Joe Thornton's move down Sharks' lineup pays off in win over Flyers

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Joe Thornton's move down Sharks' lineup pays off in win over Flyers

The Sharks' line combinations have been a subject of fascination since the 2018-19 season opened up. They’ve been shuffled so much, it’s almost difficult to tell if there’s any real order to them anymore. 

Coach Pete DeBoer acknowledged that much after the Sharks' 4-3 overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night. It’s not about promoting or demoting anyone, it’s about finding what gives his team the best opportunity to win games.

“We roll four lines,” the Sharks’ bench boss said. “I don’t think anyone’s moving down or up.”

DeBoer has gotten into the habit of mixing and matching the forward attack in the middle of games in an effort to generate more offense. This act of throwing the lines into the blender paid off on Saturday when DeBoer made one of his most interesting moves yet – moving Joe Thornton out of his usual slot on the Sharks' “first” line, and putting him on the unofficial third line with Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen (And later wih Melker Karlsson when Labanc was part of another line shakeup).

“We’re not moving him down,” DeBoer insisted, noting that Thornton is still in rebound mode after missing time because of an infection in his surgically repaired right knee. “I moved him around tonight just because we needed to get some things going. It was a blender of forward lines tonight.”

Clearly the move worked. The newly-tooled Thornton line drew a second-period penalty on Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux, which resulted in Pavelski tying the game on the ensuing power play. The shuffle further paid off when Thornton found the back of the net with less than five minutes to play in regulation.

Thornton told the media afterwards he was comfortable moving throughout the lineup because of his confidence in his teammates.

“I just know we’re a deep team,” he said. “If I go down and play with [Melker] and Marcus, that’s still great players I’m playing with. So, it doesn’t matter where I am in this lineup. We have a solid forward group.”

Now with a bevy of games to look at, DeBoer has an even better idea of what combinations he can piece together mid-game, and which ones already fit.

“I think Couture’s line has been excellent from day one,” he said. “And we have three other lines that every night, we try and see what works the best for us right now.”

With the goal of rolling four lines without putting any emphasis on moving up or down the lineup, the Sharks have more freedom to put different things together whenever they want in an effort to generate offense. 

DeBoer hopes to find more winning combinations that can last the full 60 minutes. He admitted that while he likes that he can shake up his lines, “I don’t want to have to shuffle the deck every night either.”

Sharks' Marc-Edouard Vlasic practices in Tampa, moves closer to return


Sharks' Marc-Edouard Vlasic practices in Tampa, moves closer to return

After injuries broke up the Sharks’ defensive corps at the start of the new year, it looks like San Jose’s blue line is inching closer to getting the band back together.

Injured defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t likely to see game action, although coach Peter DeBoer called him a game-time decision against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday. The news was reported by Paul Gackle of the San Jose Mercury News.

“We’ll see how he feels," DeBoer told the media after Friday’s practice. "I think he’s getting closer.”

Vlasic has been sidelined since the beginning of the month when he sustained an upper-body injury against the Colorado Avalanche. He participated in the Sharks’ practice in Tampa Bay on Friday ahead of the game against the Lightning – the first time he has been a full participant in team practice since sustaining the injury. 

While it’s a positive sign Vlasic has rejoined his teammates, DeBoer remains cautious about putting him back in the lineup too soon.

“We’re not going to put him out there and get him reinjured,” the Sharks’ bench boss said. “Especially with the 10-day break on the horizon. But if he can help us and get in there then he will.”

Vlasic has registered 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in 42 games played so far this season for Team Teal.

Sticking with the theme of blueliners: Erik Karlsson was absent from morning skate on Friday with an undisclosed ailment. DeBoer told the media he was taking another maintenance day and is expected to be in the lineup Saturday in Tampa Bay.

Why Sharks' play against playoff teams is encouraging down the stretch


Why Sharks' play against playoff teams is encouraging down the stretch

The Sharks apparently sent the Tampa Bay Lightning into a tailspin.

The Lightning has lost three of their last eight games since the calendar flipped, including one Thursday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs. San Jose handed Tampa Bay the first of those losses on Jan. 5, in one of the Sharks’ most impressive performances this season. 

Of course, the use of "tailspin" was purely tongue-in-cheek. It’s far too early to say a team that only lost seven times in regulation in the first half the season is “coming down to earth.” Even with Thursday’s loss, the Lightning is still nine points clear of the Calgary Flames in the race for the President’s Trophy. 

Tampa Bay's not-quite-a-funk began thanks in large part to what was arguably the best third period of the Sharks' season. Nursing a 3-2 lead entering the final 20 minutes, San Jose scored twice and held the Lightning to just 10 shot attempts across all situations, including only eight during 5-on-5 play. 

Against Tampa Bay, San Jose played to its strengths and possessed the puck. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Sharks ranked no worse than fifth in their share of 5-on-5 shot attempts (first), unblocked attempts (second), shots (second), scoring chances (second), and high-danger chances (fifth) entering Friday.

But part of what made their performance against the Lightning so noteworthy was, well, that it came against the Lightning. Tampa Bay is in the top seven of each of those aforementioned metrics, and boasts one of the league’s deepest lineups up front and on the blue line. There’s a reason they’re so far ahead of the rest of the league. 

The Sharks’ win was not an outlier, though. San Jose is 12-9-1 against teams currently in playoff position, and boasts solid underlying numbers against that group. 

Courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
5v5 CF% 55.53
5v5 FF% 55.33
5v5 SF% 54.74
5v5 SCF% 54.56
5v5 HDCF% 54.44

Those numbers are right around what the Sharks have posted on the season as a whole, albeit slightly lower. That control hasn’t necessarily translated into 5-on-5 goals, however, as the Sharks have been outscored 54-49. In all, they’ve scored on around 8.5 percent of their 5-on-5 shots against playoff teams, while Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have stopped about 88.7 percent of the shots they’ve faced. 

That’s fairly emblematic of the first half of San Jose’s season, which is when 18 of the Sharks’ 22 games against teams in position to make the postseason occurred. Jones has been better lately, and the Sharks have tightened up defensively. Dell is still trying to rediscover his early-season form, but Jones’ improvement may be enough to assume San Jose's save percentage will rebound.

It’s fair to assume the playoff picture will change during that time, too. One team in the Eastern Conference is within five points of the last Wild Card spot (Buffalo), while five teams in the West can say the same (Edmonton, Anaheim, Vancouver, St. Louis, Arizona). 

[RELATED: Doug Wilson says Sharks' trade deadline deals must strike right balance]

This being the parity-pursuing NHL, all but nine teams are in the playoff bubble right around the All-Star break. If you expand our sample to include those teams, the Sharks are 20-12-4 against teams with a conceivable shot at the postseason. Unsurprisingly, they’re also about as strong of a possession team against those teams as they are against the entirety of the league.

Courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
5v5 CF% 56.10
5v5 FF% 56.00
5v5 SF% 55.43
5v5 SCF% 56.17
5v5 HDCF% 57.46
5v5 GF 83
5v5 GA 81

In other words, the Sharks aren’t just making their hay against cellar-dwellers, and should be largely encouraged by their 5-on-5 performance against playoff teams. There is the risk of parsing down a still-developing sample size, which is why we didn’t examine the Sharks' special-teams performance against those teams. But, it’s still worth keeping an eye on down the stretch given the remainder of San Jose’s schedule.

In addition to Saturday’s trip to Tampa, the Sharks will also play the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals three days later. In all, 26 of San Jose's 33 remaining games are against teams currently within five points of a playoff spot.

As races tighten up down the stretch, that number will change. Still, it’s no thing that the Sharks have played particularly well against the teams that comprise the bulk of their schedule. That includes the Lightning, who have only lost consecutive games (in regulation or otherwise) once this season. 

It still won’t be a tailspin if Tampa Bay loses on Saturday, but it would be another important notch in San Jose’s belt.