SAN JOSE – Making adjustments in the midst of a playoff series can often be the difference between elimination and moving on. If a coach believes something isn’t working, changes will be made swiftly and decisively, before it’s too late in a seven-game series.
Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault isn’t even waiting for the first round series with the San Jose Sharks to begin, if he uses the same line combinations he skated on Monday in practice based on several reports out of Vancouver. Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy, who had been on the same line in recent weeks, were split up as the second and third line centers. That’s likely due to combat the Sharks’ newly found balanced scoring attack that includes centers Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. The Sedin twins and Alex Burrows remains Vancouver’s de facto top line.
The first two games of the series are in Vancouver, beginning Wednesday, so Vigneault will have the luxury of getting his desired matchups at the start.
“If that’s what they’re doing, they get to move their pieces around any way they want,” Todd McLellan said on Monday. “We have our group and we’re going to play a certain way, and matchups are sometimes hard to get and sometimes easy to get depending on who’s playing well, and who isn’t.
“We feel good about our center ice position and the people we have playing down there, and if they have to move people around, they’re going to move people around.”
The Sharks’ players themselves know how important the team’s balanced attack is, having finished the season with a 12-5-1 record in the last 18 games after moving Pavelski to center from top line winger on March 25. Coupled with Brent Burns’ emergence as a power forward, the offensive output increased dramatically from a stretch in February to mid-March, when the Sharks fell to last in the league at one point in goals-per-game before resetting their lines.
There’s little doubt that each of the three top scoring lines will have to continue to produce in order for the Sharks to have a chance at moving on to the second round.
“Our balance of four lines coming down the stretch. … That’s a benefit,” Dan Boyle said. “They’re going to have preferred matchups against whatever line, and I’m not sure which one that’s going to be. It opens up a little room for those other lines. That’s where balance comes into play.”
TJ Galiardi said: “You look at any team that does well in playoffs, and they have that kind of balance throughout their lineup. We certainly have it here.”
Players and coaches often preach that regular season records mean nothing headed into the postseason, but that may be even truer in this case. San Jose won all three games against Vancouver, including one in a shootout, but the Canucks were without Kesler and trade deadline acquisition Roy in all three games.
Kesler returned from a broken right foot in early April, after missing the early portion of the season with offseason shoulder and wrist surgeries. The 28-year-old played in just 17 games, with four goals and nine assists.
Roy, skating with Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen on Monday, was acquired from the Dallas Stars on April 2 and had 28 points (7g, 21a) in 42 games between the two teams.
Kesler, though, could be the key. The former Selke Trophy winner often gets matched up against the opposition’s top lines, so he could be out there with Chris Higgins and Zack Kassian against the Logan Couture-Patrick Marleau-Marty Havlat line, which has been San Jose’s most effective even strength line in recent weeks.
“He’s good on faceoffs, he battles, he’s a competitor, he’s hard on pucks, he just makes it tough to play against,” Couture said of Kesler. “He’s one of the tougher centers to play against in the Western Conference. I look forward to the challenge, if we do end up being matched up against him.”
Boyle said: “He’s a player that gets up to play against the top lines, and he usually sees that matchup, and we’re expecting that. He’s going to do his job, we’ve just got to do ours.”