If the lines at the last two practices were any indication, three Sharks will make their Stanley Cup playoff debuts in Game 1 of the first round against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday. A fourth and fifth are waiting in the wings, setting San Jose up to potentially have the most players play in their first playoff game since 2011, when four players debuted.
Let’s examine the roles all five will play for the Sharks during the playoffs, starting with the player who waited the longest to get there.
Kane will have played 574 regular season games across nine seasons before making his playoff debut on Thursday. That will be the second-longest active streak until Thursday, only five games shorter than Jeff Skinner’s 579-game drought.
He missed two of the final three games with an undisclosed injury, and his return not only gives the Sharks a dominant top line, but better depth down the lineup as well. The top line should also draw most of the attention from the Ducks’ top pairing of Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson, leaving San Jose’s depth forwards an opportunity to capitalize on Anaheim’s depleted defense corps.
Labanc will be one of those depth forwards. A year after not suiting up and getting sent down to the AHL in the middle of a playoff series, the 22-year-old figures to be something of an ‘x-factor.’
He’s one of the league’s best passers on the power play, but is part of a third line, with Timo Meier and Chris Tierney, that will need to be more productive. Since Kane was acquired, the trio has been out-possessed, outshot, out-chanced, and outscored five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick, and the Sharks can ill afford that to continue against the Ducks.
The third time’s finally the charm for DeMelo, who will draw into the playoff lineup after being a healthy scratch each of the last two postseasons. He’s arguably playing better than he has at any point in his Sharks career, as he and his partner, Brenden Dillon, formed a surprisingly offensive-minded third pairing over the final month of the season.
Continued offensive production would be a bonus, but San Jose will need DeMelo to limit opportunities against Anaheim’s bottom-six forwards. He’s spent most of his five-on-five time against third and fourth lines, and will have his hands full against the Ducks’ third line of Nick Ritchie, Adam Henrique, and Ondrej Kase, which has outscored opponents 17-5 in 364 five-on-five minutes together. Kase, in particular, will need to be contained, as no Anaheim forward scored five-on-five goals at a higher rate (1.36 per 60 minutes).
For much of the season, Ryan looked to be Alden Ehrenreich, the actor playing the young Han Solo, alongside Brent Burns’ Chewbacca. Instead,
Harrison Ford Paul Martin staged a late-season comeback, and played the final 11 games of the year with his Wookiee co-pilot.
Martin, much like Ford in The Force Awakens, slid pretty effortlessly back into his old role, as the pair has outpossessed, outshot, outchanced, and outscored opponents since reuniting on March 17. That left Ryan to deputize as the seventh defenseman, a role he’s arguably overqualified for, since his 56.14 percent expected goals-for percentage is best among Sharks defensemen that played at least 500 minutes. In other words, Sharks (and Star Wars) fans can rest easy about their new Han Solo when the time comes.
Gambrell’s the longest shot to make his playoff debut, as he didn’t skate on any of the Sharks’ five lines at either of their playoff practices, according to reporters, nor did he debut until after San Jose clinched a playoff spot. With Eric Fehr set to return to the lineup after not playing since March 24, and Barclay Goodrow also skating, the fourth-line center position now seems set.
But, the injury bug is always moments away from biting, and the rookie will need to be ready. He appeared a bit overmatched in his first three games, registering just one shot on goal and posting a 46.88 corsi-for percentage, but does have plenty of big-game experience after winning an NCAA title in 2017.