SAN JOSE- While it was San Jose’s fourth line of Raffi Torres, Andrew Desjardins, and Mike Brown that scored twice to tie Game 2 at 2-2 on Sunday, the Sharks comeback was also propelled by a much more vital development.
Just prior to the fourth line getting San Jose on the board to cut the Kings lead in half, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan made a long over due switch to put Joe Pavelski back at his natural center position. As our friends at fearthefin.com point out, the Sharks have done nothing but destroy their competition with Pavelski playing in the middle behind Joe Thornton and Logan Couture. In 2011, when Pavelski centered a line with Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell, the Sharks finished the year with an absolutely ridiculous 26-4-4 record in their final 34 games. They proceeded to make an impressive run through the Western Conference finals that year with Pavelski at center. Last year with Pavelski in the middle they ran roughshot over the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose’s first ever playoff series sweep. This year the Sharks started out the regular season 10-1-2 with Pavelski in his natural spot and finally there was last night. Pavelski took a struggling Sharks third line and single-handedly turned it into a first line caliber juggernaut that played a major role in the 7-2 shellacking of the Kings.
When the Sharks have Thornton, Couture, and Pavelski each centering separate lines, they legitimately boast three No. 1 lines. And no other team in the NHL right now can say the same thing. The Kings can’t, neither can the Blues, Blackhawks, nor Bruins. This isn’t to say those teams don’t have other matchup advantages against San Jose, but each one will have an extremely difficult time beating a three deep San Jose team in a seven game series.
Even though the Blackhawks may have the forward depth at the wings to compete with the Sharks, it isn’t the same as having that depth at the center position. For those who aren’t as experienced in hockey game play, all three forward spots are not created equal. Not only is the center position responsible for taking the face-offs and therefore deciding which side begins with puck possesion, but the center is generally responsible for a heavier defensive workload, organizing the defensive zone breakout and being the primary puck handler through the neutral zone while attacking towards the offensive zone.
And the Sharks top three centers aren’t just your average top line centers for a team like Winnipeg or Calgary. The Sharks have three of the best 15 centers in the world. Pavelski is quite arguably the best American center in the game today and both Thornton and Couture could have very easily have played for Team Canada in this past Olympics and nobody would have second guessed their selections. Couture is one of the top shut-down centers in the game. He still managed a plus-21 rating in a defensive role and despite being snake-bit most of the year, he would have had his third 30-goal season if not for injury. (In fact, he would have four straight 30 goal seasons to open his career if not for the 2012-13 lockout). And finally Joe Thornton finished second in the league in assists behind only Sidney Crosby, he’s as dominant a two-way center as he’s ever been.
These three centers can all drive play in the offensive zone with little help at their wings. This is why playing any of the three on the same line is a disservice to the team because they can each dominate just the same without superstar help. Each one of them dramatically raises the level of play from their wingers. The team gets much more overall production from the forwards a whole when the superstar centers are spread out on different lines. It is simply a monumental task for any NHL team to be asked to win a best-of-seven series against a team featuring three of the best two-way centers on the planet each centering their own line.
As tweeted out last night, if the Sharks keep this three headed monster at center, well, good luck to the rest of the league, they’re going to need it to beat San Jose.
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