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Sharks could move Pavelski down, to center

by Eric Gilmore

SAN JOSE -- San Jose Sharks forward Joe Pavelski was on the move Tuesday at practice, dropping from top-line wing to third-line center.

Where Pavelski winds up Thursday at SAP Center for Game 1 of the Sharks' first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the Los Angeles Kings is anyone's guess (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS2, FS-W, CSN-CA).

Pavelski led the Sharks with career highs of 41 goals and 79 points this season and spent most of his time at left wing on the top line with center Joe Thornton and right wing Brent Burns.

But now that rookie wing Tomas Hertl has returned from a knee injury that sidelined him for nearly four months, the Sharks are considering moving Pavelski back to third-line center and having Hertl take his spot on Thornton's line for the opener of the Western Conference First Round.

Moving Pavelski would make the Sharks stronger down the middle and better prepared to face a Kings team that has centers Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis.

"The debate isn’t a raving one in the coaches’ locker room," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "We feel equally comfortable going either way. The wild card is Tomas and making sure that he’s capable of handling minutes against the other team’s key players, and [Raffi Torres'] potential return to the lineup. A lot of that will dictate which way we’ll go."

Hertl had been sidelined since being injured against the Kings on Dec. 19 in a knee-on-knee hit from Los Angeles forward Dustin Brown. He returned to play the final two regular-season games.

"I think he’ll get better as we go along," McLellan said of Hertl. "Our measuring stick is the two games that he played at the end of the season, back-to-back with travel, in a different type of environment, where they didn’t mean much to the teams that competed in them. In those situations we were rolling four lines, so minutes were a little more evenly distributed. Now we’re going to enter the playoffs. The intensity goes up. Minutes aren’t necessary evenly distributed, and he has to be prepared for that."

Pavelski and Hertl switched lines during part of San Jose's regular-season finale against the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday.

"The other night in Phoenix, it was on the fly," Pavelski said. "You go on the fly, you're back in the middle. I feel like a centerman most of the time even when I'm on the wing. There's a few things to do, but preparation doesn't change much."

Sharks second-line center Logan Couture said playing center suits many of Pavelski's strengths.

"Through the middle of the ice I think he can use his head a lot more. He's a smart player," Couture said. "His hockey IQ is very high. We'll see where [Pavelski] ends up playing on Thursday. But if he's a winger we're confident, if he's a center we're confident in him."

Torres is recovering from a knee injury he sustained Sept. 20 in a preseason game against the Anaheim Ducks. He missed the first 59 regular-season games, played five of the next six, then missed the final 17.

"Today was a better day," Torres said after practice. "I feel like we're getting on the right track. So I feel good about that. It will probably be Thursday when we make a decision, but today was a better day for sure."

Torres has been skating on the fourth line, but if he's healthy enough to play Thursday, he'd be an option to play with Pavelski on the third line.

McLellan again declined to publicly name his starting goaltender, Antti Niemi or Alex Stalock, for Game 1 although he said he has made that decision.

"I hope they tell us tomorrow," Niemi said. "I approach it as if I would be playing anyways. I've got to be ready to go."

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