Joe Thornton playing key role in Maple Leafs’ success since return

TORONTO — If Joe Thornton was the second-oldest player in another league, they wouldn’t have let him anywhere near the playing surface for his third game in four nights after a month on the sidelines nursing a fractured rib.

They’d have called it load management and deemed it a mandatory night off.

But hockey’s culture hasn’t fully come around on a practice that’s become standard operating procedure elsewhere and Thornton is above all else a hockey player. So there he was Thursday, 24 hours after playing a season-high 18:15, and wouldn’t you know it he was chiselling another entry into the Toronto Maple Leafs’ record book.

Thornton became the oldest player in franchise history to register a three-point night during a 7-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators and he needed only the first period to do it. His inspired run alongside Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner continued with a goal and two assists before the intermission, bumping the Leafs ‘smiles per 60’ rate in the process.

“It’s a blast,” Matthews said of playing with Thornton. “He’s a buzzsaw, he never stops.”

Thornton has an enviable seat to watch two of the game’s most electrifying players, but he’s been no passenger. His movement is more economical than what you get from Marner and Matthews, tightly fixed to the area around the net in the offensive end, and it’s allowing the Leafs to put opponents in the blender.

There was skepticism, if…

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