Sharks Playoff Gameday: Line Changes, Penalty Kills, The Eternal Sunshine of the Playoff Mind
Blues lead 2-1
CSN-CA, NBC Sports Net
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In what is essentially a must-win game tonight at HP Pavilion the San Jose Sharks will attempt to crack a stifling St. Louis Blues defense by injecting some fresh bodies into the lineup and taking the line blender out for a little spin.
Here's David Pollak of Working The Corners on what may happen tonight.
Emphasis on the may, because as everyone should be aware of, the playoffs aren't exactly the time of year when information flows freely.
That said, the news of the day was Michal Handzus centering the third line and Brad Winchester at left wing on the fourth. If they play in Game 4, it’ll be the first playoff action for both. Dropped to a fifth line — and presumably the press box if McLellan doesn’t mix things up again — were Dominic Moore and TJ Galiardi.
The top two lines also had new looks, so here’s how things shaped up at the morning skate:
There's been a lot of talk about how Patrick Marleau seems to be more engaged when he's at center. Ignoring the last four seasons where he's been the fourth-highest goal scorer in the NHL playing on Thornton's wing, there's maybe some validity to that-- centerman have much more defensive responsibility than forwards, handle the puck more often, and are forced to make more plays throughout the course of the game. As The Neutral pointed in his scoring chance roundup following game three, Marleau has yet to record an even strength scoring chance off his stick this series. Anything to get him going in the right direction should be seen as a positive at this point.
In regards to the addition of Handzus and Winchester in replacement of Galiardi and Moore, there's a few tidbits that are worth noting-- both add size but reduce the bottom six's speed, which probably doesn't give San Jose any advantage in breaking cleanly through the neutral zone. Handzus has been a negative possession player this season (last on the team by a long shot), which means that if we're going by the numbers it's not a decision that is necessarily being made to push the puck towards the offensive zone. What it does give San Jose is some bigger bodies that can stand in front of the net and give Elliot more trouble reading shots from the point-- I assume that is going to be their primary role tonight.
On a side note it always feels funny to talk about line combinations. Sure that's part of the business of blogging, but it's hard to ignore the feeling that maybe the head coach has a better read on the situation than I do from way out wherever I sit.
The penalty kill has obviously been a point of concern this entire season and there really hasn't been much this series that indicates things have gotten any better-- San Jose has given up a power play goal in every game this series, and while game three may have been the only time where it truly cost them a game, the fact that the Sharks have continued to struggle proves beyond the shadow of a doubt something is amiss.
Even worse, the Blues have converted at a 34.5% rate (10 for 29) against San Jose this season under Head Coach Ken Hitchcock.
Both McLellan and Hitchcock spoke about the special teams following Monday night's game, with McLellan acknowledging how giving up an early PP goal can shake your confidence for the rest of the night and Hitchcock talking about the strides his power play unit has made since Christmas. Hitchcock mentioned the fact that going to righty-righty and lefty-lefty pairings at the point turned his power play into a shooting unit rather than a playmaking unit, as it emphasized shots on net rather than making the perfect pass to set up a scoring opportunity.
For San Jose, taking away that shot from the point is going to be important considering the weapons St. Louis has back on the blueline; having said that, the team seems content to sit back in a passive box when shorthanded. It's something that Daniel Winnik mentioned as a difference between his time spent in Colorado and Phoenix where heavily pressuring the puck carrier was the norm, and even that passive box hasn't done much to take away the pass through the box to the short side that has burned the Sharks rampantly throughout the season.
A part of the reason why (emphasis on the why-- I don't know if this is actually true or not) San Jose may like to sit back in the passive box is because of Antti Niemi. Niemi is one of the better first-stop goaltenders in the game but does give up rebounds at a fairly regular rate. The more players you have in front of the net the better equipped you are to clean those up. Furthermore, with Niemi so strong down low, a bevy of sticks tying up opposing forwards means it's less likely those rebound opportunities have the opportunity to be elevated considering it becomes a hack and wack at that point.
It's hard to argue with the results however, and it's pretty clear something needs to be changed. San Jose's PK finished 29th in the League this season and 24th last year. That's a trend, and a disturbing one at that.
But maybe there is a method to madness, however maddening the results might be.
Must-win tonight. I don't think there's a username on the internet that wants any part of a 3-1 series deficit against the Blues, especially as the road team. As we mentioned after game three, win tonight and Monday is forgotten.
The eternal sunshine of the playoff mind.
Prediction: Sharks win 21-3. Goals by Marleau (x2) and everybody else. I spit in the face of Poisson distributions and get down to business. We have to be realistic guys. We have to be realistic.