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Sharks' top line stymied by a bevy of Blackhawks

by Dave Lozo /
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- You have to get up pretty early in the morning if you want to stop Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. And thanks to a noon start Pacific Time, the Chicago Blackhawks were able to do just that.

The only production the Sharks' top line could boast was Marleau's power-play assist in the first period. The unit was a combined minus-6 and only had eight shots as the Sharks suffered a 2-1 loss to the Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.

Besides the lack of offensive production, the line that was good enough to play together for Team Canada at this year's Olympics was on the ice for both Blackhawks goals, including Dustin Byfuglien's game-winner with 6:45 left in the third period. Jonathan Toews beat Thornton clean on the faceoff, and it led to Patrick Kane feeding a wide-open Byfuglien in the high slot.

Thornton, Marleau and Heatley generated their fair share of scoring chances at even strength, but the problem was the inability to finish any of them.

"They had opportunities," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "They produced a power-play goal for us, which was important against a very good penalty-kill team. I think what you're probably asking me is the fact that they were on the ice for two goals against, and got nothing five-on-five. That happens sometimes.

"I didn't think they were poor. I thought they gave us 22 hard minutes. But with that said, I think we'll need a little bit more heading into Game 2."

Marleau and Heatley had the line's two best chances at even strength.

Early in the second period with the Sharks ahead 1-0, Thornton won a race to negate an icing and gathered the loose puck. He slipped a pass in front to Marleau, but he was denied by the catching glove of Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi, who made a career-high 44 saves.

"The one to Patty, that's a game-changer right there," Thornton said.

With 15:58 left in the third period and the game still tied at 1-1, Marleau fed Heatley for a one-timer at the top of the left circle, but Niemi made a beauty of right pad save.

"Maybe we tried to make a few too many plays in the second," Heatley said. "We know what works. Get pucks behind their D and we'll get back to that next game."

The credit for shutting down a team's top line usually goes to Blackhawks checkers Dave Bolland, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd, who did a marvelous job of shutting down the Sedin twins in the series against Vancouver.

But on Sunday, the Sharks' top line saw time against every Blackhawks line. The only constants were defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Early in the first period, Thornton had a golden chance to slide a rebound into an empty net, but Seabrook delivered a big hit to prevent the goal.

"I think we played against pretty much everyone," Heatley said. "I don't know what match they want. We were just mixing and matching all game. We just have to play our game."

"You have to talk to coach about that," Marleau said of the line matchups. "We just go out and we're aware of who we're playing against. You have to do the job defensively, especially against the Toews-Kane line, but the other guys we're out there against we have to play offensively."
McLellan said he's comfortable throwing his top line out there against anyone.

"We just go out and we're aware of who were playing against. You have to do the job defensively, especially against the Toews-Kane line, but the other guys we're out there against we have to play offensively."
-- Patrick Marleau

"Absolutely. Joe has been put in that situation all year," McLellan said of his top line facing the Blackhawks' top line. "We played our big players against the other team's top lines. They've been very successful. So I feel very comfortable with them on the ice in that situation.

"It was an interesting night as far as matches went. I thought (Blackhawks coach) Joel (Quenneville) worked very hard to get his checking line out. We tried to counter it a little bit. We can get our big boys on the ice, sometimes against our fourth line. There were times we got what we wanted. We didn't quite find a way to finish."

That was the problem. Thornton, Marleau and Heatley were good Sunday, but not great. And in the Western Conference Final, good but not great isn't going to cut it, and they know it.

"We had our chances. We just have to capitalize," Thornton said. "We got to make our shots count next game.

"We created some chances, but we definitely have to be better in Game 2."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DLozoNHL

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