Sharks' evolving third line goes cold

Sharks' evolving third line goes cold
April 7, 2014, 1:45 pm
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That third group with Shep and whoever is playing with him – Tommy Wingels, or Matt Nieto, or whoever else is on that wing – has to elevate their game, and their level of play to make a difference.
Todd McLellan

Programming note: Watch Sharks-Ducks on Wednesday night at 7:30 on the NBC Sports Network.

SAN JOSE – Late in the game Saturday against the Nashville Predators, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan shortened his bench and shook up all but his top line, desperately seeking offense that never came in a 3-0 loss.

Riding the bench for the entire third period were fourth liners Mike Brown and Andrew Desjardins. Marty Havlat played less than three minutes, getting just three shifts in the final frame.

There was no indication on Monday as to what McLellan has in mind for his forward combinations headed into what could be a battle for first place in the Pacific Division on Wednesday in Anaheim, as the team did not practice. But, the Sharks will likely need more from their bottom six forwards in that game and once the playoffs start, in particular the third liners, whoever they may be.

[RELATED: Sharks enjoy mini-break before visiting Anaheim]

While James Sheppard and various wingers have been generally productive since the end of the Olympic break, in the last three games, they’ve been nearly invisible in the offensive end. Sheppard skated with Havlat and Tommy Wingels against Edmonton, then with Matt Nieto and Tyler Kennedy on Thursday vs. Los Angeles before things were all mixed up by the end of the Nashville game.

“That third group with Shep and whoever is playing with him – Tommy Wingels, or Matt Nieto, or whoever else is on that wing – has to elevate their game, and their level of play to make a difference,” McLellan said. “They don’t have to score every night, they don’t have to carry the team, but their minutes have to be difference-making minutes. I think they can be better in that area.”

Sheppard said: “We were going pretty well. I think that you can’t expect a top game like that every game. I don’t think our team had our best the last couple games, anyway.”

Sheppard is correct in that regard, and McLellan made mention of the team’s struggles as a whole, too. Furthermore, the Sharks are expected to get a boost once Raffi Torres returns, which could be as soon as Wednesday. Torres has shown the positive impact he has on the team in the five games he was able play, but it has yet to be seen if he can remain healthy from major knee surgery in September.

Sheppard’s second-half surge has been commendable, of course, especially considering the journey he’s taken in returning from a career-threatening knee injury, but it’s fair to wonder if McLellan might be considering moving Joe Pavelski back to the third line center role. Although Pavelski has found immense success on the Joe Thornton-Brent Burns line, other players like Nieto and Wingels have been able to produce in that spot when given a chance.

On Monday, Pavelski said he wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up back on the third line at some point, but spoke favorably of the team’s forward depth.

“We’ve been good over the course of time. In the last few weeks we could definitely be better, but you understand the games are ramped up and teams are fighting for their lives and a chance to play in the postseason,” Pavelski said.

“Everyone has to be better. Top line, third line, fourth line. There’s going to be changes in the lineup, so you’re not too worried about them until they happen.”

Perhaps it’s time to make that change.