McLellan Reunites the Big Three
Heatley, Marleau and Thornton produce the game winning goal
That warning siren is now a sound of joy.
The trio played together on the power play during the first two periods of Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals against Detroit. They were reunited for good in the third period and played a major role in San Jose’s 4-3 win.
“It was nice,” Marc-Edouard Vlasic said about seeing the three return as a line. “All three of them created chances offensively. They played well defensively as well and that’s why they’re our best players.”
On the night, the threesome combined for a goal (Thornton’s tie-breaking and game-winning goal at 12:37 of the third period) and five assists (four coming on the power play). Each of them played no less than almost 23 minutes each (Marleau’s 22:36 was the most for any San Jose forward). They tallied 16 shots between them (Heatley and Thornton each had six). And Marleau, who missed Game One because of illness, had three hits and four takeaways.
The Sharks were down 3-2 entering the third period and that’s when Head Coach Todd McLellan decided to reunite the three Canadian Olympians.
“I did it because I had a gut feeling that it was time to put them back together,” McLellan said. “They played a lot all year when we needed big goals and they got them for us. There was a lot of talk about them being shutout in the first round. I thought by putting them back together in the third period that it would be a big challenge for them. We were down one and they came through.”
“It’s always nice to play with those two guys,” Heatley said. “Todd has mixed and matched a lot of guys this season, depending on situations and injuries. We’re comfortable playing with anybody. It’s definitely nice to play with those two guys.”
Thornton’s goal came at very opportune time. With the score tied at three, Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom broke his stick in the San Jose end while attempting a slap shot near the blue line. Heatley took off with the puck with Thornton trailing and fired a wrist shot on Jimmy Howard. The goaltender made the save, but the rebound caromed onto Thornton’s stick. Thornton saw the open net and put the puck past Howard.
“I didn’t know if it was a three-on-one or two-on-one,” Thornton said. “I thought Dany was going to pass it to me at the start.
“It’s nice,” Thornton added about getting the game-winner. “I’m usually passing to Dany or Patty. I like to be the set-up man. But tonight, I stood in front of the net and banged one home. It felt pretty good.”
Yes, Thornton was among the National Hockey League’s top-10 in scoring and finished second in assists during the regular season. And yes, Thornton’s name won’t be found among the playoff scoring or assist leaders. But that’s not important to McLellan.
“If you purely evaluate his play solely on goals and assists, you’re very mistaken,” McLellan said. “He has to contribute in the faceoff circle. We ask him to do that night-in-and-night-out. He has to play against Pavel Datsyuk, which isn’t an easy task and to be responsible defensively. We ask him to penalty kill. We ask him to keep his shifts short and to not turn over the puck. For the most part in the first two games, he’s done an admirable job.”
Speaking of admirable jobs, the No. 1 line certainly did theirs on Sunday night.
“When you get everyone going,” Heatley said, “It’s tough to stop.”
When any team plays Detroit in the playoffs, or in the regular season, there’s always the task of trying to stop the human wall, AKA Tomas Holmstrom, from causing his usual havoc in front of the opposing goaltender.
Two of Detroit’s three goals on Sunday night came directly and indirectly via Holmstrom. He scored on a redirection from in front of the net at 13:17 of the first period on the power play. That tally tied the score at 2-2. Holmstrom’s screen of Evgeni Nabokov on Lidstrom’s goal early in the second period gave Detroit a temporary 3-2 lead.
So one of the questions in the Sharks locker room after the game was: How do you keep the 6-foot, 198-pounder from doing what he does best: screening the opposing goaltender?
“That’s how he makes his living,” Rob Blake said. “He’s the best in the League at doing that and he’s going to continue doing that. He knows that’s the spot where he goes to get rewarded and Detroit knows they have to get pucks there.”
But is there some secret to neutralizing Holmstrom, who has won four Stanley Cups with Detroit?
“He likes it when you wrestle with him,” Vlasic said. “You have to be loose on him, stand beside him and let him do what he does. When the puck comes, you lift his stick and clear the puck. He likes it when guys try to tie him up. That’s when he’s at his best.”