2011 NHL Playoffs: A Look At The Line Matchups We Saw Between San Jose and Vancouver In Game One
Line matching receives a lot of attention in the postseason, specifically amongst defensive pairings and which forward lines they will be tasked with playing against. These pairings are dissected like frogs in a high school biology class by coaching staffs as they try to find a matchup that will be most beneficial for their respective club.
And then the series starts. And all of that preparation gets thrown out the window.
For the goldfish among us please recall our game one preview. It was there we spoke about the importance of Thornton & Co. beating the Sedins on the scoresheet, stating that matchup would be a very important one for San Jose and just may end up determining the series.
Later on in the piece we touched upon the second line's chance to see (relatively) easier minutes throughout the series. It was believed they would be matched up against what was then the Canucks second pairing of Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Edler:
The second line is also going to be very important for San Jose. Logan Couture, Dany Heatley, and Ryane Clowe will likely be matched up against Christian Ehrhoff all series, a player who is definitely the weak link defensively in the Canucks top four. That's a good matchup for San Jose. Vancouver's second line isn't anything to scoff at of course-- Ryan Kesler could sleep with my girlfriend and I'd probably just ask for his autograph-- but this is a place where the Sharks have the ability to do the most damage in terms of forward line vs. defensive pairing matchups. The third line won't get as many good looks, the top line is going to see a heavy dose of Bieksa-Hamhuis. San Jose's greatest opportunity comes right with the second, and while I still think Thornton & Co. will have to outplay The Sedin Machine to advance, Clowe-Couture-Heatley is an area on the ice where the Sharks have the biggest edge on paper.
Vancouver's blueline isn't one that can be broken into three separate tiers of course. The immense depth they have in that department allows them to roll out a very versatile and imposing unit for sixty straight minutes. Although San Jose has been blessed with stable pairings for the second half of their season, the Canucks received no such blessings. Injuries once again hit the Vancouver blueline down the stretch run, forcing Head Coach Alain Vigneault to experiment with many different looks and schemes on an almost nightly basis.
So of course Vigneault flipped the playbook for game one. It only made sense to do so. Instead of subjecting the defensively susceptible Ehrhoff to an extremely dangerous second line composed of Dany Heatley, Logan Couture, and Ryane Clowe, Ehrhoff saw third pairing duties with Aaron Rome while Sami Salo was promoted to the second line with Alexander Edler. The top pairing stayed constant as Dan Hamuhuis and Kevin Bieksa shadowed the Sharks top line all night.
I wouldn't go as far to say the promotion of Salo took too much testicular fortitude-- It was a subtle change that makes sense considering Salo's abilities as a very good, and vastly underrated, defensive defenseman-- but it did require some foresight and a change in direction from what got them here this postseason. Although Ehrhoff split time between Edler and Rome in game six against Nashville, the Edler-Ehrhoff due was a constant throughout the Canucks series against the Blackhawks and Predators, especially on home ice.
Coming into the series Ehrhoff was averaging 18:50 at evens while Salo was seeing five minutes less at 13:19. In game one those roles were reversed, with Salo getting 16:52 of even strength ice time while Ehrhoff saw 15:35.
In short, it was a very astute move by Vigneault to form a much more defensively responsible top four that could play big minutes against San Jose's imposing top six. He's running the risk of giving more scoring opportunities to the Sharks third line of course, but that's a gamble I think just about any Head Coach would take when comparing the skill sets, talent levels, and recent production of both the second and third lines.
Lost in this discussion has been the relative ineffectiveness of the third line in San Jose's most recent affairs-- they've gone three straight games without a point now, are a combined -6, and were outchanced by a combined -12 throughout the Detroit series. San Jose's biggest advantage over Vancouver is their excellent scoring depth and the third line is a big part of that depth.
Which isn't to say the third line deserve a public flogging or anything-- their importance is relative to the expectations that lay at the top half as a roster. As a whole the second line played their worst game in awhile on Sunday, getting outshot drastically in their own zone and failing to generate the type of scoring chances they are accustomed to seeing. Logan Couture drove the play with five shots while Dany Heatley and Ryane Clowe rode passenger for the majority of the night.
With Vigneault tweaking his roster to get a better matchup for his defenseman, the question inevitably becomes if Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan would consider any type of counter for game two. The answer to that is probably best answered by looking at the tape of game six against Detroit, where an injury to Ryane Clowe caused a seismic shift in how San Jose's lines were constructed-- consequently, it brought with it a seismic shift in how the team performed.
As Todd McLellan has spent more and more time of the San Jose Sharks his approach to mixing and matching his lines (especially the top six) has become decidedly more conservative. In his first season behind the bench it seemed as if only five minutes of poor play to start the first period would propel the Sharks into blender mode, mixing and matching forwards at a frantic pace. In his second season there was less of it. And this year, his third behind the bench, the lines have been relatively stable; in fact, the second half of the year was not as much "stable" as it was "set in stone."
And that's a good thing.
When the series shifts back to HP Pavilion I'm sure McLellan will try to get his top six out against Ehrhoff and Rome as much as possible. Furthermore, it's certain that he will also try to pit Thornton against the Sedins instead of Kesler-- McLellan has always enjoyed the power versus power matchup. With Jumbo's rabid defensive game once blossoming and now in full bloom, there is a certain comfort in having him go against Vancouver's most dangerous offensive line.
On the road McLellan's hands are tied in this regard, lest he try playing chess master and lose the energy San Jose has benefited from by being able to roll three lines right after each other all night long. The only option is to break things up and start from scratch, and that won't happen unless things get dire and the bench needs a wake up call. And by then, line matchups begin to become irrelevant.
There is no doubt San Jose has had an extremely successful run with their current lines this postseason. These lines have made the Sharks the toughest team in the NHL to match up against defensively, as each unit has developed their own unique personality and strength. Sticking with that construction and forging ahead despite a game one loss will be in their best interest.
Even if that means Ehrhoff sees an easier go of it in his own end.