In the absence of the San Jose Sharks’ top two centers last night, Patrick Marleau failed to emerge as a solution, as the veteran struggled in his move back to the middle. Tomas Hertl, on the other hand, succeeded, and revealed he could help mitigate the injuries to Joe Thornton and Logan Couture in a likely first-round series against the Edmonton Oilers.
Hertl, alongside linemates Jannik Hansen and Mikkel Boekder, drew the toughest assignment last night. The trio spent the vast majority of their ice time against Hart Trophy candidate Connor McDavid, and managed to control play.
With McDavid and Hertl on the ice against each other, the Sharks attempted 70.59% of the shots and 57.14% of the unblocked attempts at even strength, according to Natural Stat Trick. Head coach Peter DeBoer played Hertl’s line against McDavid, Draisaitl, and Maroon for nearly nine minutes, seven-and-a-half minutes more than any other line that Hertl’s line played against.
Hertl had a positive impact upon Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun’s play, too. With Hertl, Braun (69.23 CF%, 66.67 FF%) and Vlasic (64.29 CF%, 66.67 FF%) posted far better numbers with Hertl than without, as neither Braun nor Vlasic was able to top 40% CF% or FF%.
Given Vlasic’s struggles this season and DeBoer’s continued usage of Vlasic and Braun as a shutdown pair, this is a potentially important development: Hertl, Hansen, Boedker, Vlasic, and Braun showed they can be an effective five-man unit against the Oilers’ top line.
Thornton and Couture may come back for the postseason, but it’s an open question how effective they will be upon their return. They’ve both been used against McDavid more than Hertl this season, but given how serious their injuries first appeared, DeBoer would be wise to give the Hertl the toughest assignment if the pair is able to come back.
McDavid’s line managed to score a goal against Hertl’s, in one of the only stretches where Hertl’s line was on the defensive. McDavid’s line will always be dangerous, even if they aren’t controlling play. But perhaps the best way to limit McDavid’s opportunities is to have the puck, and last night, Hertl demonstrated he can do just that.
The Oilers and Sharks are all but locked into a first round matchup, and San Jose faces a tall task ahead, regardless of their health. With or without Thornton and Couture, Hertl just might be the Sharks’ best answer to Connor McDavid.