The San Jose Sharks dropped Game 3 of their best-of-seven series with the Los Angeles Kings by a 2-1 final in overtime on Thursday night. Tanner Pearson's game-ending goal breathed life into the Kings as they now trail the Sharks just 2-1 in the series.
While the Sharks were unable to come away with a third straight win over their rival, their overall even-strength play wasn't far off from Games 1 and 2. San Jose out-shot the Kings 30-24 for the game. At times the Kings did have the Sharks pinned in deep in their own zone, but most of LA's impressive zone time came on the man advantage.
San Jose took two fewer penalties (three) than the Kings (five), but they were all poor timing penalties that stunted the Sharks momentum. The Kings only goal in regulation came on a power play shortly after the Sharks had looked dominant on a power play of their own. All three penalties by the Sharks came from each of their fourth line players in Tommy Wingels, Chris Tierney and Nick Spaling. Only one of them came in the defensive zone and even that was a facoff violation, not a good penalty to take.
This brings me to the first of two main changes Sharks coach Peter DeBoer should make for Game 4.
Spaling, Tierney and Wingels had a strong Game 1 and a decent Game 2, but they simply disappointed in Game 3. Not only did they each take a minor penalty, but they didn't generate nearly as much offense, spending little time in the offensive zone. In terms of possession numbers, Spaling is by the far the worst of the 12 forwards in the Sharks lineup thus far. On Wednesday DeBoer should swap him out for veteran Dainius Zubrus.
A big-bodied forward, the 37-year-old Zubrus was brought in to San Jose midseason on a pro-tryout contract. Zubrus had played previously in New Jersey under DeBoer and it was under DeBoer's request that GM Doug Wilson bring Zubrus into the fold. During the regular season Zubrus played an effective fourth line role and outside of resting a couple of games late in the season, was a regular in the lineup.
Since he is a DeBoer favorite, it makes one seriously wonder if he is nursing an undisclosed injury. Zubrus has clearly brought more to the table than Spaling and his larger frame (6-5, 225), makes sense to utilize against a big team like the Kings. A top-six player for a long time in the NHL, Zubrus has just as much offensive skill and is at worst equally as responsible defensively than Spaling.
Even if Zubrus is a bit banged up, he has been skating with the team and DeBoer would be wise to give him a shot. During the regular season, San Jose's best fourth line group was Zubrus with Tierney and Melker Karlsson. That should be the unit that skates together Wednesday night. Wingels should then be bumped up in Karlsson's current spot with Matt Nieto and Patrick Marleau.
The overtime goal by the Kings was in large part due to a defensive miscue from third-pair defenseman Brenden Dillon. Pearson was able to have time and space just inside the blue line because Dillon vacated the exact spot where Pearson picked up the puck merely a second prior to try and make a hit on Dustin Brown.
Earlier in the game Dillon also missed an easy breakout pass to Logan Couture. Dillon had a solid year this season, but the addition of Roman Polak as his partner has hindered his game down the stretch and into the playoffs. Outside of one being left-handed and the other right, Polak and Dillon are essentially the exact same type of defenseman and that is a bad combination on a defense pair. Both are stay-at-home types that struggle moving the puck.
Dillon's best games this season have come when playing with rookie puck-mover Dylan Demelo. With a confident puck handler next to him, Dillon doesn't have to worry as much about making plays with the puck and can make the simple chips and reverse board passes. Unfortunately, many hockey analysts and clearly the Sharks brass, believes Polak's physical presence and size make him a more valuable partner than Demelo. This simply isn't accurate.
San Jose's three best defensemen away from the puck in the defensive zone are Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Martin and Justin Braun. The latter is the heaviest at just 205. Defenders don't have to be big to be effective. The notion that teams need to be able to out-hit the Kings to beat them is absurd. That is not a winning formula to try and match Los Angeles hit for hit. A winning formula is keeping the puck away from LA as much as possible. Demelo and Dillon are far better as a duo in keeping possession of the puck than Dillon and Polak.
Dillon's mistakes were the glarying ones in Game 3, not Polak, but it is Polak that should be a healthy scratch. The right-handed, offensively confident Demelo is the ideal partner for the stay-at-home left-handed Dillon. Making this change would give the Sharks third and fourth lines a much better chance at making a positive impact in the rest of this series.