He has led on the scoresheet. Thursday night, he even led with his fists. But most of all, Sharks captain Joe Thornton has led his team back from the brink.

The Sharks enter the final day of the regular season with a hard-fought chance to capture their fifth-consecutive Pacific Division title. If they beat the Los Angeles Kings at HP Pavilion Saturday night and the Phoenix Coyotes lose to Minnesota in regulation, the Sharks will clinch the division and the Western Conference's No. 3 seed.

But they've already scratched and clawed their way into the playoffs -- by winning six of their last eight games -- after flirting with not even making the postseason.

And Thornton has been out front as the Sharks have regained their footing.

"You know the guys follow you and that you're the leader of the team," he said. "But we've always said that it's leadership by committee on this team. All of us step up at different moments. But I know my role."

His role Thursday was pretty much everything in the 6-5 shootout victory over the Kings in Los Angeles. Thornton notched a fabled "Gordie Howe hat trick," as he scored a goal, added an assist and got the Sharks' emotions going early by pummeling Kings star defenseman Drew Doughty. It was Thornton's first fight since the 2009 playoffs.

Even former Sharks captain Owen Nolan was impressed.

"That's how your captain leads your team," Nolan tweeted.

Thornton tops the Sharks with

77 points (18 goals, 59 assists), and his scoring pace picked up in the season's second half as he tried to steady an up-and-down team. Since Jan. 31, he has 39 points in 34 games -- fourth in the NHL over that time frame.

"Down the stretch he has been our undeniable leader," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He's playing hard every night. It's a nice reward for him when he's able to put up goals and assists. But that's not what drives Jumbo anymore. He wants a chance to win. He's put personal numbers aside to focus on the team. And yet he's still going to put up good numbers anyhow."