At some point you have to accept that even at his age, Joe Thornton is going to be able to push most teams around.
When he's paired with Joe Pavelski, one of the quietly dominant goalscorers in the league (thanks in no small part to his long partnership with Thornton) and Tomas Hertl, an emerging power forward with high-level skill, you can see where he'd become nigh unstoppable.
Thornton, Pavelski and Hertl have been excellent in this first-round series against Los Angeles, but well beyond the point at which they probably should be operating. They're all running north of 52 percent possession at 5-on-5, and together have outscored their opponents 3-1. This is to say nothing of their power-play prowess (Pavelski with two more goals on the man advantage), but it is incredibly rare that anyone gets one over on the Kings regardless of who they are and against whom they are matched up.
Combined they have four goals and two assists in about 45, and have generally dominated opponents at a level the Kings probably couldn't have dreamed of even knowing that this was one of the dominant lines in hockey this year. And when they've been off the ice, the Sharks have gone from dominant to basically what you'd expect almost any good team to look like against the Kings: more than a little ordinary.
Now, 50.6 percent possession when they're on the ice as a trio may not sound like a lot, but it's a huge improvement in terms of relative control of the puck, and what everyone in the league did against LA this year. For both the regular season and playoffs, the Kings held opponents to a stunning 43.8 percent corsi-for. The next-closest teams in the league (Pittsburgh and Dallas tied) were just 47.4 percent.
Of course, that number includes a lot of games against rotten teams, which the Sharks very obviously are not. In fact San Jose took seven of a possible 10 points from LA this season, with more goals (obviously), high-danger chances, shots on goal, and so on. So to some extent this play from the top line is just a continuation of that trend, though the rest of the team has clearly taken a step back.
But here's the crazy part: They've mostly gone head-to-head against Future Norris Winner Drew Doughty.
During the regular season, Peter DeBoer seemed to take extra care to keep his top line away from Drew Doughty. They only played about 14:35 against each other in their five previous meetings this year, and individually it was Pavelski who shouldered the brunt of the head-to-head matchups. Nearly as often, Pavelski/Thornton were up against guys like Brayden McNabb and Alec Martinez, which is obviously a net positive for your best scoring line, but also leaves poor Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture eating a lot of very difficult minutes.
Now, though, it seems like Doughty is there every time they come over the boards together, and vice-versa.
Unfortunately for the Kings, they've incinerated Doughty to an almost perverse extent. Even as the Kings are a team you typically do not out-possess, that's especially true of Doughty. Any and all Norris-related criticisms of his play relate back to his inability to score at a level decent enough to outweigh how overwhelming Erik Karlsson is in that regard. Doughty is a possession monster the likes of which we almost never see in this league.
But whatever DeBoer is doing to ensure that group gets out there against Doughty, it's working, and it's well-advised. Doughty would likely eat up even Marleau and Couture in much the same way he did in the regular season (head-to-head CF% of 54 and 62.1 percent, respectively, before the playoffs began). But against Thornton, Pavelski, and Hertl, all Doughty — or anyone else in the league for that matter, let's be honest — really seems to be able to do is hope he doesn't get scored upon, because he has no influence at all on their ability to control the puck.
It is mind-blowing to think that a coach with one of the world's top-three or -four defensemen is sitting there saying, “These guys pose a serious matchup problem for me.” Normally he can throw Doughty-and-whomever out there against just about any top line in the universe and rest assured he'll be taking something like a 55 percent edge in possession and goals-for to the bank.
But Drew Doughty, minus-3 in goals-for and way below break-even in shot attempts across four games? That's bananas. No one does that.
However, you also have to keep in mind that Sutter really hasn't done Doughty any favors in terms of deployment, either. His most common partner in these playoffs has been Brayden McNabb, and he's been perfectly fine alongside Doughty (53.6 percent overall), but after that? Doughty's been saddled with Rob Scuderi. While overall they're above-water (51.4 percent), you'll never guess what happened when Scuderi was out against Thornton et al.
Yeah, Pavelski has the worst possession number of the three, and he's still at more than 59 percent. Both Thornton and Hertl are in the high 60s. I mean, that's probably the most predictable outcome in hockey today, right? You put a guy who can barely skate at this point out against a line that bullied everyone all year, and it's going to be a bloodbath. But again, even away from Scuderi, Doughty is getting run over.
The irresistible force may have finally gotten one over on the immovable object here.
The problem for Sutter is this: He's used Doughty and Jake Muzzin together a little bit, but if you put them together against the Thornton line going forward (and frankly there might not be much left in the tank anyway, down 3-1), that likely exposes the depth defenders to a greater extent. The Sharks aren't scoring very much at all when that top line is off the ice but neither are the Kings — again, just 0.87 goals per 60 at 5-on-5 for both teams. Maybe you say it's time for the Kings' depth forwards to step up, and that's certainly true. It can't all run through Anze Kopitar.
But in the marquee matchup — Thornton line plus Brent Burns versus Kopitar line plus Doughty — there's already a clear and quite decisive winner. They're influencing the game enough that even a huge step forward for Los Angeles down the lineup might pull you even. If you're lucky. That's better than nothing, but that's also predicated on the supposition that even if the puck starts going in for your snakebitten depth, it won't do the same for San Jose's.
Maybe there's just nothing that can be done. Maybe you just have to accept that a team, for once, has a group that can do better at the thing you've done best in the league for five or six years.
It's not easy to do that, but it's clearly harder to stop Thornton and Co.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.
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