stat sheets when comparing the playoff careers of Toews and Thornton, however. Thornton has seven power play goals and five game-winners in his 87-game playoff career, while Toews has nine power play goals and four game-winners in just 29 games.
The two were teammates on Canada’s gold medal team in the 2010 Olympics, and have superstar wings next to them. Which one plays big on this, the biggest stage of both of their careers, will determine how far his team advances toward hockey’s ultimate prize.