SAN JOSE, Calif. -- If there's one particular area that separates this year's San Jose Sharks squad from those of years past, it's the composition of their bottom-two forward lines.
And the impact the Sharks are getting from those third and fourth lines.
Simply put, in the past few years, that was a soft spot on this team, the Sharks failing to get much offense or territorial impact from their bottom-six group. Just one game into the playoffs and already you see a different story there, with San Jose's bottom-six forwards combining for two goals and five assists in the 6-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings, but just as importantly setting the tone with time spent in the Kings' zone on the forecheck.
"In the playoffs, that's the biggest thing for us, it's about momentum, and I think third and fourth lines can bring momentum, and sometimes score big goals," fourth-line center Andrew Desjardins said Saturday after practice. "We when get out there, we're just trying to keep momentum on our side."
Desjardins' line with Raffi Torres and Mike Brown was a human wrecking ball Thursday night, hemming the Kings into their zone with a real physical forecheck. Meanwhile, the third unit of James Sheppard between Tomas Hertl and Tommy Wingels scored a big goal, the 2-0 marker late in the first period that broke the game open.
It just makes such a difference when every single game doesn't depend solely on the Joe Thornton and Logan Couture units to do everything offensively. Just look at the 2011 Bruins, 2012 Kings and 2013 Blackhawks to see the importance of third- and fourth-line units in terms of impact. It's a stronger area now for the Sharks.
"A focus organizationally to try to get deeper in those areas and be able to match up against other teams, regardless of how they play, whether it's a physical game, a skill game," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said Saturday. "We have some very good players that aren't in the lineup right now that, if the type of game changes, we feel real good about putting them in. Definitely a focus and a lot of work done in that area. Again, there's the big debate about Joe Pavelski, would he be better in the three-hole as far a centermen goes, but we like what we have now and we're still prepared to go to that if we have to."
Indeed, the reason McLellan has kept 41-goal man Pavelski on Thornton's left wing instead of dropping him to the No. 3 center spot, where he's been in the past, is because the coaching staff trusts how Sheppard has filled in there.
"It's been a lot of fun," Sheppard said Saturday. "We've had a lot of guys in situations where we're being scratched. It always sort of keeps us on our toes. It's not comfortable, per se, but you know when you can show up every night and get rewarded and contribute to the team, I started getting points and trying to play well defensively, getting great feedback and that's when you feel like you're getting something accomplished. That was huge for me."
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Pavelski spelled Sheppard a couple of times for defensive-zone faceoffs in Game 1, and that's something you're going to see throughout the series. There's also a chance still that Pavelski drops back down to that No. 3 role, perhaps for the road games in L.A., if the Sharks are worried about matchups. Case in point, Sheppard's line was on the ice for a pair of third-period goals against in Game 1.
"The first two periods, I thought we were really good," Wingels said Saturday. "The third period, not so much. We got scored on twice, which is unfortunate. We've looked at video, things we can improve on. As a line, you take pride in the guys you play with, you want to be on the plus side every night. Unfortunately, we weren't in Game 1, but we'll try to be in Game 2."
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Added Sheppard: "We have to be sound defensively. We had two bad goals against last game. We have to make sure we're not making mistakes, we have to be on the ball. We want to be a group that you can depend on both offensively and defensively. We just want to be intense."
In the first two periods Thursday, Sheppard's line was terrific, using its speed especially. Perhaps no greater proof of San Jose's improved depth up front is looking at who didn't play in Game 1. Veteran wingers Martin Havlat and Tyler Kennedy were both healthy scratches, while Adam Burish is injured. Those three players normally are regulars.
"You can look at the guys who aren't playing, I think we've got a good, deep group," Desjardins said. "Guys can jump in and out. That's the kind of team we have right now."
Bottom-six depth has been the trademark of the Kings the last few years. Now the Sharks feel as though they can answer that.