Inevitable comparisons to last year’s Playoff run dominate the media coverage of the Defending Champions, and rightly so. Similarities and contrasts range the gamut: personnel, scoring, standings going in, home v. road records, etc. Perhaps no greater contrast, and no greater indicator of just how hard it is to repeat, is presented by the ways in which Coach Sutter is handling his player combinations, meaning forward lines and defense pairs, at even strength and on special teams.
In last year’s run, the forward lines were constant, nearly unchanged, throughout 4 series, 20 games, and the winning of a Stanley Cup. The only changes made for even strength play was to the forward lines, and were related to health: Clifford going out to injury, for example, or Gagne coming in after recuperation. On special teams, an adjustment was made against New Jersey to use straight line combinations, replacing all-star mixings, but in essence the forwards were always the same guys, and skated together in the same groupings, for the entire run.
The Defense pairs also remained the same for the entire run, even including special teams assignments: the same 6 guys dressed every game and played alongside the same partners, every game.
In last night’s game, there were more forward line combinations used than were used the entire 20-game run last year: I counted 23 distinct, intentional iterations used by Coach Sutter. Forget the bingo ball generator, this was more like radiated DNA after the puree cycle on a kitchen blender performing cell division in zero gravity.
The changes began in the 2nd period. Here is how the game was started:
Ice times remained mostly per usual, looking at each player game over game. To me, the changes, therefore, were not made as punishment to any particular player. Nobody got “benched” or had their minutes significantly reduced. I think that in order to understand the thinking, we need to establish certain imperatives, some of which existed going in.
Of course, we could just say, “Sutter needed more, so he was looking for a spark.” That would be true, but incomplete. Part of the fun of being a fan is to cheer when it’s going good and complain when it ain’t. If we are gonna complain, we are probably gonna criticize, and when you criticize you should at least attempt a working understanding of what the person you are criticizing was trying to accomplish. In that endeavor, if you are even still reading, we continue.
Tanner Pearson was inserted for Jordan Nolan, to play his first ever NHL game in the 2nd round of the Playoffs. Nolan played 6:11 last game, but Sutter is on record as saying 4th line guys should play 8 or 9 minutes. Pearson was given 5:44. This seems to be in keeping with Nolan, which is less than ideal, but is not unexpected. Sutter also said Pearson was “fine” in his first game. Pearson is not the reason lines were changed so dramatically.
Another factor is that there is an extra day of rest before the next game on Tuesday night; Sutter could safely use guys for extra minutes, knowing they could rest up. This did not really happen. Ice time went up for the King/Richards/Carter line, but only slightly, and this line was the most constant line combination, staying together through all 3 periods. Ice time for Brown actually went down, Kopi was normal, and Williams was at his normal. That line, however, was cannibalized throughout the game.
Barring injury, Sutter usually skates lines as they start the game all the way thru the 1st period with no changes. If he is going to make changes, it usually comes about mid-point in the 2nd. In this game, it happened just that way.
At 11:50 in the 2nd, Williams was the first player to be removed from his starting position when Richardson took a shift replacing Williams. This was well after Williams took a big hit, and had nothing to do with any special teams scrambling. It was either a Coach’s decision or an equipment failure, but Williams missed shifts at even strength and was then left off his usual spot on the #2 Power Play unit, also, during the 2nd period.
Williams re-appeared on the 1st shift after that Power Play, skating with Pearson and Richardson. Williams then finished the 2nd period back at his starting place with Brown/Kopi, but in the 3rd, that line would only skate together once, about 15 minutes in.
Richardson would go on to play all 3 forward positions, at RW with Brown/Kopi, with Brown/Fraser each for one shift and with Penner/Kopi for 3 shifts. Richardson also spent time Centering Pearson/Williams one shift, King/Brown one shift, and Penner/Williams another. At LW, Richardson played next to Carter at Center and Williams at RW for a shift.
Brown’s night was quite varied, including 6 different lines at LW and one at RW. The Right Wing shift was the one above with King at Left Wing and Richardson at Center. After the first shakeup with Richardson taking William’s spot with Brown and Kopi, Brown’s linemates were Lewis at Center and Williams at RW for 5 shifts. Brown also skated journeyman LW lines for 1 shift, first with Fraser/Richardson, and then with Kopitar and Lewis during the final minute of regulation time.
Lewis skated at RW with King/Kopi, and Brown/Kopi for 1 shift each. He also centered the one shift with Brown and Williams, and pulled double-duty on PK and PP.
Penner played Left Wing only, but with many groupings. For 1 shift each he played with Kopi/Williams and then Richardson/Williams, and with Richards/Lewis then Richards/Toffoli. Penner may have found a new home having skated with Kopitar at Center, and Richardson at Right Wing for 3 shifts in the 3rd, until Kopi was used to kill a penalty and line formulations had to recover. Penner also got the Williams time on the Power Play in the 2nd period.
It seems to me that Sutter’s imperative was that the Brown/Kopitar/Williams line was not working well enough, and he began looking for new combos from that. He would try Brown and Kopi with another winger, then tried Kopi/Williams with another winger, then settled on Brown and Williams with Lewis (5 shifts), and Kopitar with Penner and Richardson, for 3 shifts. King/Richards/Carter reconstituted naturally, like mercury seeking itself in a shallow bowl. Pearson and Fraser were cut back in minutes, and Toffoli lost some of his linemates but was skated for the requisite 13 minutes of a 3rd line Right winger.
This game was a brutal, all-out and all-in effort, by both teams. Strong play was made by both sides, each for extended sections of time, but the Sharks had more push and carried play for more time. It would be easy to rail on the officiating, and I will get to that briefly, but in the overall the Sharks played a little better, a little longer, and only Quick made the game so close. Probably the more deserving team, based on efficiency but not at all on effort or heart, won the game.
As for the officiating, Quick’s post-game misconduct penalty was final evidence of a clear bias in the area of calling penalties for contact with the goalie. Incidental contact with Quick was entirely overlooked, while penalty-worthy contact was deemed incidental or was also completely overlooked.
Conversely, Lewis was called for a penalty when he was railroaded by Marleau into Niemi: the right call could have been either incidental contact, or co-incidental minors for (1) interference to Marleau and (2) goalie interference to Lewis. The Lewis call could have been the right call if the Referees had been consistent in making those calls earlier against San Jose, but letting things go all game and then calling something similar, especially to give a two-man advantage in the last 2 minutes of regulation, is drastically inconsistent.
Having reviewed the play, I have more disagreement with the Regehr hooking call than the Lewis call. Hooking is usually horizontal stick contact with the body, and Regehr looked to have vertical contact with the player’s stick.
All in all, this was a tight, hard game, with the home team’s slight edge in play helped by some uneven officiating. The Kings fought valiantly, and no dominance was established by the victors. I daresay that the Sharks really cannot claim any momentum, as they will again be playing for their lives in game 4.
The Kings needed a split, and they can still get it. In reality, this game nearly afforded the Kings a chance to sweep the series, but the loss is just that: one loss, in a game that could easily have gone either way.