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Sharks need Vlasic matchup to slow Crosby

With last change, San Jose can put best defender on Penguins captain

by Amalie Benjamin @amaliebenjamin / Staff Writer

SAN JOSE -- Marc-Edouard Vlasic was dancing around the issue. All the matchups with the Pittsburgh Penguins are tough, he said. All of their lines are challenging, he said. It's not like the team is all Sidney Crosby and no one else, he said.

He cracked, though, when presented with the data. According to Left Wing Lock, Vlasic had been on the ice against the full Crosby line -- Conor Sheary, Crosby and Patric Hornqvist -- just 35.44 percent in Game 2 at even strength, and 22.35 percent in Game 1.

"That's not enough," Vlasic said. "Should be 90, 95 [percent], so 35 is too low. Too low."

He added, "That's 35 against all the lines, so I've played just as much. So there is no matchup there right now."

That, in one sense, is one of the key aspects of the return home for the San Jose Sharks for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). They will have last change. They can get the matchups they want. They can put Vlasic and defense partner Justin Braun on Crosby, getting their best on the Penguins' best.

"He's an elite player, he's one of the best," Vlasic said of Crosby. "I've always enjoyed playing against him. I'd like to play against him more. Maybe through the first two games I wasn't matched up as much as I'd like to against him. But hopefully Game 3 and 4 I can be."

Vlasic and Braun have been a significant weapon for the Sharks in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. They've shut down the top-scoring forward in series after series, starting with Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings, then Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators and Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues. Those three players combined for three goals and one assist against the Sharks in 18 games in the playoffs. And two of those goals came from Tarasenko when Game 6, the elimination game for the Blues, was already well in hand for the Sharks.

"He's huge," defenseman Paul Martin said of Vlasic. "That's been a big theme, how undervalued he is or how much attention he doesn't get. But I think as far as the top-end guys that he's been having assigned to, him and Brauner have been doing a great job against the top-end guys from the other team."

Video: A look at Crosby's early impact in Game 1

The next task was to be Crosby.

"Sidney Crosby does everything well," Vlasic said before the series began. "In the first three rounds, put all their top players together and that would be Crosby. It's going to be a lot harder but a lot more fun."

But it hasn't been that way so far, not in Pittsburgh, at least. Vlasic did not see nearly enough of his nemesis and the Penguins won each of the first two games to take a 2-0 series lead in the Final.

Of course, unlike most other teams, the Penguins boast three elite scoring lines, all of which need to be accounted for by the Sharks in the series.

"Crosby is a key guy, probably their best player through the first two games," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "They've given us matchup problems. Not just us, but other teams. When you have [Phil] Kessel, Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin on three different lines, I mean, all three of those guys make more than anybody on our team. That's matchup problems for everybody all playoffs."

Still, the goal remains: Vlasic (and Braun) on Crosby.

As Vlasic said before Game 1, "In the past, every time Crosby's played against the San Jose Sharks, I've been on the ice. And in junior, as well."

It's a matchup that goes back a long way, back to when Vlasic played for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Crosby played for the Rimouski Oceanic in 2003-04 and 2004-05. That was when Vlasic first started learning Crosby, first started getting his tactics and skills and tendencies down.

"He works hard," Vlasic said. "He works harder than anybody I've played against. Strong, probably a better backhand than a forehand. So you steer him to the way you want, it's probably the way he wants you to steer him to."

For Vlasic, against Crosby, it's about taking away his time and space, giving him as little as possible. It's about making him uncomfortable, if that ever happens to him. As Vlasic said, "If you're in his face all the time, bump him, gap up on him, it's not necessarily going to frustrate him. But he's going to know you're there and he won't be able to make plays. Which, if he does, he'll make you look silly."

So far in this series, the Penguins have been doing that too much to the Sharks: Making them look silly. They have dominated San Jose for the most part in each of the first two games of the series, been too good and too fast for the Sharks to slow down.

Now the last change goes to the Sharks. Now they get a chance, hopefully, to play the matchups they want, their top defenders against the top of the line for the Penguins. More than 35 percent of the time. More than 50 percent of the time. More than, perhaps, 90 percent of the time.

"I enjoy playing against the best," Vlasic said, simply, "and he's one of the best."

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