When Head Coach Peter DeBoer announced that Tomas Hertl would miss Game 3, hearts sank among many of the San Jose Sharks fan base.
The 22-year-old Czech forward was San Jose's most effective offensive threat in Games 1 and 2.
Few other Shark forwards could claim to have played well through the first two games of this Stanley Cup final as San Jose dropped both contests.
While the ever popular "next man up" cliche always gets bandied about in these injury situations, this year's Sharks have been better able to withstand key losses than in years past. Logan Couture missed most of the first half and yet the Sharks were able to tread water thanks to the ability of regular wingers like Hertl and Patrick Marleau being able to play center.
A frequent saying in the hockey world is "you can never have too many centers" and even though the Sharks have always had good center depth, they have had their best middle depth this season. Between Couture, Marleau, Hertl, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Chris Tierney, Nick Spaling and Dainius Zubrus, the Sharks have eight bonafide centers on their roster. Not to mention, Melker Karlsson is often listed as center, and both Joel Ward and Tommy Wingels can often be seen taking right-side faceoffs.
Almost Everyone Can Play Center
Out of 13 forwards used in these playoffs, only Matt Nieto and Joonas Donskoi exclusively play the wing. Having such flexibility down the middle makes it possible for DeBoer to make the key change to the forward lines late in Game 3.
DeBoer bumped Couture up to the top line, creating what is often referred to in the hockey world as an overload (three best forwards playing together). San Jose's overload not surprisingly started generating tons of offensive chances.
While this wasn't an unprecedented move by DeBoer, (he had made this switch multiple times in the regular season) he had yet to use it in the playoffs. One might think overloading with Hertl unavailable to be an odd choice, but again the center depth is off the charts. Donskoi ended up scoring the OT winner (<---link takes you to the awesome Finnish broadcast call of Donskoi's game-winning goal) playing with Tierney as his center, a combination rarely seen this season but one that worked wonderfully in overtime.
The third line then became Spaling centering Karlsson and Ward. In theory that left the Sharks with a fourth line of Nieto, Zubrus and Wingels, but they were essentially glued to the bench. If memory serves, Nieto took a few shifts mixed in with the third line late last night while Zubrus and Wingels didn't see a shift. However, with Zubrus having been a long-time top-six center and Wingels capable of taking right-side draws, a Nieto-Zubrus-Wingels fourth line could very well be an effective trio.
If memory also serves, DeBoer has never started a game with Couture, Thornton and Pavelski together. However, if Hertl remains out for Game 4 (still listed day-to-day as of Sunday according to Curtis Pashelka of the Mercury News), it is an option DeBoer might want to consider.
Pittsburgh doesn't have a true shut-down type defense pair the way the Sharks have Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, so continuing to overload the top line with an ABSURD amount of talent between Couture, Thornton and Pavelski could give the Penguins fits. Having Tierney then as the second line center sounds like a bit of a weak spot considering he was mostly a fourth line center in the regular season, but he has tremendous play-making skills and would be playing with two excellent finishers in Donskoi and Marleau.
A Spaling-centered third line leaves a bit to be desired offensively on paper, but Spaling and Ward are two tremendous defensive players. Karlsson likewise is a very responsible two-way player. This line actually isn't substantially worse with Spaling centering it than Tierney. The latter brings more offensive ability, but Spaling plays a heavier, more hard-nosed defensive game.
And finally, as mentioned above, Nieto, Zubrus and Wingels could be a solid fourth line group if put together. Zubrus and Wingels have been strong on the fourth line since the end of the Nashville series when Nieto went out with an injury. Nieto's speed could add another element to the bruising style Zubrus and Wingels bring to the table.
Chances are DeBoer will start Game 4 with more traditional line combinations. Spreading out the wealth over multiple lines has been a key to San Jose's long-term sucess this season. In the short-term though, given the matchup, Hertl's injury and the depth at the center position, perhaps we see the overload start a game together for the first time this season in Game 4.