Sharks Gameday: Much Like the Rapture, Afternoon Games Make This Writeup Nearly Inconsequential



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Five For Fisting

As Ray Ratto mentioned yesterday, Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan is keeping a little bit of doom in the air despite a largely dominating performance by his club in game three. As much as that mentality is due to the self-inflicted adversity San Jose always seems to put themselves into, the seven game series against Detroit being the most pertinent example of this phenomena, it is also a product of their current situation. The difference between a series that has the hometown heroes in a 3-1 hole versus one that sees them even at two is as big as they come in postseason hockey, making game four the most crucial game in any given series in terms of historical data.

It's likely that the whistles won't be as rampant as they were on Friday-- a whopping 26:09 of the game was played with one team shorthanded in game three, with the two teams combining for 17 power play opportunities between them. This puts even more of a premium on even strength scoring and pushing the play in the right direction, an area that San Jose's top line of Marleau-Thornton-Setoguchi has had success with this series while the rest of the roster has not. The second line has been largely ineffective in large portions of the play, the third line struggling as well.

Which could all change in game four.

Vancouver's blueline depth will be tested quite heavily this afternon as Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome, who were both knocked out of action in game three by Jamie McGinn, are not expected to play. In their stead will be Keith Ballard and Andrew Alberts, two defenseman who have undergone their fair share of trials and tribulations while wearing the Canucks uniform.

Ballard, who was acquired from the Florida Panthers for Calder nominee Michael Grabner, former Shark Steve Bernier, and Vancouver's first round pick in 2011, has had a tenuous season filled with injuries (surgery in the offseason, concussion in October, sprained MCL in February) which brought with it a severe reduction in playing time. Throughout his career Ballard has been a constant face in Florida's and Phoenix's top four, regularly averaging 20+ minutes a night-- in Vancouver however, Ballard has been regulated to a third pairing role, averaging 13:19 in the seven postseason games in which he has made an appearance (five of which came against Chicago).

The Province has more:

"Fair or unfair, that's the reality I'm faced with on mistakes," [Ballard] says. "Some guys like Hank and Danny can turn the puck over but because they're putting up 100 points they're obviously going to get more room and mistakes may not affect them as much. There's not a lot of room for error for me, that's the bottom line."

Everyone can see it's been a stacked deck against Ballard for most of the season and it has seemed that every time he's been taken out of the lineup, he's come back and played even worse. Whereas the Canucks had hoped to bring him along from his surgery on his hip this past summer to a point where he'd be constantly improving by this point, instead it's been a season of further erosion in his game.

>> The Province

All that being said, Ballard is still a more than serviceable NHL defenseman, and could likely play on San Jose's top four right now if given the opportunity. Ehrhoff's offensive instincts will no doubt be sorely missed, especially considering he's been outplaying San Jose's third paring by leaps and bounds, but Ballard gives the Canucks enough scoring pop to temper the severity of Ehrhoff's loss.

The real issue for Vancouver is the insertion of Andrew Alberts into the lineup.

Alberts struggles with taking penalties, leading the team in taken penalties this season with 1.7 per 60 minutes of ice time as well as infamously parading to the box in Vancouver's series last year against Los Angeles. Furthermore, he was the only Canucks defenseman to post a minus at 5v5 this season despite seeing the lowest quality of competition. If there is going to be any advantage gained from blueline injuries for Vancouver it doesn't necessarily come with the first man out of the lineup-- the Canucks are rich with talent on the backend, with seven legitimate NHL defensemen. The advantage comes with two defenseman out of the lineup when Andrew Alberts is exposed.

This presents a situation where San Jose's struggling third line of Torrey Mitchell, Joe Pavelski, and Kyle Wellwood may finally begin to make a meaningful impact on the series, setting up a situation where the Sharks can exploit matchups to their advantage.

The last change at home allows them to do that, and is something that McLellan has already done this series. Joe Thornton saw a heavy dose of Ryan Kesler in Rogers Arena, but once the series shifted to San Jose, McLellan elected to go with the power versus power matchup that he has been extremely fond of during his three years behind the Sharks bench.

Here is the percentage of ice time San Jose's centers saw against Vancouver centers in both home and road situations:

5v5 Time On Ice Matchups

@ Vancouver
Joe Thornton
50.0% 21.7%
Logan Couture
29.4% 25.8%
Joe Pavelski
13.20 28.0% 17.8%
- -
Joe Thornton
35.2% 14.3%
Logan Couture
58.0% 4.0%
Joe Pavelski
28.2% 21.4%

As we mentioned earlier, game three saw 26:09 of the game played with one team shorthanded. Furthermore, Logan Couture did not finish the game after colliding with teammate Ryane Clowe behind the net. Those two factors account for the reason why we see a decrease in even strength ice time in San Jose.

Pitting Thornton against the Sedins provides San Jose with ample opportunity to do a couple of things, the primary being taking away Vancouver's greatest offensive threat. Thornton's transformation into a two-way forward has been well-chronicled this season, and unlike the regular season, he's begun to put up points as well-- the Sharks Captain is currently tied for first in postseason scoring, with 17 points in 16 games played. This allows the Sharks to have a first line they can count on in the offensive zone as well as one who can play the shutdown game in their own end, giving the Sharks second and third lines an ability to matchup against opponents more suited to their skill sets.

It's capitalizing on those opportunities that has eluded San Jose at even strength however. There's no doubt that the power play's recent performance has given the Sharks an ability to win every single night, and in an evenly matched series like this, special teams performance are where wins and losses are likely to be sorted out.

But with Vancouver's blueline banged up, and San Jose provided the last change at home, those second and third lines need to begin clicking if the Sharks want to head back to Vancouver all even.

Prediction: Sharks win 5-2. Goals by Pavelski (x2), Couture, Setoguchi, and White. Christian Ehrhoff, in the press box for game four, tries to squirt some mustard onto a hot dog but misses wide right.