- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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After serving the final game of his 15-game suspension, Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton is eligible to return to the lineup against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.
Thornton, who served the suspension and forfeited $84,615.45 in salary for attacking the Pittsburgh Penguins' Brooks Orpik during a game at TD Garden on Dec. 7, had appealed the ruling, but commissioner Gary Bettman upheld it on Dec. 24.
"It's been a long five weeks," Thornton said via phone from San Jose. "The last 10 or 11 days have gone by a little bit quicker. After [Thursday night] knowing that was the last game of my suspension, let's just say I was in a little bit of a better mood today than I was [Wednesday]."
The night of the incident, Thornton addressed the situation following Boston's 3-2 win over the Penguins, saying he was sick over his actions. He didn't agree with the length of the suspension, but accepted it.
During Thornton's absence, the Bruins posted a 9-6-0 record, but the team missed his presence in the lineup. He was able to practice with the team during his suspension, but he was exiled to press level for games and did not want his situation to become a distraction for his teammates.
"It's definitely going to bring a different atmosphere with Thorty in the dressing room," Paille said prior to the team's current road trip. "He's a very vocal person and brings a certain identity to our team that seems to be slightly missing right now, so it's going to be huge."
This was the first time during his NHL career Thornton was suspended, and after a recent practice in Boston, the veteran forward said he will not let this incident define him personally or professionally.
"I'm excited to be back in," he said. "Conditioning-wise, I'm ready to go; I've been working hard for the last five weeks. It may take me a little bit to get my timing back, but either way I'm excited to put this all behind me and move forward for the second half of the season and hopefully a long playoff."
Once the puck drops Saturday night against the Sharks, Thornton plans to continue to play the way he has his entire career that has helped him earn two Stanley Cup championships. When he needs to drop the gloves to defend a teammate, he will.
It's no coincidence the Bruins are 50-22-10 when Thornton has received a fighting major during his career in Boston.
"It won't affect the way I do my job," he said recently. "My job is still to protect my teammates. My job is still to play productive minutes when I'm out there. Play hard and play the game within the lines, and that's what I'll try to continue to do."
Bruins coach Claude Julien also understands how important it is for the team to have No. 22 in the lineup.
"We have to be honest here: Shawn's not going to be the savior of the hockey club," Julien said after practice Friday in San Jose. "Everybody, as individuals doing their job, is what's going to turn this around, but after missing 15 games he's chomping at the bit and excited to play no doubt. As a team we've always appreciated him in our lineup and we know what he brings. Obviously, he makes a lot of guys feel braver when he's in our lineup, knowing that he's going to stick up for anybody, so that's certainly a welcome situation for us."
Julien said he's been impressed with the rest of the team and how the players have responded during Thornton's hiatus.
"I don't want to diminish his presence, but we've handled it well," Julien said earlier this week. "Our guys have done a good job and guys have stepped up and we continue to be team tough. We always say we're team tough, and when one guy goes down, the rest of the guys stick up for each other."
Julien will have some lineup decisions to make.
Along with Thornton, it's likely Loui Eriksson, who has missed 15 games due to a concussion, also could return to the lineup Saturday. During Eriksson's absence, Reilly Smith has played on the team's second line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. That trio has formed a solid connection and Smith has produced, recording nine goals and four assists for 13 points in the past 15 games.
Prior to the team's current road trip, Julien discussed the dilemma.
"We're going to have to look at the situation and everybody sees that Smitty is playing well, so that creates a situation when [Eriksson] is back, he will have been off for who knows how long, so do you put him right where he belongs, or give him a chance to find his game a little bit? These are things that will be talked about before that happens," Julien said.