Commentary

Coaches engage in playoff chess game

Updated: May 3, 2011, 5:19 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- The chess game is on.

Detroit coach Mike Babcock and his protégé turned counterpart, San Jose coach Todd McLellan, each scrambled their top two lines in practice Tuesday and followed it up by saying nothing was written in stone for Wednesday's Game 3.

Ah, the gamesmanship of the playoffs.

The Red Wings split up star centers Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. The Sharks responded 90 minutes later during their skate at Joe Louis Arena by flipping Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture from their respective lines.

[+] EnlargeLogan Couture and Dany Heatley
Don Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesWill the Logan Couture line be split up for Wednesday's Game 3?

So who's staying one move ahead of the other?

"I think Detroit might make changes with their lines," McLellan said after practice. "They've got a couple of veteran players that have played in these situations before that may be in the lineup, so we have to be prepared to react and be ready to go on Wednesday. We're not sure what we're doing yet; we'll wait and see."

Babcock has to do something -- his team is down 2-0 in its Western Conference semifinal series. The Datsyuk-Zetterberg pairing produced only one goal in the opening two losses at San Jose, so to split them up makes sense if only to spread out the offense and give the Sharks two lines to worry about instead of one.

But if Babcock sticks with Tuesday's practice lines, the move also might have been instigated by the way San Jose's second line of Ryane Clowe, Couture and Dany Heatley has terrorized the Wings in their offensive zone with an effective cycle. The line has had the puck most of the time.

"I feel like, as a line, we've spent a lot more time in the offensive zone," Clowe said Tuesday after practice. "The biggest strength of our line overall is our wall work. It's been good."

The defensive pair of Niklas Kronwall and Ruslan Salei has seen of lot of Couture's line.

"We have to do a smarter job in our own zone," Kronwall said Tuesday. "They're big guys, heavy bodies; they protect the puck really well. We have to try and find a way to be a little smarter about it, position ourselves better so we can get to the puck before they do and turn it up the ice and generate some offense."

Ah, but suddenly Couture was off that line Tuesday and skating on the wing alongside Joe Thornton and Devin Setoguchi, while Marleau shifted to center on a line between Clowe and Heatley.

"We've been interchangeable all year long, so it should be easy," Marleau said. "We all play the same system. It's not a big deal."

Then again, McLellan in the past has sometimes changed lines on a practice day only to revert to the previous lines on game day. Which one will it be this time?

"We're not sure which way we're going, but we've got options," McLellan said.

What the Sharks' coach is no doubt wondering is whether Babcock was showing a Datsyuk-Zetterberg split-up Tuesday only to revert to the load-up scenario come Wednesday night.

"I haven't decided who's playing with who for tomorrow as of yet," Babcock said Tuesday. "I haven't decided who's in, either."

There are no secrets between these two coaches. McLellan was an assistant coach under Babcock for three years, and the two celebrated a Stanley Cup championship together in June 2008. They know each other's philosophies and tendencies. Watching them strategize against each other in last year's playoffs and again this spring has been fascinating.

For one, despite having the last line change in San Jose, McLellan didn't fight the Zetterberg-Datsyuk versus Thornton-Marleau matchup. He went mano a mano, and the decision paid off because the matchup was largely even. That opened the door for Couture's line and Joe Pavelski's third line to get more offensive freedom in the Detroit zone.

Babcock knows it, and that's why he is leaning toward splitting up his two star centers. On Tuesday, Datsyuk skated between Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom, while Zetterberg was with Todd Bertuzzi and Daniel Cleary.

If it's Datsyuk versus Thornton again Wednesday night, McLellan's idea of putting Couture on the wing for that top line might be based on having a little physicality against Franzen on the opposite wing of that new line.

"We're real comfortable with Logan anywhere, wing or center," the Sharks' coach said.

We asked Couture whether Tuesday's lines were cemented for Wednesday night.

"I don't know," the rookie said with a smile. "You'll have to wait and see."

The players are pawns in a game directed by two chess masters.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.