SAN JOSE- In their worst performance of the series top-to-bottom, the San Jose Sharks dropped Game 5 to the Los Angeles Kings by a 3-0 final (coincidentally that was the same score in their worst effort in game 5 of last year’s version of this series).
Make no mistake about it, no one part of the game nor one player was the cause of this poor performance and give the Kings credit for conversely playing their best game of the series by far. There are no x, y, z answers to why San Jose struggled. They simply weren’t executing on their breakout passes and were generally flat. There rarely is a black and white reason for a team that struggles. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort and losing their most valuable player in defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic late in the first period (on an egregious elbow to the head from Kings forward Jarret Stoll) certainly didn’t help.
The main problem for San Jose though was the middle portion of the first period before Vlasic went down. Los Angeles carried the play pretty much from start to finish in the opening frame but they especially dominated from the 15 minute mark to the five minute mark. Not coincidentally the Kings scored two of their three goals in this span. During this portion of the period, the Sharks once again went back to Joe Pavelski on the top line with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns and Tomas Hertl with James Sheppard and Tommy Wingels.
Would leaving Pavelski with Sheppard and Wingels—where he opened the game on the first shift—have made much of a difference? Probably not, the team wasn’t executing. But changing lines a mere four shifts into the game is peculiar to say the least. Hertl has played the majority of his rookie season next to Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. That was also his primary spot in San Jose’s Game 2 and Game 3 wins. Swapping back Hertl and Pavelski without giving those lines at least one period to find their legs doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
The line juggling didn’t work and Sharks head coach Todd McLellan was soon coming up with line combinations out of left field. Patrick Marleau centered a shift between Wingels and tough guy Mike Brown at one point. It wasn’t until late in the third period—with the outcome already decided— when we next saw Hertl back with Thornton and Burns.
Even though McLellan has admitted he believes Pavelski’s best spot is at center, he also indicated before the series that the debate wasn’t a “raving one” amongst the coaches in regards to where he plays.
You can go ahead and call us pundits who aren’t qualified of second guessing the coaches, but the general consensus amongst most media is that the team is best with Pavelski as it’s third line center. And the only statistic that matters (playoff wins and losses) backs that up.
Since the end of the 2011-12 regular season, the Sharks have played 21 playoff games spanning four series. In seven games where Pavelski’s primary spot was third line center, they are 6-1 (only loss coming in Game 1 in LA of 2013, a game in which they dominated possession, out-shooting LA 35-20). In 14 games with him at the wing however, they are just 5-9. That equates to an .857 winning percentage at center and .357 percentage at wing. Furthermore, going back to start of 2010-11 playoffs, the Sharks are 3-1 in playoff series with Pavelski at third line center and 0-2 with him at top line wing.
Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation but the Sharks don’t win more games with Pavelski at center by accident. During the 2010-11 stretch run they finished the season 26-4-4, an .844 winning percentage with Pavelski at center. They also opened this year’s regular season white hot to the tune of a 10-1-2 record with Hertl on top line wing and Pavelski at center.
Simply put, the vast majority of statistical evidence would suggest, along with the eye ball test, that the Sharks have a significantly increased chance at winning hockey games with Pavelski as the third line center. They would be wise to keep him there for the duration of game six. It would be a decision that nobody would rightfully be able to second guess.
For more on the Sharks follow Andrew on twitter: @ViewFromBensch