Win one game.
Winning one game doesn't sound like too much of an obstacle does it?
If the San Jose Sharks win Game 5, the Pittsburgh Penguins will lead the series three games to two. That puts them right back in the series.
After all, while down 3-1 in a series is a big hole, every single series that goes seven games sits at 3-2 going into Game 6. Order of victories doesn't matter. Had San Jose won Game 4 and lost Game 5, they would still be down 3-2 going into a home Game 6.
The Sharks were the best road team in the league this regular season. They can surely win one road game. A win on Thursday and the series returns to San Jose with a tiny seed of doubt placed into the minds of the Penguins.
That is how the Sharks have to look at this. It's not about winning three games in a row. It's about winning one game and giving the home San Jose crowd one more chance to cheer them out of the Shark head on home ice.
So How do They Win Game 5?
For as much as it has appeared that the Sharks are simply being outplayed by the Penguins, the fact of the matter is that this series has been extremely tight when San Jose's miserable third pair is off the ice.
In this series, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a minus-3 in Corsi differential while doing a tremendous job shutting down Sidney Crosby. Brent Burns is a plus-3 in Corsi differential in this series. What this means, is that while it appears to the eye test of some that the Penguins are simply the better team, when the Sharks have either of their top two defensemen on the ice (they play on separate pairs), the Sharks are right there with the Penguins. This is NOT, not a blowout series as some like to suggest.
The problem is San Jose has given up the first goal in every game of this series. Three of those opening goals have come with their third pair on the ice. San Jose has been chasing the game in this series in large part due to the poor defense from midseason acquisition Roman Polak.
In Game 2 it was his rushed D-to-D pass in his own zone that resulted in a terrible turnover. With a heavy forecheck in his face, Polak completely fanned on the pass as he tried to send a rolling puck across the middle instead of settling the puck or chipping it off the near glass. He then left his feet trying to scramble to defend rather than use a smart defensive stick standing up.
In Game 3, Polak moves his leg right in front of Jones to deflect a knuckling point shot past Jones and into the net. As goalies will tell you, they don't want defenders trying to block shots right in front of the crease.
And finally in Game 4, Polak steps up in the neutral zone to try and make a hit, putting himself way out of position to defend the odd-man attack that followed. Once back into the play Polak stares at the puck instead of covering the right side of the zone as his partner Dillon was covering the puck carrier on the left side. This left eventual goal scorer Ian Cole wide open.
Ride & Die With Vlasic & Burns
If Head Coach Peter DeBoer wants to give his team the best chance to win Game 5, he has to live and die with his top-4 defensemen. This means a significant reduction of ice time for Polak and Dillon to start the game Thursday night.
Unless the Sharks end up actually playing with a two-goal lead, Vlasic and Burns should each be on pace for 2.5 more minutes per game than they have averaged so far in these playoffs (23:25 and 25:18 respectively). For comparison's sake, Pittsburgh's top defenseman Kris Letang has been averaging over 28 minutes per game. He is not in any better shape than Vlasic and Burns. (Burns photo credit: Zeke Mo)
Realistically, Vlasic and Burns can each play four minutes more. That would cut down Polak and Dillon's ice time from around 15 minutes to about seven, which is exactly what this team needs to have a chance to bring the series back to San Jose.
Ward on 2nd Line, Marleau on 3rd
Down the stretch of this regular season and through the middle of their second round series against Nashville, San Jose featured a strong second forward line of Joonas Donskoi, Logan Couture and Joel Ward. When things got stale, Patrick Marleau and Ward switched places for the second half of the Predators series and most/all of the St. Louis series.
However, as yours truly suggested before this Stanley Cup final started, DeBoer needed to consider moving Ward back up with Couture and Marleau back down to the third line to best matchup against the Penguins. It is baffling to me that in this series, the Donskoi---Couture---Ward combination has basically been together for only one period. Not surprisingly, they were awesome in that one period
If you recall the end of Game 2, the Sharks had been been dominated through 40 minutes with Ward on the third line and Marleau on the second. Going into the third period, DeBoer bumped Ward up to the line with Couture and Donskoi and they finished the game with a fantastic third period. They helped set up Justin Braun's game-tying goal that forced overtime.
It seemed pretty obvious that those three should remain intact to start Game 3, but for whatever reason DeBoer went back to the Tierney-Ward third line combination that had been extremely underwhelming in Games 1 and 2. Ward with Couture and Donskoi, and Marleau on the third line is the lineup configuration that helped turn the Sharks season around in the second half and into the playoffs. The three deep formula with Thornton, Couture and Marleau as the top-3 centers has been abandoned in this final series when they have needed it the most.
With Tomas Hertl likely unavailable, (one report suggests he is done for the season), the Sharks best option to create a bit more time and space offensively and take away a bit more time and space from Pittsburgh would be to go with the following top three lines.
Matt Nieto---Joe Thornton---Joe Pavelski
Joonas Donskoi---Logan Couture---Joel Ward
Melker Karlsson---Patrick Marleau---Tommy Wingels
There are some out there in the social media world who are highly critical of Thornton and Pavelski for not scoring. Sure enough, a goal from the top line would be huge, but there is a reason that Thornton and Pavelski haven't seen the score-sheet quite as often in this series. First and foremost is that the Penguins have made it a focus to takeaway Pavelski at all costs. Hertl wasn't San Jose's most noticeable forward in Games 1 and 2 by accident. Pittsburgh was keying in on Pavelski, leaving Hertl with the time and space to operate and make plays. Thornton and Pavelski have also been tasked with significant minutes alongside the aforementioned miserable third pair.
With Hertl out the past two games, Melker Karlsson has took over that spot and he simply doesn't have the size, speed, nor finishing ability Hertl brings to that line. Karlsson scored as part of a different line in Game 4, but there is a reason he has played mostly fourth line minutes this season. He isn't a top-6 forward.
Since San Jose needs Marleau to bring speed and skill to the third line, the best option for San Jose to play next to Thornton and Pavelski is the speedy Nieto. The Long Beach native is right there with Marleau as the fastest forward on the roster. Unlike Karlsson or Dainius Zubrus, Nieto has the speed that can allow more time and space for Pavelski to get open. Nieto is terrific on the forecheck, he can drive the Pittsburgh defense back to allow Pavelski time to find soft spots in the coverage.
And last but not least, a third line with Marleau centering Wingels and Karlsson isn't something just pulled out of a hat. In case some fans have forgotten, these three were absolutely flying together during mid-March for a handful of games. One of those games in particular was arguably the biggest regular season win of the season when they were the best line of the night against the Kings.
Going with these lines and increasing Vlasic and Burns' minutes will give San Jose the best chance to stay alive in Game 5.