SAN JOSE, Calif. – The San Jose Sharks are looking to change things up after dropping two straight games to the St. Louis Blues in their first-round series.
The Sharks tinkered with lines and lineup changes at practice Wednesday in an indication of possible alterations for Game 4 on Thursday when they look to tie the series at two games apiece.
Patrick Marleau moved from top-line wing to second-line centre, flipping spots with Logan Couture. Michal Handzus and Brad Winchester also were skating on the bottom two lines and could replace TJ Galiardi and Dominic Moore if coach Todd McLellan decides to go with those moves.
“Sometimes when things aren’t working you have to switch it up. I’m fine with that,” defenceman Dan Boyle said. “Sometimes it will last two shifts, sometimes it will last a few games. When things aren’t going well you have to try to find a way to get a spark.”
The biggest change the Sharks will need is in their special teams play. A potent power play and an aggressive penalty-kill unit are the biggest reasons why the Blues lead the series 2-1.
The Blues scored three power-play goals in a 4-3 win in Game 3 to take the series lead and have scored five of their nine goals with the man advantage, striking with remarkable efficiency. The Sharks, on the other hand, have struggled to set up in the offensive zone and have just two power-play goals in 11 chances, while playing St. Louis even at even strength.
“I don’t want to get ourselves in a position where we’re counting on the power play to win us hockey games because you’re waiting for the other team to screw up if you do that,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “Our power play has given us a little advantage in the series. It’s helped here for us, but at the end of the day it’s going to end up being a series of 5-on-5 play. Of the two teams, we’re the team that has to improve the most 5-on-5.”
The Blues weren’t always this successful on the power play this season. In fact, they were dreadful at the start of the season, with a 10.3 per cent success rate at Christmas. They more than doubled their proficiency the rest of the season, converting 21.4 per cent of their chances to finish the season in the middle of the pack in the league.
The power play has been even better this series, converting five of 13 chances. Hitchcock said the improvement can be credited to the Blues becoming a shooting team rather than a passing team with the man advantage.
“For a good part of the year, we were working on our power play quite a bit, too,” forward David Perron said. “It’s good to see it come through like it did this series so far, and the last part of the year was pretty good, too. We really improved it. … We’re going to need that kind of performance every night because they’re a real good team, and we know that. Hopefully, we can keep scoring on the power play.”
Poor penalty killing doomed the Sharks last post-season as they gave up nine power-play goals in a five-game Western Conference final loss to Vancouver.
After a slow start this season, McLellan appeared to have fixed the problem by mixing up units and stressing shorter shifts as the Sharks held opponents to an 18.1 per cent success rate for a three-month stretch beginning in early January, compared to the 30 per cent mark for the rest of the season.
But San Jose allowed six power-play goals in the final two regular season games to Los Angeles and finished 29th overall. The problem has only gotten worse this series.
“We just haven’t moved well together,” forward Joe Pavelski said. “We know we can do it. We’ve shown it in the past. We’ve got to get the clears when we get the chance and get the first save, which we have. We have to do a better job of clearing out.”
What also has been disappointing is a power play that has struggled at times to set up in the offensive zone. The Sharks had the second-best unit in the regular season but have struggled against the Blues, going 3-for-26 in seven games.
While the Sharks mostly sit back on the penalty kill looking to block shots and close passing lanes, the Blues are much more aggressive and have done a good job taking space away from San Jose’s playmakers.
“That’s the pros and cons of having an aggressive penalty kill,” Boyle said. “If you do it right like they’re doing right now, there’s nothing better than that. If the team on the power play can get control of the puck and make a few quick passes you may catch them out of position. So far they’ve done a better job than we have.”