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Sharks' challenge finding time for healthy D-men

By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Sharks' challenge finding time for healthy D-men
Working seven healthy defensemen into the lineup can be like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, but Sharks coach Todd McLellan is trying to make it work, splitting ice time between the young Jason Demers and the veteran Niclas Wallin.
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Sharks coach Todd McLellan is dealing with a blessing and a burden right now. He has seven serviceable defensemen at his disposal, and instead of making one of them a healthy scratch the past two games, he's used all of them.

There's a flexibility that comes from the return of Niclas Wallin, whom the Sharks acquired at the trade deadline from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for a draft pick. The rugged defender missed seven playoff games with a lower-body injury and only returned to the lineup for the Sharks' second-round clincher in Game 5 against the Red Wings. The Sharks used seven defensemen in that game and in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday.

The blessing comes from being able to use 21-year-old Jason Demers sparingly as a power-play specialist, a move that couldn't have worked out any better in Game 1 when the rookie scored his first career playoff goal during a first-period man-advantage. Demers logged just 8:32 of ice time against the Blackhawks, and 2:37 of it came with the man advantage.

But getting enough playing time to keep Demers and Wallin sharp can be a burden for those guys.

"He's obviously a force on the power play, but at the same time they want to get me back in," Wallin said of Demers on Monday. "I've been out for a couple of weeks. It is what it is. I don't really think about that. I really don't have a problem with it. Obviously you can sit a really long time in between shifts. We didn't really get on the PK, no penalties (in Game 1), so usually that gets you a couple of more shifts. I'm just happy playing the game."

Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Kent Huskins aren't seeing much -- if any -- of their playing time being diminished by the strategy. But for Wallin and Demers, the difference in ice time is huge.

Wallin averaged 16:22 of ice time during the regular season; he played just 10:15 in Game 1 against the Blackhawks. Demers was seeing 15:25 of ice time during his 51 regular-season games with the Sharks, almost twice as much playing time then he received in Game 1.

With the Blackhawks and Sharks so evenly matched, a rust-induced mistake could be the difference in a game or even the series.

"You got to find a way to stay sharp," Demers said. "For sure, now that we have Wally back, I get to play more of a power-play role, he spots me here and there. For sure it's tough to stay warm, but you have to find a way to stay sharp. I just try to keep moving a bit. Maybe between periods I walk around a little bit more, get the blood pumping. But the adrenaline's going in the playoffs, and that's enough to keep me warm."

For Wallin, who is 14 years older than Demers and has been averaging about 17 minutes of ice time the past two seasons, keeping focused and staying ready to play is more of a challenge.

"It's hard," Wallin admitted. "You just want to play hockey. I don't really have an answer for you. It's obviously easier to play if you're out there every second time, every third time. It is what it is. I think we're doing a pretty good job. If that's what (McLellan) wants to do, that's his decision and we'll go from there."

When McLellan dresses seven defensemen, he's only using 11 forwards. Dwight Helminen has been a scratch the last two games, leaving Scott Nichol and Jamie McGinn without a steady winger on their fourth line.

But picking up most of those shifts has been Patrick Marleau, who led all forwards in Game 1 with 19:18 of ice time. By putting the 44-goal scorer on the fourth line, McLellan gets one of his best players away from the opposition's top checkers and gives him more room to operate against lesser defenders.

"You're able to get out against different guys that way," Marleau said. "You're able to get a little more ice time. But we're pretty interchangeable out there. At one point, throughout the season or in the playoffs, we've played with each other. We know where everybody's going to be and what everybody's tendencies are."

For Nichol, it might be as close as he's going to come to centering a first line, and he thoroughly enjoys the change in dynamic of having Marleau on his wing.

"I really like it," Nichol said with a smile. "We get to play with a different winger. Everyone on our team is so skilled. It gives us a little more room out there. Especially the other fourth-line guys, they look and they see they're up against Patrick Marleau and they're on their heels a little bit."

Whether McLellan sticks with the strategy that has resulted in one win and one loss for Game 2 on Tuesday remains to be seen. But he said Monday he's still comfortable with using seven defensemen despite the loss in Game 1.

"Wallin is healthy enough to play. He's a very big body. He helps in that area a lot," McLellan said. "I thought the seven defensemen that competed for us (in Game 1) did a pretty admirable job. There wasn't one real weak link.
 
"If we do choose to go that way, we feel comfortable with it."

As long as Wallin and Demers don't get too comfortable while waiting to take a shift, the strategy should continue to work for the Sharks.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DLozoNHL



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