Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the San Jose Sharks defenceman, is not a guy one would mistake for Zdeno Chara, the towering force on the Boston Bruins defence. But Vlasic, like Chara two years ago, is performing a crucial task that is central in beating the Vancouver Canucks: shutting down the Sedins.
In June, 2011, when the Canucks choked in the Stanley Cup final – and the Sedins together generated just two goals and three assists – it was Chara who was the Bruins shutdown defenceman on the Swedish twins. Back then, they were in their absolute prime, with Daniel having just won the scoring title, and Chara's work was essential to the Boston victory. According to numbers crunched by nicetimeonice.com, Chara – and defensive partner Dennis Seidenberg – were heavily matched against the Sedins, defending against them for roughly two-thirds of the even-strength minutes for which the Sedins were on the ice.
This spring, Vlasic in the role of Chara. It is quiet, unsung work that has helped push the Canucks to the brink of humiliation, a first-round sweep, and the first team ejected from the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Even as Vlasic goes about his work, so successfully, he is barely even mentioned in the press, so perhaps not many people know his nickname is Pickles, so dubbed after the Vlasic brand of pickles.
Vlasic is a 26-year-old from Montreal, 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. He is not a particularly remarkable player. His Wikipedia page is just four paragraphs long. But he is the type of quiet defensive stalwart who helps win playoff series and has played his entire career in San Jose. He was picked 35th overall, in the second round in 2005, and a year later was in the National Hockey League. Perhaps the most obviously remarkable things about Vlasic is that he rarely misses a game (just 21 over seven seasons), and he is hardly ever penalized (204 minutes in 517 regular season games and in the playoffs even more amazing, 14 minutes in 71 games). He gets big-time D work done without resorting the hooks and holds – a credit to his positioning on the ice, rarely a step behind or out of place.
San Jose coach Todd McLellan has deployed Vlasic (who is mostly partnered with Justin Braun) against the Sedins even more aggressively than Chara was matched against the twins, with Vlasic playing more than 80 per cent of even-strength minutes when Henrik is on the ice. In Game 3, Vlasic was on the ice for about 13 minutes of Henrik's 15 minutes of even-strength time.
This is a strategy that McLellan employed through the regular season's three head-on-head matches, all of which were won by San Jose, and in which the Sedins only produced two points, a goal by Daniel on an assist from Henrik in a 3-2 Sharks win in Vancouver in early March.
Vlasic's role in neutralizing the Sedins is clear in how little play the 32-year-old twins have been able to drive, particularly in Games 1 and 3. Vlasic is especially strong getting the puck out of the zone, so if there is one shot, it doesn't become a crush of pressure. And as Vlasic gets the puck out of the San Jose zone, he helps push play offensively for the Sharks. This was clear in Game 1 in particular. Henrik's fenwick rating was two, meaning that he was on the ice at even-strength for just two more shots at the San Jose net (on target or missed) than were fired at Roberto Luongo. This is not what one wants from a first line comprised of recent(ish) back-to-back Art Ross Trophy winners.
Lastly, the Chara method – employ one man whose sole duty is to shut down the Sedins – is not necessarily the only way to overcome the Swedes in the playoffs. Last spring, against the Los Angeles Kings, coach Darryl Sutter used a mishmash approach. A couple games it was somewhat on Drew Doughty's shoulders, a couple others it was Willie Mitchell's work, and one game was a pretty even deployment of defensive pairings.
All in, in the past three playoff series Vancouver has played, the result has been the same: the hitherto high-scoring Sedins not really scoring at all.