BOSTON (CBS) — In the three years since it happened, it has grown to a tremendous size typically reserved for tales of giant bass spun by fishermen who needed multiple assistants to pull their catch into the boat.
Ever since the Bruins’ run to their first Stanley Cup championship in 39 years, I’ve looked back at forward Shawn Thornton’s first shift of Game 3 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final as a series-shifting event and crowning episode of his career. Now in light of the Bruins’ announcing they won’t be re-signing the 36-year-old Thornton, who will become an unrestricted free agent July 1, I look back at the shift chart from that night and learn that what’s stood out as so huge in my mind for three years lasted all of 19 seconds. But what a 19 seconds it was.
There were other big goals, heavy shifts and classic fights throughout Thornton’s seven seasons with the Bruins. He was a model citizen off the ice and was seemingly involved in every Bruins event in the community. He started his own foundation and helped raise awareness and money for several causes. Of course, he was also a go-to guy for quotes in the room, whether the Bruins won or lost, whether he had anything to do with the result.
But to me nothing Thornton did on the ice was as important as what he did Monday, June 6, 2011 at the Garden. The Bruins were down 2-0 heading into Game 3 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and coach Claude Julien decided it was time to make a lineup change. He removed rookie forward Tyler Seguin, who had cooled off since his breakout performance in Game 2 of the prior series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and reinserted Thornton, who’d been a healthy scratch since Patrice Bergeron’s return from injury for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Thornton didn’t land anything in the points column that night. And like most of his playoff performances, his time on ice was less than 10 minutes (a measly 5:50 to be exact). But it took him eight seconds to announce his presence on the ice and send a clear message to the cocky Canucks that the series wasn’t going to be a walk through Boston Common. Thornton jumped over the boards and made like a rabid pit bull on the hunt for dinner as he dashed right for Vancouver forward Alex Burrows, who just a few days earlier had bit Boston center Bergeron in a scrum to earn status as most-hated Canuck (at least for a few minutes before Aaron Rome went to work). Burrows had the puck, and then he didn’t. Instead he had Thornton all over him. The Garden went ballistic. Suddenly, it didn’t feel like a 2-0 series deficit was all that steep a climb for the Bruins.
Thornton threw just one more hit that night. Using his always-underrated accurate shot, he also landed two shots on net that night. He was whistled for roughing and earned a 10-minute misconduct before the festivities were through. Everything that came after that first shift and the hit on Burrows, however, was gravy. Thornton had already done his job; he woke up the Garden and the team and drew a line in the sand for the Bruins, which was what he was paid to do.
Admittedly Nathan Horton’s injury left him few other options, but Julien still was wise enough to leave Thornton in for the rest of the series. Thornton and his “Merlot Line” mates Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille were an integral part of the Bruins winning four of five games, including Game 7. In that last game, Thornton, Campbell and Paille were as important in the Bruins’ demoralizing the Canucks as Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
The Bruins often talk about how they’re all about the team and not individuals. No Bruins team, however, has quite fulfilled that philosophy like the 2011 squad. Thornton was the personification of that mantra in 2011, as he accepted his time out of the lineup like a pro and then gave the team maximum effort when he was finally called upon.
Unfortunately for Thornton, his last season in Boston sullied his reputation as a guy always on the right side of the rules. He earned his first NHL suspension for his inexcusable attack on Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. He earned a fine for squirting water at Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban in the playoffs, and the Canadiens repeatedly pointed to the incident as one of their extra motivators during their seven-game victory.
But Thornton’s career with the Bruins has to be taken as an entire book, not just one last chapter. And for me the favorite part of that story will always be those 19 seconds against Vancouver.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
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