Unsung Heroes Help Sharks Defeat Habs

Before Thursday night, the San Jose Sharks had scored a grand total of three goals in their previous three games. The offensive chances may have been there over that span but the finish was certainly missing.

But on Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens the Sharks fought back three different times to tie the score, and prevailed in the shootout to win 4-3.

The newly reunited second line of Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture and Martin Havlat chipped in two of the three goals for San Jose and it couldn’t come at a better time. All three of them had been in significant scoring slumps. Clowe had just one goal in his previous 13, Couture just one in his previous eight, and Havlat had just one point in his last nine.

On the night Clowe and Couture finished with a goal and an assist each while Havlat picked up a helper and led the trio with a plus three rating. Combined the line was a plus-seven on the night, a much need performance considering the top line of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski came up empty on the score-sheet with a collective minus eight rating.

While the second line’s scoring prowess was indeed a much needed boost, (it will certainly be the focal point of most mainstream local media) it was the play of San Jose’s bottom two lines that truly allowed the Sharks to keep consistent control of the puck at both ends of the ice.

Yours truly certainly had his qualms about team teal’s bottom two lines before the season started, especially the third line of Jamie McGinn, Michal Handzus, and Torrey Mitchell. And even though it is still a highly likely possibility that those three won’t make up the third line group that opens the playoffs come April, you have to respect what they have done thus far together in the regular season.

Like most of the Sharks lines and pairs, the McGinn-Handzus-Mitchell connection has been split apart due to a few less than spectacular games but overall these three have shown tremendous chemistry and a knack for coming through in the clutch.

That doesn’t necessarily mean scoring, although two of McGinn’s three goals have tied the score, both on dishes from Handzus.  More importantly they offer different assets to Sharks head coach Todd McLellan. Mitchell has the skill and speed to play on any of the four lines, McGinn brings a hard nosed physical presence and Handzus has been an excellent shot blocker.

However as good as the third line has been, they haven’t touched the consistency of San Jose’s fourth line of Brad Winchester, Andrew Desjardins and Andrew Murray. Rarely do you see a team’s most consistent line combination be designated as “the fourth line” but that is exactly what the Sharks have right now.

When the other Sharks lines were juggled around, McLellan has kept the fourth line the same for every game but two. Desjardins was a healthy scratch once when San Jose elected to play seven defenseman and Murray jumped up a spot last game with Handzus out with the flu.

Other than that, the threesome has been intact every game. That is simply a testament to how well they work together. In fact they have been so incredibly steady that rarely does a post game presser go by without the media bringing up the “fourth line’s” strong play with McLellan.

And these three create quite the story as you couldn’t have picked three more off the radar players to form such a sturdy combination. Desjardins is an undrafted center who took a long and windy road through many different professional leagues to get to the NHL. Murray has been in the league for a number of years but injury issues have derailed him essentially every year of his career with the Columbus Blue-Jackets. And Winchester was in camp this season on a professional try-out contract.

Murray and Winchester are both first year Sharks this season and this September was Desjardins’ first full training camp in the NHL despite already being 25-years-old.

Certainly not the most likely grouping for a line . The Sharks have not used a single other forward on the fourth line other than to fill in for the absent Handzus.

How odd is that you say? That fourth liners haven’t been in and out of the lineup, or up and down from the NHL to the AHL? Or injured?

Considering that the Sharks fourth line last year consisted of the likes of Scott Nichol, McGinn, Frazer McLaren, Jamal Mayers, Ben Eager, Desjardins and others, it is amazing to think that were nearly a quarter way through the season and the fourth line hasn’t had any real changes.

Over the years the Sharks’ fourth line has always been in flux with enforcer types like Jody Shelley and Scott Parker always in and out of the lineup. There has been little to no consistency on the fourth line and that lack of a productive bottom line has hurt the Sharks come playoff time.

This year the Sharks may have themselves their best playoff ready fourth line in their history. We are a long ways away from the postseason and many things can happen but the speed of Murray, the size and strength of Winchester and smarts of Desjardins have proven to be an excellent combination.

Dare I say it, but these three Sharks probably have the best chemistry of any Sharks third or fourth line since the line of Scott Thornton, Mike Ricci and Niklas Sundstrom played together back in the early 00′s.

Against Montreal, Winchester, Desjardins and Murray were still taking consistent shifts deep into the third period despite being down a goal late in the game. Even with four minutes remaining, down by a goal, McLellan was confident enough to send them out there to try and tie the score. They didn’t find the scoresheet but Murray saw 8:55 in ice, Winchester 9:22 and Desjardins 9:53, significantly higher totals than your average fourth liners.

 

 

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