With the Sharks down 3-1 against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final, we're pulling former Fear the Fin managing editor The Neutral out of retirement (okay, just for this post). You can follow him on Twitter @ItWasThreeZero and you can read his expert analysis of the Sharks' first Stanley Cup Final in the Q&A below.
1. What is the biggest reason the Sharks are down in this series?
TN: You could point to Joe Pavelski’s dry spell or Tomas Hertl’s injury or DeBoer giving the Dillon-Polak pairing too many minutes while trailing or Chris Tierney’s line getting caved in on the road and you wouldn’t be wrong. But if we’re being honest the Sharks are just losing to a flat-out deeper and more talented team; the best they’ve faced in the playoffs since the 2010 Blackhawks.
Pittsburgh has a forward who is top 10 in NHL scoring over the past five seasons on each of its top three lines and its fourth line is centered by a guy who had 16 goals this year. That’s a level of depth the Sharks and, frankly, every other team in the NHL simply can’t contend with. Even the Penguins’ blueline, admittedly pedestrian on paper, is comprised by six players who can make a first pass and repeatedly get the puck in the hands of the team’s waves of talented forwards. In a league where results are largely driven by forwards, there wasn’t a better group of 12 this season than the one in Pittsburgh.
Add in the fact that they’re coached by someone who knows how to use his roster’s abundance of speed, whether it’s by employing chip-and-chase plays to generate scoring chances, frustrating the Sharks’ breakout plans or quickly getting in shooting lanes in the defensive zone, and there really shouldn’t be any shame in the Sharks losing to this team after the remarkable run they’ve had. What is a shame is that Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau’s (in all likelihood) last, best chance at a Cup is rapidly slipping away.
2. With Hertl confirmed to be out for the season, should the Sharks make adjustments to the forward group?
TN: Even when Hertl was still in the lineup I thought the Sharks’ best shot at countering Pittsburgh’s ridiculous forward depth was by moving Patrick Marleau back to center and running him, Thornton and Logan Couture down the middle. Dainius Zubrus isn’t anyone’s ideal conception of a first-line winger but he had success alongside Thornton and Pavelski in the regular season and had a couple of good shifts when stuck on the ice with those guys mid-line change in Game 4. Joonas Donskoi and Joel Ward have combined with Couture to form a very effective second line at various points of this playoff run while Matt Nieto and Melker Karlsson complemented Marleau nicely against the Kings. Coming back from a 3-1 series deficit is obviously going to be an uphill climb but I think the Sharks stand a better chance at pulling it off if they spread their offense out a bit more across their top nine.
3. What kind of in-game adjustments can the Sharks make to get back in this series?
TN: Tactically, I think the Sharks should be using the aggressive 2-1-2 offensive zone forecheck that they implemented in the third period of Games 2 and 4 much earlier on. Like, off the opening faceoff. They have nothing to lose at this point and desperately need to find a way to play with the lead in this series.
Of course in order to even have the chance to establish an offensive zone forecheck, San Jose’s breakout strategy needs to be better. The obvious tweak there is to have their forwards provide lower support in order to avoid the kinds of stretch passes we were seeing in Games 1 and 2 that were easily picked off by the Penguins who are so deadly on the counterattack. That was an adjustment DeBoer already wisely made in both games at the Tank.
The next step is to attempt more lateral passes on the breakout to change the point of attack and get around the Penguins’ neutral zone swarm that’s designed to force the Sharks into icings and unretrievable dump-ins.
In terms of bench management, DeBoer needs to go down to four defensemen a lot earlier, especially if the Sharks end up needing to play from behind for a fifth straight game in this series. Roman Polak was on the ice for an offensive zone faceoff with less than 3 minutes to play and the Sharks trailing by a goal in Game 4. That can’t happen. Chicago won the Cup last year essentially playing just four defensemen for the entire series.
The Sharks don’t need to do anything quite that extreme but Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic need to be pushing 30 minutes a night for the remainder of this series if the Sharks are to have a chance at coming back. And while Nick Spaling was on the ice for Karlsson’s goal in Game 4, he has one point (a secondary assist on an empty net goal) in 22 playoff games; he has no business being among the nine to ten forwards DeBoer shortens his rotation to late in games.
4. If the Sharks scratch Polak (I know, they won't), who should be the defender to draw in his place?
4. DeBoer’s alternatives to Polak (a rookie with zero career playoff games in Dylan DeMelo and a guy who hasn’t really held down a NHL roster spot all year in Mirco Mueller) aren’t great, which is probably the biggest reason Polak keeps drawing into the lineup. But it’s desperation time now and replacing Polak, whose physicality isn’t really necessary against a Penguins team that doesn’t have a ton of size up front and whose lack of footspeed and puck skills has been a liability this series, with DeMelo, who can make the kinds of quick decisions with the puck under pressure that Polak simply can’t, is at least worth seriously considering.
Polak is far from the only reason the Sharks are down 3-1 but pairing him and Brenden Dillon against this speedy, skilled Penguins team just feels redundant. With Hertl injured, bringing in DeMelo for Polak is also the only remotely realistic lineup change DeBoer has at his disposal (it’s not like Nikolay Goldobin is gonna play Game 5) and it might be worth shuffling the deck simply because things largely haven’t been working as is.
5. If there is a positive to take from game four, what is it?
TN: The biggest positive is that the Sharks have been improving, incrementally, each game. Despite the lackluster second period, San Jose outshot Pittsburgh for the first time in Game 4 and while that’s partially because they were playing from behind, the Sharks played from behind for most of the first three games too and were still getting caved in on the shot clock. They’ve done a better job of snuffing out Pittsburgh’s chip-and-chase plays and generating cleaner breakouts with each passing game.
Look, this entire playoff run for the Sharks has been about subverting expectations. They drew what looked like a very unfavorable matchup against L.A. in the first round, one that few expected them to emerge from, and proceeded to make quick work of the Kings. They suffered a heartbreaking triple-OT loss to Nashville in round two, having what should have been a goal waived off, only to bounce back and absolutely eviscerate the Predators in Game 5 and again in Game 7.
They stared down a best-of-3 series against the Blues after Game 4, with two of those games scheduled to be played in St. Louis, and scored 11 goals en route to wins in Games 5 and 6. If this team is going to cap this magical run with their first championship, what more fitting way to do so than by erasing a seemingly insurmountable deficit against a dominant opponent, flipping the script on 25 years of history in the process?