Being on the West Coast, rolling four lines could be advantageous for San Jose Sharks

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Monday, May 30, 2016

PITTSBURGH -- It was striking, really, just how little the players on the 2012 New Jersey Devils and 2014 New York Rangers truly knew about the Los Angeles Kings in their respective Stanley Cup finals.

Before it was too late, that is.

Oh, to be sure the coaching staffs on those Devils and Rangers teams fully prepared their players with a ton of film and instruction. But that goes only so far.

By the time the Devils and Rangers knew what hit them in those Cup finals, the series were more or less over.

On the flip side, West Coast players tend to be more naturally aware about their Eastern Conference comrades.

"We watch a ton of games," San Jose Sharks defenseman Justin Braun said Sunday, on the eve of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. Why? Because the games from the East are on at 4 p.m. Pacific Time.

It seems like a silly thing, but ask any player on the three California clubs and they will tell you how the East games are always on when they get to the rink and as they prepare for their games.

On the flip side, you're not getting too many Eastern Conference players staying up to watch 10:30 p.m. ET puck drops in San Jose.

"That's very true," said current Penguins and former Anaheim Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy on Sunday. "I go to bed at 10 o'clock right now. I don't watch any West Coast games -- I'm a complete East Coast homer when I'm living here. When I lived in California, we would have every East Coast game on at 4 o'clock just because it was available."

Well, there's at least one hockey junkie on the Penguins who's the exception to the rule.

Whether he's taping West Coast games or staying up to watch, No. 87 absolutely keeps track of things all around the league. He loves it.

"Oh, yeah, I watch," Sidney Crosby said, smiling Sunday.

Get to know the Penguins captain and one thing you'll learn over the years is that once your interview session with him is over, he's apt more often than not to reverse the role and pepper the odd journalist with a question or two about what's going on around the league. He always has had that inquisitive mind, wanting to stay on top of what's happening elsewhere. Wayne Gretzky has always been that way, too.

So it's doubtful that there's not much about the Sharks the Penguins captain doesn't know. He's definitely a fan of how they play.

Mind you, the St. Louis Blues also thought they had a pretty good book on the Sharks. They were extremely well prepared by head coach Ken Hitchcock and his coaching staff.

"There's not a lot of secrets in this league, but just the relentless commitment to the team game that San Jose has," Blues captain David Backes said over the phone Saturday. "Chicago is a great team and it was a tough series. But the way that San Jose has four lines that are all committed to getting the puck deep in the zone and just make you come 200 feet time and time again, then they skate and return and create turnovers. When you've got Joe Thornton willing to dump the puck in, you got a buy-in on your team that is going to be tough to deal with. I think that's going to give every team fits. And their size and their ability to just hunker down as a team, and wait for you to make a mistake, was really tough for us to counter."

Lovejoy, given his time with the Ducks playing divisional games against the rival Sharks, is playing the part of part-time scout for the Penguins ahead of this Cup showdown.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Sharks," said Lovejoy, traded to Pittsburgh last season. "I have always thought that they were really good. They do a ton of things well, but one thing is I think they're a faster team than they're given credit for. They have the elite power play and the high-end talent. One of the things I have stressed to the Penguins or to anyone who will listen is that the Sharks would always try to beat us in the first 10 minutes. They would come out and try to overwhelm teams early. They'd have 10-15 shots in the first 10 minutes and would be up two, three goals and try to run you out of the building.

"We need to be up for that starting with that first puck drop. Because we don't see them as often, being on the East Coast."

The Sharks' power play has been beyond lethal in these playoffs. As far as Backes is concerned, that's where the Penguins have to be the most careful.

"Well, you had [Sharks coach Peter] DeBoer come out and talk about officiating after the first game -- I think they had more power plays every game after that than we did," Backes said. "That would be key, for me, for the whole series, keep it 5-on-5 and give yourself a chance. But if they're getting more time on the power play, those five guys have played together for so long, they have how many automatics? And they relieve the pressure so well. You can kill two or three a game and maybe still keep your head above water, but if you start taking more than that you're going to pay for it in a big way."

Thing is, the Sharks also have been a 5-on-5 monster in the playoffs. Nobody has yet to have an answer for the Thornton-Joe Pavelski partnership up front.

"With the two of them being opposite hands and taking draws on their strong sides, and they're both pretty good on the dot, they were starting with the puck a lot," Backes said. "And they don't get give it up easy. On the back end, you've got [Brent] Burns, who is shooting everything. That group is going to be a handful for whoever Pittsburgh tries to counter with. I'd say the best way to try and counter them is to make them play in their own end. San Jose didn't spend a ton of time in their own end against us, so those guys didn't get exposed on the defensive side of things. They were able to kind of run free on the offensive side of things. And really put the gears to us."