Examining line matchups, shift charts, special teams battle in first two games of the Western Conference Final

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Thursday, May 19, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Western Conference Final Game 2 San Jose Sharks vs Vancouver Canucks Game 1

The San Jose vs Vancouver Western Conference Final series was expected to shake out a litte differently than the Sharks experience against Detroit in the second round. With two deep puck possession teams, Todd McLellan and Mike Babcock were prepared to roll lines without as much emphasis on matchups except when it came to the faceoff circle. San Jose tried to utilize more than the 3 line attack it used against Los Angeles, and Detroit had an advantage with experience and speed (but not health) across 4 lines. It was strength against strength.

Against a more north-south Vancouver squad on home ice for two games, both coaches went into the series noting that they were going to roll 4 lines, but there were some critical adjustments made in game 1. San Jose’s top line of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Devin Setoguchi faced Vancouver’s second line of Ryan Kesler, Chris Higgins and Mason Raymond only once in the first period. Thornton was switched up with Torrey Mitchell and Kyle Wellwood on a makeshift third line possibly to create a matchup problem if Kesler was going to be exclusively used to target him in a shutdown role. A pair of first period penalty kills hindered that adjustment.

In the second the big two plus Setoguchi faced the Kesler line twice. After a successful penalty kill, and after Marleau’s 4th goal of the playoffs on the power play at 8:44, Alain Vigneault opted for the Lapierre line against Marleau-Thornton-Seto twice, and the Sedin line twice. Vancouver was chasing a little with two bad line changes, but with 3 minutes left in the second the Sharks were in complete fire sale mode in front of their own net. Alexander Edler fired a hard shot that broke the shaft of Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s stick, then set up Salo for a hard one timer at the point. Chris Higgins was planted on the ice in front by Ryane Clowe, then moved to the right of Antti Niemi by Dan Boyle as he tried to battle for a rebound off traffic. On the left side of Niemi a stickless Vlasic tried to neutralize the blade of Mason Raymond, but in an intense battle he used a headlock and made a stomach save on a point shot to keep the puck out of the net. Ryan Kesler and Alexander Edler had opportunities from outside, but they could not get it past the mass of humanity in front. The second period was not over. A quick transition out of their own zone, and Raffi Torres beating Ian White and Torrey Mitchell along the wall set up Danish phenom Jannik Hansen with speed in the offensive zone. Hansen took a pass on his forehand in stride and tried to outwait Antti Niemi far side, but Niemi ate him up whole. The Sharks were reeling after two, and it would not get any better in the third.

San Jose looked sluggish in the third period, as much a part of the mad scramble a period earlier, and as much a part of the mentally and physically draining 7-game series against Detroit. San Jose was outworked by Vancouver on their second goal, and an ill-advised Dany Heatley elbowing call 32 seconds later set the table for Vancouver to get the go-ahead goal 1:21 later. In comeback mode, the Marleau-Thornton-Setoguchi line took 5 shifts. Against Kesler line once, the Sedin line three times, and Kesler line again in the final seconds. Defensively, they faced Vancouver’s top unit of Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa for all but one shift in the final 20 minutes. San Jose’s second line of Clowe-Couture-Heatley skated 5 shifts in the final comeback mode 12 minutes. The first shift against the Kesler line, three against the Lapierre line, and the last against the Sedin line. Wellwood-Pavelski-Mitchell also took five shifts in the comeback attempt, with Eager subbing once.

With an undisclosed injury to puck moving second year defenseman Jason Demers, the Sharks inserted veteran defenseman Kent Huskins into the lineup for the first time since February 19th. Huskins sat the final 2 months of the season with an undisclosed injury, but his absense also cleared room salary-wise for Ian White, Kyle Wellwood and Ben Eager’s addition to the lineup. Defenseman Niclas Wallin blocked a game high 4 shots, and registered 3:09 on the penalty kill. Marc Edouard Vlasic registered a whopping 3:53 shorthanded, 22 minutes total, 4 hits, and could have been credited with a pair of saves in the second. After going with a 4th line of Eager-Nichol-Ferriero for game 7 against Detroit, Todd McLellan opted for Mayers-Nichol-Eager in game 1 against Vancouver. Mayers (4:37), Nichol (5:28) and Eager (6:48) saw only spot duty in the third period as the Sharks tried to rally for a comeback. After a pair of phenomenal series against Los Angeles and Detroit, Kyle Wellwood registered a playoff low of 10:53 and saw some duty on the fourth line.

Western Conference Final Game 2 San Jose Sharks vs Vancouver Canucks Game 2

The lineups were fairly similar for game 2 as they were for game 1, with only minor lineup changes. Veteran fourth liner Jamal Mayers was inserted in place of Benn Ferriero for San Jose. Speedy winger Jeff Tambellini earned a start in place of Tanner Glass on Vancouver’s fourth line. Without practing earlier in the week, defenseman Jason Demers was still a scratch with a lower body injury for the Sharks. Defenseman and long-time Shark nemisis Keith Ballard was a healthy scratch for the Canucks. Mikael Samuelsson did not play in game 1 or game 2 for the Canucks. According to Ben Kuzma of the Vancouver Province, Samuelsson has been ruled out of game 3 and 4. He has not traveled with the team, and the original San Jose draft pick is expected to undergo season ending surgery. Former Shark Manny Malhotra (eye) skated Wednesday during practice in Vancouver.

The adjustments for San Jose from game 1 to game 2 were critical, but the game would be influenced heavily by special teams play. Execution and discipline were areas the Sharks were lacking considerably. San Jose needed to put forth a more complete 60 minute effort, tighten up in the defensive zone (as they did over the second half of the season). Todd McLellan’s team not only needed to get the puck deep, but get the puck deep and beat Vancouver for possession and/or battles along the boards. That did not happen for the bulk of game 1, and a late meltdown of sorts prevented that from happening in game 2.

The turning point happened in the second. After Patrick Marleau’s power play goal in the first, defenseman Kevin Bieksa dropped the gloves and got the better of Marleau in the second period. Sharks enforcer Ben Eager was incensed on the bench, yelling at the Canucks players through the plexiglass divide. Eager had taken a matching minor in the first period, a 2 minute roughing call equalled by Raffi Torres. In the second period Eager displayed “a complete lack of discipline,” according to NHL Network analyst and former player Kelly Chase. Many times players will place their body against the plexiglass, absorb a hit, and send the initiating checker hurtling in the other direction. With less than 30 seconds left in the second period, Eager bounced Daniel Sedin off the glass like a rubber ball. Sedin had little time to adjust for the impact or the landing. On such a borderline play, the Sharks were lucky to escape with only a 2 minute minor. A penalty they were able to kill.

Vancouver was outraged. Outraged! Depsite avoiding two first period high sticking calls, one on Setoguchi, and another that would have been a clear double minor with Thornton dripping blood across his face, they protested the lack of a stiffer call on Eager. With his team trying to right the ship, Eager took another ill advised penalty early in the third. Well off the play, Eager skated into Mason Raymond from behind, stuck out his leg, and earned a tripping call. The Canucks are well known for embellishing plays. Head coach Alain Vigneault mocked the reputation on Daniel Sedin’s hit after the game, but embellishment or not the hit on Raymond had to be called. Higgins scored an insurance goal, 4-2. After a mental lapse and a long skate to the bench by Logan Couture resulted in a too many men on the ice penalty, Eager took another roughing call at 17:27 after he scored a goal and stood on top of the goaltender, and he took a cross checking plus 10 minute misconduct at 19:51. Eager has struggled with discipline and composure problems during his previous stops in Chicago and Atlanta. With the Blackhawks in last year’s Western Conference Finals, Eager was perfect in his limited role. He used his straight line speed and tenacity to wear down the Sharks by finishing checks, and he stayed out of the penalty box. In three rounds for the Sharks this postseason, Eager has 41 penalty minutes in only 10 starts. Too often, he is having a net negative impact on 5-on-5 play. The Sharks need him to not only play hard, but to play smart. To this point that has been something he has not been able to accomplish.

The Sharks killed 3 of 4 power plays in Sunday’s 3-2 loss. On Wednesday for game 2, San Jose would allow 3 power play goals on 6 man advantage opportunities. Up front, Joe Pavelski (3:01) and Torrey Mitchell (3:47) logged the bulk of the minutes short-handed, impacting the ability of the puck posession third line to create offense 5-on-5. On the back end, Kent Huskins logged 4:08 penalty kill time in only his second game back from a 2 month break. His defensive partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic logged a game high 4:36 shorthanded.

Noticeable in game 1, besides the lopsided nature of the officiating, was how different Vancouver’s power play was from Detroit’s. Also how a Vancouver power play setup could differ from unit to unit, or from man advantage to man advantage. The first Vancouver penalty on Sunday night was deliberate and cautious, something that changed considerably as the game progressed. Detroit curls back all 5 players in the d-zone, then builds up a head of steam before hitting the neutral zone and the blueline. On Wednesday night, Daniel Sedin (5:26), Henrik Sedin (4:59) and Ryan Kesler (5:18) all passed the 4 minute mark on the power play. Christian Ehrhoff (6:08) and Alexander Edler (5:08) logged the bulk of the minutes on the blueline a man up.

“What Vancouver does well (on the PP),” Kelly Chase said on the NHLN. “They just adapt. If they see something, they will roll in and out. You see Higgins rolling in and out… The adapt to the weakness of the other team.”

Similar to the success they had holding on to the puck behind the net in game 1, Vancouver used that area to settle down their first power play. Unlike game 1, San Jose was a little less tentative and hesitant to play the man behind the net. The Canucks had no problem entering the zone with the man advantage, but San Jose won more battles to the puck early. After Couture stole the puck shorthanded in the neutral zone, he lost it trying to dangle around a Sedin. Henrik dragged the puck low before moving it to Dan Hamhuis at the point. A flubbed shot was corraled by Daniel. A give-and-go with Henrik left Antti Niemi out of position, and Daniel deposited it far side with 12 seconds left.

On the power play that extended to the start of the third period for Vancouver, you could compare game 2 with a number of games in the first round against Los Angeles. While LA had to pressure the initial forechecker, either San Jose wasn’t getting it’s legs moving enough to get deep on the forecheck, or the skill and speed of the Canucks d was too much, San Jose never challenged the breakout shorthanded. They had trouble even getting into shooting lanes in the neutral zone. Vancouver had a clear path to the other end of the ice. Only inside of the Sharks blueline did the ice start to clog up.

With Eager off for tripping at 6:57, a o-zone faceoff loss by Vancouver was made up by a quick end-to-end rush and shot on goal. Despite another o-zone faceoff loss and a pair of neutral zone turnovers, Vancouver was able to enter the San Jose zone non-challantly and force another deep faceoff. This time they won the draw, and the second PP unit with Raymond-Higgins-Burrows creating a scoring chance down low. With Burrows planted in front and the Sharks planted along with him, Raymond found Higgins sliding into an open area, and Higgins buried it. The Canucks would add a third power play goal less than 4 minutes later. After a mental lapse, a too many men on the ice call with Logan Couture failing to make it to the bench as Joe Thornton took a pass and tried to break into the zone, the Canucks struck again. Spread out in almost a 4 corners formation, the Sharks remained in a tight grouping close around the net. The Canucks continued to slice and dice from the outside. Henrik from the goalline found Daniel Sedin cutting in front, goal. 5-2.

In the 3-goal, come-from-behind Detroit win in game 5 last round, it was Joe Pavelski marshalling his troops on the ice late. Very vocal, he was chirping on the bench, and pressing along with his third line to find their own comeback opportunity until the final second. Wednesday night shorthanded again late in the third period, even Pavelski looked a little shellshocked along with Torrey Mitchell. Vancouver had all the speed along the outside, while San Jose was sedentary in front of Niemi. After bursts of speed at the point by Torrey Mitchell and Logan Couture, eventually they let up as the penalty expired and Aaron Rome scored a trickler 2 seconds after returning to even strength. Up 7-3 with another power play, Vancouver sent out its fourth line of Victor Oreskovich, Cody Hodgson and Jeff Tambellini. An embarssing acknowledgement of how far this game was out of hand.

This biggest adjustment San Jose can make on special teams for game 3 is to simply stay out of the box. Regardless of the manpower situation or the story being played out on the ice, San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan needs to sit players taking dumb penalties. In the third round of the postseason, the Western Conference Finals, it can not continue. The stakes are too great. Behind closed doors, McLellan needs to issue an edict. Play smart or sit. As good a team as Vancouver is, there is no margin for error and no room for San Jose to beat itself.

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