Let us take a moment to enjoy the final cool breeze of a game that sent 64 pucks flying off goalies or into the net, required no fisticuffs to settle and kept phones down and eyes peeled. Savor it, because now we can also take a moment to squint hard at the lineup decisions made ahead of tonight’s game.
Before the game, coach Pete DeBoer vaguely said that a few guys were dealing with injuries, according to local beat writers. If the lineup decisions were due to something like wanting to keep Erik Karlsson’s minutes down to avoid aggravation, then, hey, listen. That’s alright. If, instead, DeBoer decided that what transpired over the course of one evening in Nashville should trump 7.75 games worth of evidence, then there is little to do but sit, shocked, as Erik Karlsson takes spin after spin with the bottom of the Sharks’ roster.
They are both fair assumptions, and it is unwise to speculate further. Whatever caused the lineup changes ahead of the game cause this game to be almost certain doom from the start. In replacing Erik Karlsson with Justin Braun alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the coaching staff split apart not one, but two defense pairs that had performed well together all season and replaced them with the “shutdown” unit that for the past two seasons has been regularly out-shot and out-chanced and a world-class player eating up bottom-barrel minutes.
In another questionable decision, DeBoer replaced one promising rookie center with another not-so-promising rookie, blind to the winger who, on a nightly basis, threatens to sabotage the fourth line’s chances of success no matter centers it. In doing so, DeBoer splintered a fourth line collecting 54 percent of all 5-on-5 shots each game. He replaced that line’s pivot — Rourke Chartier — with a player (Dylan Gambrell) who, although young and athletic, floundered in his three NHL games last season. Three games is not enough to Gambrell’s true NHL ability level, but nine games of helpful, mostly positive hockey from Chartier’s line should be enough to keep him in the lineup until further notice.
Despite these decisions, San Jose turned the PNC Arena crowd into hushed onlookers at the first intermission. The lead, while partially obtained on the power play, was a deserved one by the visiting team. Though the shot and expected goal counter crept incrementally back toward Carolina’s side of the scale, San Jose finished the first frame well ahead of their counterparts by that measure.
Not all was well, though. After San Jose’s second goal and Carolina’s subsequent power plays, the ‘Canes came swirling back, and the first period finished in a flurry of traded chances. The push by the home team ended up being quite a foreshadowing of the game to come.
From about 18 minutes into the game and on, Carolina controlled every facet of the game. The lineup changes had done their trick. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, reunited with his old partner, Justin Braun managed to help their team take just 29 percent of all 5-on-5 shots when adjusted for the score and venue. The new-look fourth line helped San Jose take only about one-third of all 5-on-5 shots when they were on the ice. Even after the team lost Tomas Hertl to injury, Dylan Gambrell spent most of the third period opening the bench door, showing just how ready the coaching staff is to giving him a solid shot.
The Melker Karlsson-led fourth line was not the only group proverbially dragging weights around their ankles.
After the exciting first period on the road, the entire San Jose team seemed content to watch wave after wave of Carolina attack glide by. It was as if even the visiting team was in awe of the league’s new superpower. That the Sharks made it to overtime was a miniature miracle and the result of a goaltending clinic. Per Corsica, Aaron Dell’s save percentage was five points above what an average goalie might have delivered. Those percentage points were not just volume, but quality as well; they are representative of two entire goals saved above average.
Together again for just under six minutes of 5-on-5 time, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Erik Karlsson helped San Jose take 72 percent of all shots, including three of the team’s five total third-period shots on goal. One game is much too small of a sample size, so it’s helpful that we have nine other games of 5-on-5 ice time with the team’s two best defensemen on the ice together this season. During that time they’ve helped San Jose take north of 60 percent of all shots, making the coaches’ decisions that much more confounding.
San Jose was lucky to walk away from Carolina without an ugly scoreline. Moving forward, it will be crucial for the coaching staff to understand what’s actually working and stick with it as opposed to making knee-jerk decisions after one sloppy period. The team will feel Tomas Hertl’s absence, but the forward group has enough play drivers and skilled skaters that it shouldn’t crater the team’s chances of locking in standings points during upcoming home stands. Much will depend on how the team’s bench bosses line up their defenders, however.