It was kind of a big news item when Coach Q announced he'd be toying with the various Avalanche line combinations. Ryan Smyth and Milan Hejduk would be "demoted" to playing with Paul Stastny. Hlinka would join a reunited Andrew Brunette and Joe Sakic on the first line. Marek Svatos, Tyler Arnason and Wojtek Wolski formed the third scoring combination.
The changes worked like a charm.
But until we understand the significance of the lineup changes (and changes made to the special teams), we need to analyze exactly who was on the ice when the Avalanche scored last night against the Sharks.
The first goal, at 15:18 in the first period, was scored on the power play by Joe Sakic. With him were Paul Stastny and John-Michael Liles (each had an assist), Ryan Smyth and Milan Hejduk. Four forwards and an offensive d-man.
The second goal was also scored on the PP, almost three minutes later, by Milan Hejduk. Sakic and Stastny assisted, and everyone else on the ice was the same as before. Four forwards and an offensive d-man.
Clearly the PP team Coach Q has assembled is effective. But what about even strength? Luckily, the Avalanche scored four goals at even strength, so there are good examples to explore.
The third Avalanche goal of the game was scored by Son Of Stastny. Hejduk and Jordan Leopold got the assists. With them were Ryan Smyth and Kurt Sauer, for one heck of a diverse combination. Leopold, Hejduk and Stastny are finesse players, while Smyth and Sauer are physical grinders.
Marek Svatos scored fourth for the Avalanche. Jeff Finger received the primary assist since he actually took the shot and Svatos only redirected it past Evgeni Nabokov. Tyler Arnason made the pass to Finger, and he received the other assist. With them on the ice was Finger's defensive partner Liles and Wojtek Wolski on the left wing.
Finally, the last Avalanche goal was scored by Ryan Smyth off a great setup by Paul Stastny down low around the net. With them was the top defensive pairing of Scott Hannan and Brett Clark along with the other second line forward, Milan Hejduk.
The top combination of Joe Sakic, Jaroslav Hlinka and Andrew Brunette failed to score as a line, and so did the grouping of Wyatt Smith, Ian Laperriere and Ben Guite (but only because a late whistle disallowed one). The fourth line was extremely physical all night, though, with Lappy and Guite making some big hits along the boards against the Sharks.
The big question mark, though, is why can't anyone score on a line with Joe Sakic at even strength? Hejduk and Smyth couldn't do it in the first two games, while Hlinka and Bruno couldn't do it in the third game. Sure, Super Joe had the goods on the PP, but something is still lacking. At this point it seems you could put Mark Rycroft with Paul Stastny and the former would score a hat trick every game. Sakic is not having that same effect on his linemates.
Coach Q is blessed with an easy job to a certain extent---plop anyone with Stastny and watch the scoreboard light up. But Quenneville will still need to get the Sakic line going if he expects the team to win throughout the season. Son Of Stastny is superb, but he'll no doubt hit a slump at some point this season---everyone does. The first line will have to step up.
It's still early, though, and there's plenty of time for Sakic and whoever plays next to him to find the chemistry they need. I have no doubt that will happen.