SAN JOSE- The San Jose Sharks built their 3-0 best-of-seven series lead over the Los Angeles Kings on the strength of consistent puck possession. While they still hold a 3-2 advantage in the series, the Sharks have gotten away from their most successful formula, and the Kings have gotten back to theirs.
San Jose’s most successful formula since the mid-way point of the 2010-11 regular season has been to play Joe Pavelski as their third line center. Thus far in the series the Sharks are 2-0 with Pavelski in this position and with rookie sensation Tomas Hertl playing left wing on the top line. They are 1-2 when said players are flip flopped.
While the Sharks have gotten away from these balanced lines with three elite two-way centers each centering different lines, the Kings have gone to an even deeper balance, with four NHL household names centering all four of their lines. In Los Angeles’ Game 5 win, their best performance of the series, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter had Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll, and Mike Richards all playing the center position.
Furthermore, after struggling mightily to contain San Jose’s juggernaut line of Hertl, Joe Thornton, and Brent Burns in a Game 3 loss, Darryl Sutter moved his captain Dustin Brown back onto his top line for Game 4. The Sharks still carried much of the play throughout the game, but the lines sparked the Kings as both Brown and Justin Williams (who took Brown’s spot on the third line) powered LA’s offense in a 6-3 win.
With Hertl and Burns combining to power 13 shots on goal together as Thornton’s Game 3 wingers, it is baffling why McLellan broke this line up in games four and five. Away from each other, Hertl and Burns have since combined for just nine shots on goal between them over the last two games. McLellan looked like he would go back to this combination in Game 5 as Pavelski took the game’s opening shift on the third line with James Sheppard and Tommy Wingels.
Less than five minutes into the game however, McLellan had Pavelski back skating with Thornton and Burns. McLellan stated afterward that his team was not sharp four shifts into the game and that he was looking for lines and pairs to get things going. Certainly the Sharks weren’t clicking at the very beginning but the game was still 0-0 until the Kings scored their first goal with 11:51 remaining (or the 8:09 mark by typical hockey jargon).
Five minutes later it was 2-0 and McLellan, already having changed up his lines once to no avail, started mixing things up even more by trying combinations that have rarely, if ever been seen before. At one point he broke up each of his two most reliable forward pairs as Thornton and Burns were split up for a period of time, and San Jose’s best line of the series, featuring the dynamic pair of Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture, along with rookie Matt Nieto was also split apart. Said trio actually wasn’t playing poorly in the first period. Not like it was a difficult feat to be San Jose’s best line in the troublesome first period, but the Marleau-Couture-Nieto trio was clearly that to start the game.
Through all of McLellan’s juggling, at one point we saw the Sharks move Marleau, a long time all-star winger back to his natural center position. On his wings were Wingels and fourth line tough guy Mike Brown. Certainly this wasn’t a combination that was going to have a strong chance at sticking and it was unsurprisingly short-lived.
Despite leading the series with a chance to close out at home ice in Game 5, it was the Sharks that blinked first and appeared desperate for answers. Sutter’s group on the other hand looked right at home with their roles, with lines that worked quite well down the stretch. Sutter’s four deep center formula helped power the Kings to an impressive 16-6-2 record in their final 24 games.
That Kings depth has since started to kick it up a notch in the last 2-3 games of this series. Richards, a former captain, and top-six caliber center was non-existent early on in the series but he has come on strong lately. While San Jose’s fourth line was strong in Games 1 and 2, they have since come back to earth. On paper, LA’s current third and fourth lines have significant matchup advantages over San Jose’s counterparts when Pavelski plays in the top six. With the NHL playoffs all about depth, it’s no surprise the Kings have won two of the three games in this series when the Sharks haven’t had Pavelski centering their third line.
If you were to ask this pundit, Sutter is certainly getting the better of McLellan in the latter stages of this series.
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