Thornton punches up his game

BOSTON -- With the exception of taking a skate blade to the forehead Tuesday night and needing 40 stitches, and having to miss Thursday's game, it has been quite a successful season for Shawn Thornton, who once again is proving that he can do more than just fight and protect his teammates. After scoring only one goal in 74 games last season, Thornton has nine goals and nine assists in 76 games this season and is having fun while serving as an inspirational leader to his teammates.

"I was aware that I didn't have the best year and last year I was probably being a little too hard on myself at times, so this year I came in just wanting to go out, play and have fun," Thornton said. "I didn't want to be as hard on myself in certain situations because it just snowballs from there. I think this year having the guys like 'Quaider' [Adam McQuaid] and 'Soupy' [Gregory Campbell] and 'Luch' [Milan Lucic] and 'Z' [Zdeno Chara] it's been by committee with that part of the job [being the team's enforcer]. It's taken a lot of those responsibilities off me or not entirely on me. I think there were a lot of injuries last year with guys in and out of the lineup all the time and it got thrown all on my shoulders. So unfortunately that was my sole focus going into the games and this year hasn't been like that. So far, it's been a good year. I think playing wise too probably has a lot to do with my linemates more than anything. Having 'Marchy' [Brad Marchand] for the first half of the year and 'Paisie' [Daniel Paille] lately, it's been good chemistry on that line."

While Thornton can sometimes be typecast, he, his teammates and coach knew he had more to offer than just dropping the gloves, and he's showing that with the career year he is having offensively. Thornton credits an increased confidence and his linemates, specifically Campbell.

"I always thought I had the ability to get between eight to 12 goals per season in this league," Thornton said. "I don't know if anyone else believed me, but I think that the chances that I get and the shots I put on net, I should be able to get that many goals, and this year they've gone in and last year they didn't. That was frustrating last year, but this year it's been better and it's the same thing I think as with my overall game. My linemates are great. 'Soupy' has done a great job down low of creating space for me. He does a great job of finding me and after playing together all season we know where each other are going to be on the ice and that makes it easier and creates more chances."

Having a player like Thornton, who can chip in offensively and be there to protect his teammates, is just fine with head coach Claude Julien. He credited Thornton for rounding out his game this season.

"Well, I think that's what every coach in the league dreams of," Julien said Thursday morning when asked about the value of a player like Thornton. "If you're going to have a guy who's known to be a tough player and is going to defend his teammates, you also want him to be able to play.

"He's done more than his share of fighting, but more so he's been a real good player for us. He brings energy, he skates well, he forechecks well. He's had some great chances, and again last game just before that incident he missed an unbelievable chance, but he was at the right place. And he's played well for us this year. "

Julien was asked if he'll use Thornton in the playoffs the same as he did in the regular season.

"I mean, he's played in the playoffs. He played in the Stanley Cup finals and won himself a Stanley Cup ring, so if he's done it before, I'm sure he can do it again," Julien pointed out.

Thornton's teammates said they don't see any reason why Thornton's minutes should decrease come playoff time. To them, Thornton's value on the ice, on the bench and in the dressing room is invaluable.

"He's the type of guy you want out there on the ice and on the bench every game, so yeah, I wouldn't think you'd see him scratched," forward Nathan Horton said. "I mean, obviously it's not my decision but 'Thorty' to me has proven he's so much more than just an enforcer."

Thornton has also proven to be a great house-warmer, welcoming new teammates when they arrive. Both Horton and Marchand credited him for making them feel part of the team immediately and finding their niche in the dressing room.

"I can't thank him enough for how welcome he has made me feel from the get-go," Horton said. "I know other guys feel the same way and it's just great to have a guy like that around. He knows when to lighten things up but when he needs to be serious he is and he says the right things to get us going."

For Marchand, a player who likes to stir things up and get under the opponents' skin, Thornton has been the perfect mentor, showing the rookie when to chirp and when to stay quiet or walk away.

"Thorty does a great job of making everyone one feel comfortable and laugh, but he knows when to make you focus too," Marchand said. "He is always there for me, and with us having similar games or styles, he has done a great job of showing me how to walk the line and not end up in the box. Of course I don't always do a great job, but I think I've gotten better because of 'Thorty.' He has really meant a lot to me both as a player and a friend and teammate."

When told of Horton and Marchand's compliments, Thornton was flattered and said it's part of the job of being a good teammate.

"Well, first and foremost, thank you to them for saying that," Thornton said. "I've always been a social coordinator first and foremost so that probably helps a little bit," Thornton said with a laugh. "I guess I've always liked people so it's not a hard thing to do with new people coming into the room. I got to meet 'Horty' last summer and we took in a Sox game together so that made it easier with him coming into the season. But yeah, with new guys coming in I think it only makes sense to make them feel comfortable and makes it easier for everyone."

As for the bond and mentoring role he has formed with Marchand, Thornton said it was a natural fit.

"Everyone is going to screw up there and not walk the line. I'm 33 and I still do sometimes, so he's a young kid and that's natural," Thornton said of Marchand. "For him there is a fine line in his role and I've been walking that line for a long time -- obviously I have to fight a bit more -- but I've been on both sides of it because I am invisible sometimes and then others I am so out of control I shouldn't be on the ice. I think after the years I've matured enough to figure it out pretty good, so I try and help a kid like him out. He knows I have his back and maybe sometimes he knows he can push it a little more sometimes -- not just me, he knows the whole team has his back -- but when he was on my line it was kind of funny to hear some of the stuff he was saying on the ice."

Thornton is hoping his bounce-back season ends with the Bruins bouncing back from last season's unforgettable exit from the playoffs when they blew a 3-0 series lead and 3-0 Game 7 lead to the Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

"I hope it's a motivator. I mean, we have new guys but the same core is here and, yeah, you hope it can serve as a motivator and not a detractor," Thornton said. "We've moved on but no one wants to go through that again and I am confident in this group. I'm really confident in this group, and while I am not going to make any [predictions], I like our chances. I like the experience of our core and the new guys that have come in. 'Rex' [Mark Recchi] and I have won cups and we got a couple guys that have been there to the big dance with Andy [Ference] and 'Kells' [Chris Kelly], so there's a lot of experience in there and I am always here to give my two cents if the younger guys or guys that haven't been there need it. I just try to convey to them how it does amp up to another level but at the same time it's fun, it's the greatest time of year and you have to enjoy it."

James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Ask a question for his next Bruins mailbag here.