SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - When Joe Thornton scored the first-round series clincher in overtime, he raced toward center ice and celebrated with a backward flop that probably earned more points for originality than style.
That followed his blowing kisses to the crowd after his game-winning goal in Game 4. With those kind of celebratory outbursts, Thornton showed that more than his game has changed this season as he looks more relaxed and at ease than ever.
The changes in his play were evident throughout the second half of the season and the first-round win over Los Angeles. The player who used to be known for immense offensive skill that made him one of the leading scorers since entering the league, is now making as big a contribution by forcing turnovers in his own zone or winning key faceoffs as he is with pinpoint passes that turn ho-hum plays into prime scoring chances.
"He takes pride in playing both ends of the rink," linemate Devin Setoguchi said Wednesday. "That's what the coaches have been prodding him on the past couple of years. He's worked on all three zones in his game and gotten better and better and better. ... He takes a lot of pride in faceoffs and takeaways."
Those aspects of Thornton's game will be crucial in the second round of the playoffs when the Sharks take on their longtime nemesis, the Detroit Red Wings in the third playoff meeting in the past five years between the teams.
The series is expected to start Friday night in San Jose, although the schedule will not be official until Wednesday night. Like it has most of this season, Thornton's focus heading into the series is on San Jose's own end of the ice.
"Our defensive play needs to get better," he said. "As every round goes on you have to be defensively better. We're allowing too many goals. If we get back to playing good defensive hockey we'll be a better team."
Thornton helped lead that transformation this season following a six-game losing streak in early January that sent the Sharks falling to 12th place in the Western Conference. San Jose shot up the standings to finish second behind their most consistent defensive play and then beat Los Angeles in six games to advance to the second round.
Thornton, who took over the captaincy from Rob Blake this season, had his fewest points since joining the Sharks with 21 goals and 49 assists - well below his usual standards. But he ended up leading the league with 114 takeaways in the regular season and was steady in the faceoff circle, winning 54.4 percent of his draws.
Thornton has the same response when asked about differences in his play or his attitude this season, saying simply: "It's always the same." But the changes have been evident to just about everyone else, including his teammates.
"Defensively he's improved a lot," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "Offensively his numbers probably went down, which probably (ticked) off some fantasy hockey people. As far as we're concerned, we don't care if he gets points or not as long as we win hockey games. He's done a great job with that the second half of the year."
He did even better on faceoffs against the Kings with his 64.2 winning percentage ranking second in the league in the postseason among players who have won at least 20 draws. He also had six more takeaways, earning praise for his defensive play from the coaching staff.
"He's doing a lot of things he has to do away from the puck to make him a successful player," said coach Todd McLellan.
Thornton has received much of the blame when the Sharks followed up a dominant regular season with an early playoff exit. The Sharks got knocked out in the second round in Thornton's first three seasons in San Jose before following up a Presidents' Trophy in 2008-09 with a first-round debacle against Anaheim.
After having perhaps his best playoff series ever in San Jose's five-game win over Detroit last year in the second round, Thornton was held to one point and had a minus-5 rating in the conference final sweep against Chicago last season.
"The critics always go to him," Setoguchi said. "There's a lot of pressure on the top guys all the time. He's done a great job handling it. We know he's emotionally involved in the games. Whatever anyone else thinks is irrelevant to us. We know he is into the games and wants to win."