By Allan Muir, SI.com
Hard not to slide the goat horns onto the head of Sharks defensemen Christian Ehrhoff in the wake of Tuesday night's 2-1 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars.
It was Ehrhoff, after all, who took the third-period penalty that put the Stars on a five-on-three power play, an advantage that allowed Sergei Zubov to knot the game at one.
It was Ehrhoff who hooked Niklas Hagman to the ice on a breakaway minutes later, giving the Stars winger a penalty shot that could have turned the tide of the game. Fortunately, Evgeni Nabokov was up to the challenge.
And it was Ehrhoff who, under no immediate pressure, iced the puck in the extra frame, keeping a tired group of defenders on duty while Dallas imported fresh troops. Even after coach Ron Wilson called a timeout to buy some time for his winded guys, the Stars top line made short work of them, moving the puck at will until Mattias Norstrom connected on a point blast that sailed over Nabokov's shoulder for the game-winner.
No need to be kind. It was a brutal game for Ehrhoff. But don't think for a second that the Sharks find themselves down 3-0 in this series because of some faulty German engineering.
Ehrhoff is a third-pairing defenseman. A bit player. This isn't, and never was, his series to win or lose. This is the time of year for a team's best players to be its best players.
And with the disappointing Sharks on the brink of elimination, there's one obvious question: Where the hell is Joe Thornton?
In a game that San Jose absolutely had to win, Gentle Joe was a non-entity. An empty sweater.
This was no aberration, either. The line on Joe's line through three games: One point.
Somewhere, in a large East Coast metropolis, fans familiar with Thornton's postseason woes are nodding sympathetically.
They've seen this disappearing act before.
To be fair, the Gentle One was fine in the opening round against an inferior opponent from Calgary. At least, he offered up sufficient energy to justify his minutes, and the hope that he could raise his game against Dallas. But the Stars aren't an inferior opponent. They not only match up to San Jose talent-wise, they're a disciplined, determined bunch. They succeed because they're hard to play against. They force you to earn every inch of ice.
Those are not conditions under which Thornton historically has thrived. But his Game 3 performance was shocking even to long-time observers.
On a night when his team needed him in MVP mode to salvage the season, he launched just two shots, both from long distance, at Marty Turco. Neither attempt came in the third period or the overtime, when desire was a more valuable commodity than talent.
And on a night when the Sharks finally responded to Wilson's plea for a more physical performance, Jumbo Joe was one of just three white shirts not to register a single hit. Not once did he put himself in a position to use that 6-4, 235 frame to exact a toll from the Stars. Worse, he was a target throughout the evening. Jere Lehtinen hit him. Brenden Morrow hit him. Mark Fistric hit him.
It's one thing not to score. It's another thing entirely to be disengaged from the battle. And Thornton, who looks like an oversized boy among combat-hardened men like Morrow and Mike Ribeiro and Brad Richards, was not engaged.
But here's the thing: the playoffs provide ample opportunity for redemption. Thornton only needs look to Dallas' Turco for evidence of that.
For the Sharks to send this series back to San Jose, his path has to begin tonight. Not with a big game. Make it a big shift. And make it early. A big goal or a look-at-that assist would be nice, but a display of grim determination, a real sense of purpose, could be just as effective.
But don't stop there. Follow it up with another purposeful shift. And another. For 60 minutes, or however long it takes to prove to himself and his teammates that he's unwilling to go quietly into that good night.
To a man, the Dallas Stars have been doing just that. For this series to be extended, San Jose's star to show the same mettle.