Thornton vs. Boulton/By S. Bradley

BOSTON – If taking a baseball swing at Johnny Boychuk’s back after a practice drills is what it takes to wake up his Bruins teammates the morning after a dreadful shutout loss to Anaheim, Shawn Thornton does it.

If dropping his gloves and duking it out with fellow welterweight Eric Boulton just two seconds into a game is what it takes to get his club’s juices flowing at the outset of a must-win game before the Christmas break, Thornton answers the bell.

When the Bruins need a couple goals … well, at least we know he can get the puck to the net (he’s in the top 10 in the NHL in shots per 60 minutes). And sometimes those pucks find the mesh, and even do it twice in the same night.

The superlatives when it comes to Shawn Thornton and all the things he’s willing to do and the sacrifices he’s willing to make have all been written before. He comes to the defense of his teammates, he says what needs to be said in the room, and this year he has added an offensive upside that’s almost unheard of for someone of his pedigree and pay scale.

His two-goal, one-fight performance in Boston’s 4-1 win over Atlanta tonight, however, might’ve been a little different than any previous showing he’s enjoyed while wearing black and gold.

After the Bruins sleepwalked through their 3-0 loss at home against the Ducks Monday, head coach Claude Julien was unsure whether to make his team work harder or go lightly on his players the next day. Julien chose to crack the whip, and that obviously made Thornton – a guy who works hard regardless of the score, in a game or practice – a little bit ornery. It didn’t help matters when during the drills he was crunched into the boards, ribs first, by Dennis Seidenberg, and then got a pop in the face from Johnny Boychuk.

Boychuk was on the receiving end of a slash to the back that made a gun-shot loud pop. Other players’ tempers flared throughout practice, but it was Thornton’s actions that stood out most. Thornton’s one of those guys who can be a cold-blooded pugilist on the ice and then an affable sort in the dressing room. But he’s also a former Stanley Cup winner who has scratched and clawed his way to the NHL. He knows what it takes to win it all, and knows when a team is wasting its potential.

Things might’ve calmed down by the time the Bruins hit the practice ice Wednesday, but the message was sent and it continued to resonate with Boston into tonight’s game.

“He competes and he’s a leader on this team,” said center Gregory Campbell, a season-long linemate and admirer of Thornton. “So I think it was a message to us, whether it be our teammates or the other team, it’s all about competing in this dressing room and there’s nothing else that’s going to be accepted.”

In case the Bruins had somehow forgot that Thornton was demanding an old-school, 60-minute physical and fiery performance from his mates, just two ticks into the game tonight he invited Boulton to spar – unofficially the seventh time the two have come to blows in the NHL since 2002-03.

“You know what, we’ve been a little flat lately. I saw that they were starting their fourth line, their ‘energy line,’” Thornton said. “We got the start and I thought it was as good a time as any to try and get the guys going, maybe, show that we’re here to play, show some emotion and get a little spark. I think [Patrice Bergeron] made me look smart by going out and getting a shorthanded goal and getting the momentum for us, so that should be a tribute to my teammates too for stepping up.”

Bergeron scored that goal three minutes after the fight. The Bruins jumped out to a 3-0 lead and never let the Thrashers back into the game. Obviously Boston had a little rancor left in its blood even after that grueling practice Tuesday and after 55:54 of action against the Thrashers. When Freddy Meyer hit Milan Lucic high crossing the Atlanta blue line, Andrew Ference jumped Meyer and everyone paid tribute to Thornton by dropping their gloves and sticks and displaying the type of toughness that’s usually only shown by Thornton and a few other Bruins players. Even Nathan Horton got in on the action – his second fight of the season – and picked Evander Kane back up after he had already knocked out the Atlanta forward once.

Two goals is quite an accomplishment for a veteran grappler who now can boast a career-high goal total of seven. There’s plenty of season left for Thornton to add to that, but even if he never lights the lamp again, he has put his stamp on this season and he’ll find other ways to contribute as the campaign unfolds.

Whatever it takes, Shawn Thornton is the one the Bruins can count on to get it done.