CHICAGO – In the midst of a dreadful team-wide scoring slump, with two goals or less in seven of the last eight games, the Sharks’ coaching staff has been shuffling and rearranging the forward lines much more than they’d probably like to lately.
On Tuesday in Nashville, one of the more notable changes was putting $5 million winger Marty Havlat on what would typically be labeled the fourth line.
Surprisingly, that line, which also consisted of center Adam Burish and TJ Galiardi (who has had trouble even staying in the lineup), generated a number of superb scoring chances. Havlat had a pair of glorious opportunities, but was stopped in the slot by Pekka Rinne six minutes into the game, and denied again on an open shot from the circle with about a minute left in the first period on a skillful set up by Galiardi. The Sharks lost, 1-0, in overtime.
Havlat skated more than 15 minutes against Nashville (including nearly four minutes of power play time), so calling his role a demotion might be a bit too harsh. Still, Havlat has just one point in his last nine games, and is one of the players that needs to produce much more than he has if the Sharks are going to end their six-game losing streak and ultimately challenge for the division crown.
Perhaps that’s why Havlat was the first player on the ice for Thursday’s practice at the United Center in Chicago, and stayed out for a good 10 minutes after all of his teammates were taking off their gear or already in the showers.
“I’m just a player, so I do whatever the coach tells me to do. I can’t control things,” Havlat said. “Whatever line I’m on, I’m just trying to do my best.”
Todd McLellan said: “Marty’s been in a lot of different situations this year. He’s played with [Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe], he found some chemistry with [Michal Handzus] for a while, and he gave the Galiardi-Burish line a skill level and a speed level. I thought that line was very effective in that game.”
McLellan responded rhetorically when asked if putting Havlat on the so-called fourth line was intended to send a message.
“Do you think they were our fourth line the other day? They didn’t play like it, and they were rewarded like they weren’t the fourth line, either,” he said, referring to the trio’s ice time.
Havlat said: “We created a lot of chances, actually. I think five-on-five, we created the most chances on the whole team, just couldn’t bury any of those. Gali gave me a couple great passes, and Rinne was great. As a line, I think we played really good, actually.”
Burish explained that the three players got together and agreed on how to approach the Nashville game.
“Everybody’s nervous and tight and upset with the way things are going, but what are you going to do? Are you going to be mad and sad and feel sorry for yourselves, or are you going to go out and have fun and play loose and play free? We kind of did that in the last game in Nashville,” Burish said. “We generated quite a bit.”
It’s expected that the line will stay together for the Sharks’ showdown with the 10-0-3 Blackhawks on Friday night.
The vacancy left by Havlat up top was filled on Tuesday by newcomer Tim Kennedy, who was playing in his first NHL game in more than a year. Kennedy, Worcester’s leading scorer at the time of his recall with 37 points in 37 AHL games, had two shots on goal in 15:33 of ice time while playing with Couture and Clowe.
Kennedy had the best chance of the night to beat Rinne, but was stopped midway through the first period on a point-blank attempt from the slot. Kennedy thought he had the goalie beat.
For a guy who just arrived and had never practiced with the Sharks, Kennedy’s effectiveness was one of the few positives in what ended up being San Jose’s sixth straight loss. An injury prevented Kennedy from attending Sharks training camp in January, further complicating the situation.
“It’s a huge opportunity to come up here, and just to get those kind of minutes with those kind of players is huge,” Kennedy said. “I just want to take advantage of it.”
The line remained together for Thursday’s practice.
“We’re going to give him every chance to come in and play,” McLellan said. “We watched him play a lot in Worcester in the beginning of the year, and he was a guy that we thought could help our team. We thought he could make us faster, and we thought he could take the skill level up and compete hard.”
“Maybe he takes someone’s job.”
That someone, at least for the time being, could be Scott Gomez, who seemed to be the odd man out on Thursday along with the injured Andrew Desjardins.
Gomez was scratched on Tuesday for what McLellan called a “combination” of health issues and “coach’s decision.”
“I wasn’t feeling all that great,” Gomez said. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow, I guess.”
The Sharks held a spirited skate on Thursday, ending it with a drill that involved everyone on the team taking a shootout attempt. If the player failed to convert on his opportunity, the entire team had to sprint from center ice to the top of the circles, and back again.
The result was plenty of skating.
“It’s a fun drill sometimes,” McLellan said. “It’s a lot more fun when you score some goals, and we didn’t score very many. It can be a fun drill, and we needed a good hard skate today, and we got that in.”
Couture said: “We know we have to score some more goals. It’s pretty clear.”