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Stanley Cup Final

Sharks struggling with Penguins' offensive depth

San Jose defenseman Vlasic says there's 'no ideal matchup' against Crosby, Malkin, Kessel

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic was listing the many matchup problems the Pittsburgh Penguins present, and it was easy to understand the headache this Stanley Cup Final has been for the San Jose Sharks when picking their poison with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Phil Kessel on the ice one shift after another.

"You look at the last game and Malkin was on fire, Kessel was on fire and they're not even on the same line," Vlasic said Wednesday. "So, it's every game one of those three lines. Even the fourth line was dangerous, too."

That depth is probably the biggest reason the Penguins hold a 3-1 series lead and have a chance to clinch the Stanley Cup in Game 5 at Consol Energy Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). After being shut out in the first three games, Malkin had a goal and an assist in the Penguins' 3-1 victory in Game 4 on Monday. Kessel continued his strong run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with two assists in that game.

With the season on the line, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer is probably tempted to shorten his bench and rely more heavily on his top four defensemen -- Vlasic, Justin Braun, Brent Burns and Paul Martin -- to try to neutralize the Penguins' forward depth. DeBoer has done that a little up front, going with mostly three lines later in the past two games when the Sharks were trailing and needed offense.

Video: Peter DeBoer speaks with media

But with everyone well rested following two off days, DeBoer said he doesn't plan to change much as far as player deployment for Game 5.

"We're going to dance with the girl we brought to the dance," DeBoer said. "This is our group. We're going to go out there and play."

That means rolling the six defensemen like he has throughout the playoffs. That's why Vlasic, who is one of the better shutdown defensemen in the League, is averaging 23:25 of ice time per game, 29th among defensemen in the playoffs. Burns is 20th in the League and first on the Sharks at 25:18, but that's well behind the Penguins' Kris Letang, who averages 28:50 per game (fourth in the NHL).

"You keep rolling your players that are playing," Vlasic said. "For example, Brent and I are not even above 25 (minutes per game), and that's rare in the playoffs. So, it's a good thing that we have six D we can rely on to keep everybody fresh."

The impact the defensive matchups can have was evident in the two games in San Jose. The Sharks were able to utilize the last change on home ice by matching Vlasic and, mostly, Braun against Crosby, who was relatively quiet after being perhaps the best Penguins player in the first two games in Pittsburgh. Back at home for Game 5, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan will be able to get Crosby away from that matchup if he wishes.

To hear Vlasic talk, it might not matter from the Sharks' perspective.

"There's no ideal matchup," Vlasic said. "You concentrate on Crosby too much and then Malkin explodes, Kessel explodes. You concentrate on those two guys and then Crosby is going to do damage. When you get this far in the playoffs, depth is what gets teams here and they have really good depth."

Video: Sharks looking for First Lead in SCF

The Sharks believe they also have really good depth, but it has yet to play out for them in the Cup Final. Their goals have come from Braun (two), Joel Ward, Joonas Donksoi, Patrick Marleau, Tomas Hertl (injured the past two games) and Melker Karlsson. That means no goals from Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture or Burns, who had 27 during the regular season.

At the other end, the Penguins have exploited the Sharks' third defense pair of Brenden Dillon, who has been on the ice for four even-strength goals against, and Roman Polak, who has been on for three. After Dillon and Polak were on the ice for the Penguins' first goal of Game 4, scored by defenseman Ian Cole, DeBoer limited their ice time for the remainder of the first period, but he went back to giving them regular shifts in the second and sounded intent on continuing to do that in Game 5.

A discussion Wednesday about whether he should play more seemed to intrigue Vlasic, but he didn't sound as if he expected it to happen.

"We'll see," he said. "It depends (on) power play, penalty kill. But we can rely on all six of us. All six [defensemen] have been doing a really good job throughout the playoffs, so whoever he throws out there we have confidence in whoever is out there."

Regardless, Vlasic acknowledged the Sharks' troubles have been more about "execution" rather than strategy and use of personnel.

"Don't change anything," he said. "Keep getting pucks to the net. Get traffic, more O-zone time. Get in front of [goaltender Matt Murray] and, hopefully, a bounce will go in."

Although the Sharks trail 3-1 in the series, they believe they have played better with each game, and there is some evidence to back that up. After allowing 40-plus shots on goal in two of the first three games, they limited the Penguins to 20 in Game 4.

Two of the Sharks' three losses have been by one goal, and Game 4 was a one-goal game until Eric Fehr sealed it for the Penguins by scoring with 2:02 remaining.

"I think it's closer than it feels and we've got to give ourselves an opportunity that if they stumble, we're going to jump on it," DeBoer said. "The one thing about our group is there's a lot of belief in our game and in each other. The other thing about our group is they've been on the other side, up 3-0, [and] saw how quickly that vanished against [the Los Angeles Kings in 2014]. We have some guys that vividly remember that. They know how quickly a win can turn the momentum."

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