With his team down 2-0 to the Los Angeles Kings on the second shift of the second period of the second game of their best-of-seven quarterfinal series, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan sent his third line of James Sheppard centering Tomas Hertl and Tommy Wingels over the boards. While Marty Havlat occupied Hertl's spot before the rookie returned from injury, that's a trio San Jose has otherwise consistently gone with since the Olympic break with mixed results to say the least. The shift that was about to transpire would be one of their worst but, at the same time, not all that atypical of what we've usually seen from them, even in Thursday's Game 1 win.
A blind backhand pass through the neutral zone by Sheppard was easily picked off by Kings defenseman Drew Doughty who dumped the puck into the Sharks' end. Justin Braun recovered it before moving it up for Sheppard who fired yet another no-look backhand pass up the boards that found its way to the left point for Los Angeles' Alec Martinez who sent it down low. Sheppard proceeded to lose a puck battle with Dwight King in the corner, allowing the L.A. forward to exchange passes with Martinez to produce a shot on goal from in tight. Braun was the first to the rebound but with none of Sheppard, Wingels or Hertl providing anything resembling adequate puck support for a breakout, Braun's only option was to reverse the puck for Brad Stuart. Predictably, that didn't end well as Stuart bobbled the puck and allowed Jarret Stoll to walk in uncontested with Sheppard failing to arrive in time to prevent him from getting a shot off on Antti Niemi.
Apparently, McLellan had seen enough.
"I thought as the game was going on they had us running around a little bit with the line matchups," McLellan said afterwards. "They obviously scrambled it and I didn't like the way it was going in our end. We needed something else."
And they got something else. The next time Tomas Hertl stepped on the ice—a little over two minutes following the conclusion of the shift that saw he, Sheppard and Wingels surrender three shot attempts while spending the entirety of it in their own zone—it was with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. Forty-one seconds later, the seven-goal comeback began. Coincidence? For sure, to some extent. Despite being down two goals, the Sharks hadn't been playing poorly. But the move of Hertl to his customary spot on the top line and Joe Pavelski to third-line center in order to stabilize a unit in total lack of stability since its inception has been a long time coming. As expected, it allowed the Sharks to mount an unrelenting offensive push; just wave after wave of pressure that ultimately drowned the Kings as the new-look third line of Pavelski, Sheppard (who, unsurprisingly, was far more effective at wing than he ever was at center) and Wingels along with the second and fourth lines generated two goals apiece in San Jose's monumental comeback effort.
That shouldn't surprise anyone. Every impressive feat the Sharks have accomplished since the start of the 2011 calendar year has come when San Jose possessed the requisite forward depth to allow Thornton, Couture and Pavelski to center separate lines. Their 26-4-4 run to close the 2010-11 season that took them from 8th place to a division title, their epic Game 3 comeback in the midst of a series win against Los Angeles that postseason, the seven-game series victory over Detroit that came after that, the sweep of Vancouver in last spring's playoffs and the 10-1-2 start to this past regular season—the one thing those runs all had in common was that the Sharks had the luxury to spread their three first-line caliber centers across lines one through three.
You can now add a 7-2 comeback win to take a 2-0 playoff series lead over one of the best teams in the NHL to that list.
Prior to the series, I predicted that if McLellan were to have his come-to-Jesus moment with regards to his line combinations and swapped Pavelski and Hertl early on, the Sharks would be able to eliminate the Kings. Fittingly enough, McLellan's come-to-Jesus moment occurred on Easter Sunday; all it took was a two-goal Sharks deficit and a particularly bad shift by the (ex-)third line. There's no guarantee these lines stay intact for Game 3 tomorrow night and McLellan sent some mixed messages on that front after the game, both saying he believes Pavelski is at his best at center and that it's possible he goes right back to left wing on Thornton's line. But with last night's seven-goal outburst another data point suggesting the Sharks are at their most fearsome when they're three-deep down the middle, it's hard to see the sense in reverting to the previous setup.
As convincing as these two wins have been, this series is far from over. The Sharks haven't won a game at Staples Center since Ryane Clowe played a puck from the bench. But if McLellan can ice line combinations that ensure one of Thornton, Couture or Pavelski is on the ice for nearly the entire game, as was the case for the final 45 minutes last night, the Kings don't have much of a shot at slowing down the Sharks. And neither does any other team in the NHL.