San Jose Sharks

Chicago-San Jose: Sharks Down 0-2? Time to Throw Blackhawks Some Curveballs

SAN JOSE, CA - APRIL 29:  Head coach Todd McLellan of the San Jose Sharks speaks to his team during their game against the Detroit Red Wings in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on April 29, 2010 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Andy BenschSenior Writer IMay 21, 2010

Before anyone gets their panties in a bundle, don't worry, I'm not suggesting the Sharks make a switch in goal by replacing Evgeni Nabokov with Thomas Greiss.

That wouldn't be a curveball, that would be more like throwing a knuckle-curve/fork/spit ball without knowing how to throw it.

Point being, that idea (as much as some radicals might suggest it) could easily backfire into a wild pitch that gives Chicago an easy three games to none lead.

Of course, had the Sharks given their backup goaltender more starts during the regular season, then perhaps a change in goal could be a logical possibility. But that is an argument for another day (perhaps if Nabokov continues to flop the rest of the series).

However, San Jose head coach Todd McLellan must dig deep into his repertoire of pitches—er—coaching tactics in order to jump start his squad.

Thus far during the series, the Sharks have clearly not played at the same level as the Blackhawks, and their head coach has a responsibility to try and change things up to find a spark.

Now, realistically, the Sharks aren't playing terribly. They out-shot Chicago during both games in San Jose and if it weren't for Chicago netminder Antti Niemi's stellar play, this series would probably be 1-1 heading back to Illinois.

Yet, in that scenario, it would still be obvious that goaltending aside, the Blackhawk skaters are out-performing the Sharks skaters. And Chicago would still be the overwhelming favorite to win the series heading into Game Three.

Therefore, in order for the Sharks to get back in the series, McLellan must be willing to not only change the top line, but all of his lines.

The Chicago Blackhawks are a deep team, arguably the deepest in the entire NHL. And they have done their homework on how to best defend this current "Shark Attack".

In two games they have shut down the Thornton line, the Pavelski line, and they have taken advantage of an extremely slow defensive corps.

But what has Todd McLellan been doing?

Has he been alive?

I mean, despite having the last change at home, it seems as if the Chicago head coach, Joe Quenneville, has been best able to match up which of his players he wants against each of the Sharks players.

And the way this series has gone, Chicago's depth at both forward and defense has  been the biggest difference in keeping the Sharks from finding their game.

While San Jose did out-shoot the Blackhawks in the first two games, they didn't seem to have that crispness and "sticktuitiveness" that they have shown in the previous two rounds.

In Game One, the Sharks went stretches where they just couldn't get the puck out of their zone and they kept barely missing on key passes in the breakout.

During Game Two, they were somewhat better in those areas but whenever a goal was scored against, the Sharks seemed to pack it in.

It was almost as if the players themselves were losing faith that they were even on the same level as Chicago.

And can you blame them?

Their goaltender hasn't been able to make a stop when he's asked to bail them out, their only deadline acquisition (defenseman Niclas Wallin) is conceding the puck to Marian Hossa as if he were his teammate, and they just can't seem to score.

Everything seems to be going the way of the Blackhawks.

So when everything your doing hasn't been seeming to work, why not change it up by throwing a curveball?

 

Nabokov will stay in nets because teams can't just completely stop throwing their fastball, but the Sharks have must start throwing more offspeed pitches.

And make no mistake about it, the Sharks have the chemistry and talent to incorporate these new tactics into their game because they have used them before.

By adding a curveball and slider into the mix, San Jose can really get Chicago off-balance.

Now, in hockey terms, and not baseball terms, what exactly are these curveballs and sliders?

Well, the slider San Jose can put into action would be inserting fourth line energy man Jed Ortmeyer back into the lineup and sit defenseman Niclas Wallin.

By throwing Ortmeyer into the mix, the Sharks get two benefits.

1) The fourth line gains that true hard-nosed identity as Ortmeyer played alongside Scott Nichol and Jamie McGinn for a large part of the regular season. Plus with these three together, no longer will Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley or Joe Pavelski be forced to double shift.

2) By sitting Niclas Wallin and giving rookie defenseman Jason Demers more minutes, the Sharks get faster on the blue-line and much more offensive. Which let's face it, the Sharks need more scoring and giving Demers more minutes can help towards that cause.

However, that is only a slider, just a small wrinkle the Sharks can throw at the Blackhawks.

But the biggest change they can make is to start throwing the biggest curveball in their arsenal: putting the "Big Three" onto three separate lines.

It worked in the regular season, and it can work again.

Going into the finale of a March road trip against Minnesota, the Sharks had picked up just a single point in six games (0-5-1).

Todd McLellan then threw together the most oddball line combinations imaginable.

He gave each of his star players their own line, and the subsequent top three lines looked as follows:

Manny Malhotra---Patrick Marleau---Joe Pavelski

Ryane Clowe---Joe Thornton---Torrey Mitchell

Dany Heatley---Logan Couture---Devin Setoguchi

San Jose would then go on to win three in a row.

They dispatched the Wild by a 4-1 final, shutout the Dallas Stars 3-0 and beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-2.

And had Joe Thornton not suffered an injury in that Vancouver game, McLellan would have had no reason to change these new lines that had sparked the team out of a slump.

By spreading out the talent, teams had difficulty deciding which lines to play against which lines.

Do opponents take their best defensive pair and shut down the Marleau line? or the Thornton line? Or the Heatley line? How do you defend three talented scoring lines?

Like a good curveball, this tactic gets their opponents all out of sorts with their game-plan.

Currently, the Blackhawks love their game-plan and are executing it perfectly. 

But this unexpected change in lines for the Sharks would put an end to all of that, as Chicago would have to figure out a how to defend a new attack.

If Chicago can't figure it out in time, they could quickly be swimming in dangerous waters—a Game Five in San Jose with the series tied 2-2.

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