Sharks' second line stalls vs. Canucks
If you're looking for a quick and easy way to measure Vancouver's well-deserved 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals, the Sharks' second line is a heck of a place to start.
The Sedin twins are on fire through two games with a combined three goals and four assists. Unwrapped from the chains that were Shea Weber and Ryan Suter in the second round, Henrik and Daniel Sedin have made the Canucks that much harder to stop.
"Our Heatley, Couture and Clowe line has been a tremendous line for us," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said Thursday at his team's practice facility. "For as much as the other players have played well, they really contributed to getting us to that point. They haven't been effective enough. They haven't skated well enough. They haven't won enough battles for us to win games in this series.
"That doesn't mean they won't do it. We're counting on them doing it. Tomorrow will be their opportunity to shine."
Game 3 is Friday night at HP Pavilion.
Couture's line had been the Sharks' engine in these playoffs, its shifts providing momentum for the rest of the team because of its ability to sustain a forecheck and a cycle in the offensive zone, and provide timely offense. That's nowhere to be seen through two games of the Western Conference finals.
"This is the role they want our line to play: be physical, be big and control the puck in their end," Heatley told ESPN.com on Thursday. "And I think we have to do a better job of that in this series."
Clowe said Thursday that his line did a better job in Game 2 of gaining entry in the offensive zone but couldn't maintain puck possession. The key is simple: Win more battles. It's not complicated.
"Sometimes you can't go to the drawing board and draw something up there," Clowe said. "Those 50/50 pucks, you hear it all playoffs, you have to win those battles. That's not a blueprint; that's black and white. You got to win those. That's upon ourselves as individuals, how much pride you got in those areas. Right now they're winning those battles. Our line, we pride ourselves on that. We've got to be a lot better."
Couture had a beauty to open the scoring in Game 2, but the unit has been fairly silent otherwise. Clowe, arguably San Jose's top playoff performer through the team's opening 11 games with 13 points (4-9), hasn't been the same since missing Game 6 in Detroit with an upper body injury. He does not have a point in three straight games. His physical play was more noticeable in Game 2, but his offense hasn't returned. And the Sharks aren't the same without Clowe at his usual pace.
Heatley has been even more of an enigma. He hasn't scored since Game 4 at Detroit and has just three goals in 15 playoff games. Look at his overall goal production since the lockout, and you see a gradual decrease. Since bursting out of the lockout with back-to-back 50-goal seasons for Ottawa, he posted 41 goals in 2007-08, back-to-back 39-goal seasons and then 26 goals this season -- his lowest output for a full season since his rookie campaign in 2001-02.
"It doesn't frustrate me," Heatley said. "As long as we're winning. Of course as a goal scorer you want to score goals. That's what you've always done and that's what you're paid to do. But there's been years where I've put up big numbers and the team hasn't done very well. I'm happy to be here in whatever role they want me to play."
It is true Heatley became a more complete player this season, paying more attention to his defensive responsibilities. And it is true that he hasn't seen much first-unit power-play time in the playoffs, getting most of his power-play minutes on the second unit.
Still, this is a longtime goal machine gone rather silent, and the Sharks need him to step up here along with his linemates to make this a series.
The Sharks' second line isn't alone in the blame game. Joe Pavelski's third line with Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell was solid in the opening two rounds but has been the exact opposite against the Canucks. The Sharks entered the conference finals with an apparent edge on the third line with Pavelski matching up against Maxim Lapierre's unit. Oh, there's an edge alright, but Lapierre, Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen have it now.
"I would agree with that assessment. It's very accurate," McLellan said Thursday. "We felt going in, especially after the first two series, the way we played down the stretch, that the Pavelski, Mitchell, Wellwood line had really contributed to our success, helped us get to this point, and were factors. They haven't played that way the first two games." McLellan said how happy he was with the line when Ben Eager replaced Wellwood on the unit halfway through Game 2. And where was Pavelski when Torres scored a big goal alone in front of the net Wednesday night?
This hasn't been the same Pavelski of last season. His offense is down. His pace is, too. You wonder whether he's battling an injury. He had 17 points (9-8) in 15 playoff games last spring. Right now, he's got eight points (5-3) in 15 games. Granted, a year ago he had a top-six role and this year he's been relegated to third-line duty, but he still doesn't seem to have that same explosiveness.
"Yeah, I think every series you have to kind of reprove yourself," Pavelski said Thursday. "I haven't showed up in the way I'd like. I can definitely be better in a lot of areas. I just need to improve on that."
Pavelski, Heatley, Clowe ... it is just the start of a long list of Sharks players with something to prove Friday night.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.