Task of coming back just got that much tougher for Sharks without Hertl for Game 3

Tomas Hertl, who has been the San Jose Sharks best player in the first two games of the Stanley Cup final, will miss Game 3 with a lower-body injury after taking a hit from Patric Hornqvist in Game 2.

SAN JOSE – Faced with the prospect of becoming just the sixth team in history to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup final, the San Jose Sharks found out Saturday morning that the task will be that much more difficult after announcing Tomas Hertl will not be available for Game 3.

There is no sugar coating how much of a blow this is to the Sharks. As sub-par as they were in Games 1 and 2, Hertl was their best forward in both games and was one of the few Sharks who was an offensive threat. He twice hit the post in Game 2 and was tied with Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture with eight shot attempts over the two games. Hertl appeared to be injured after taking a hard hit from Patric Hornqvist of the Penguins in the third period of Game 2. He skated in a track suit and did not practice with the team Friday, so the Sharks were not unprepared for this possibility.

“Next man up for us,” said Sharks coach Peter DeBoer.

And that next man would appear to be one of either Melker Karlsson or Dainius Zubrus, each of whom, with all due respect, is an enormous downgrade on Hertl. After a positive rookie season in 2014-15, Karlsson was injured early in the season and never seemed to find his groove. Like many of his Sharks teammates, he was virtually invisible in the first two games of the series, registering zero shot attempts. Zubrus is experienced and dependable and has played in two Stanley Cup finals during his career, but he’s also on the verge of turning 38 years old. And whereas Hertl has outstanding foot speed, the presence of Zubrus on that line would make the top line slower in a series where the Sharks are already having all kinds of trouble matching the Pittsburgh Penguins quickness.

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In fact, should Zubrus play with Thornton and Pavelski, it would increase the average age of that line to 35.6 years old. Karlsson, who is 25, practiced with Pavelski and Thornton on Friday when Hertl couldn’t practice. “The one thing with those two guys is, you got a guy that will hound the puck and work for it,” DeBoer said. “I think we’ve got a lot of options there because of who we’re sticking them in with. I think it should be fairly seamless.”

Replacing a versatile and talented 46-point scorer will not be easy, regardless of which option DeBoer chooses. Whether it’s with Karlsson or Zubrus, it will be incumbent upon Thornton and Pavelski to elevate the level of their games far beyond what the displayed in the first two games of the series. If the Sharks are going to pull themselves out of this hole, it’s going to have to be on the strength of their star players. If Thornton and Pavelski continue to turn in performances like they did in Games 1 and 2, not only will the Sharks lose, but it will be a short series. The Penguins are proving to be a much deeper team at forward than the Sharks, which elevates the importance of the Sharks stars matching what the Penguins’ best players have been contributing.

“He’s arguably been maybe our best player through the first two games,” DeBoer said of Hertl. “Injuries are no excuse this time of year. We have somebody that will go in for him, will roll out there and be ready to play.”