Guess who’s back, back again?
No, it isn’t Eminem. The Detroit native isn’t scheduled to play any shows at SAP Center in the near future. Instead, Sharks fans will get to watch another creative force at The Tank on Tuesday night, someone more dear to their hearts: Joe Thornton.
After missing nine games with an infection in his right knee, Thornton will suit up for his first game since Oct. 5 Tuesday when the Sharks (6-3-2) square off against the New York Rangers (3-7-1).
“I’m still going to be on some antibiotics, but it looks like (the infection) is on its way out,” Thornton said after the Sharks morning practice Tuesday.
The veteran forward cleared a hurdle in his recovery Sunday when doctors removed a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line that was feeding him antibiotics. Though he’s still taking antibiotics, head coach Pete DeBoer said his blood work indicates that the infection has cleared.
“If he’s on antibiotics, he’s just finishing the cycle,” the Sharks coach said. “He’s healthy.”
Thornton said that doctors cleared him to play Tuesday morning.
“They were going back and forth, if I can play, if I can’t,” he said. “Yesterday, they just decided to take the (PICC line) out, so it was a good day.”
The infection was the latest setback for the 39-year-old veteran, who’s been battling health issues over the course of the last 18 months. After tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee on April 2, 2017, Thornton suffered an identical injury in his right knee on Jan. 23, sidelining him for the last 35 games in the 2017-18 season.
But Thornton skated on the first day of training camp in September and played in the Sharks first two games before an infection led to swelling in his right knee. Though he’s been sidelined for more than three weeks, Thornton has been practicing with the Sharks since they returned to San Jose from a five game road trip on Oct. 16. He even traveled with the team on its three game trip through Nashville, North Carolina and Southern California last week, so he isn’t expecting to be limited Tuesday night.
“I feel great,” Thornton said. “I’ve been watching a lot of hockey lately, so to play is going to be fun.
“I’ll probably be a little bit tired the first game, but I’ll be fine.”
Thornton’s return is forcing the Sharks to rejigger their lineup at a time when the team is riding a five-game point streak, producing the NHL’s second-highest shot volume per game (37.7) and ranking third in shot differential (176).
Regardless, going back to the white board to reintegrate Thornton into the lineup is a challenge that DeBoer is welcoming. At practice Tuesday morning, DeBoer skated Thornton alongside Timo Meier and Joe Pavelski. Kevin Labanc took Meier’s spot on Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl’s line and the Sharks reunited the third line combination of Evander Kane, Antti Suomela and Joonas Donskoi. Marcus Sorensen, Barclay Goodrow and Melker Karlsson skated on the fourth line.
“Trying to put Jumbo back in the lineup is a great problem to have,” DeBoer said. “I’ll never complain about that.”
Thornton is looking forward to skating with Meier, who’s emerging as a top power forward in his third NHL season. Meier is riding an eight-game point and he’s leading the team in goals (8) after scoring the overtime winner in Anaheim on Sunday.
“He just finds his way in front of the net. He’s so big and strong in there. Guys underestimate his strength,” Thornton said. “He’s been a big bull.”
As Thornton returns to the lineup, his longtime linemate, Pavelski, will be hitting another remarkable milestone.
Just two weeks after Pavelski become the fifth player in league history drafted later than pick No. 200 to accumulate 700-career points, the Sharks captain will be suiting up for his 900th NHL game. In doing so, he’ll become just the second player from the 2003 NHL draft selected in the third round or later to play in 900 games, joining Lee Stempniak.
The 205th pick in the 2003 draft took a challenging road to reach game No. 900.
“Looking back on it, I did,” Pavelski said. “I was in the USHL and Waterloo, and I had a scholarship going to the University of Wisconsin, spent a couple years there and turned pro. Every time I hit that new level I was right where I wanted to be. I didn’t see it as any hurdles being skipped over. “It was just something I loved to do and love to work at. I was able to keep going. I’d like to think it was the scouts who made the mistake, I guess.”
Pavelski still appreciates the career he’s managed to carve out for himself, especially when he hits a bump in the road. All he needs to do is look around at what he’s earned to fight through the adversity in front of him.
“You just look and have an appreciation for what the NHL is, what your teammates are to you. Being on a team, being able to travel, just experiencing so many awesome building and exciting moments,” Pavelski said. “At the end of the day, it’s about the competition, your teammates. That’s what I appreciate the most.”
DeBoer said that every hockey player who’s ever been overlooked as too small or too slow should look to the example that Pavelski has set.
“What makes him a great captain and a great leader is the road he traveled,” the Sharks coach said. “He wasn’t handed anything. He had to work for everything. He had to pay attention to the details of the game in order to be effective at every level.
“The journey really created the person and the captain that we have here.”