Logan Couture took a punishing hit up high from forward Zack Kassian in Game 2 of the Sharks’ Stanley Cup playoff series with the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night.
Later in the game, defenseman Kris Russell shoved him toward the end boards, face first. In Game 1, Couture received an elbow to the face from blue liner Eric Gryba.
With wires and plastic holding Couture’s mouth together, the Oilers are trying to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the Sharks’ alternate captain, delivering contact to his chin area whenever possible.
Nevertheless, Sharks coach Pete DeBoer downplayed the impact of the way the Oilers are targeting his wounded forward, insisting that it isn’t going to change how his team approaches Game 3 of the series, which is tied 1-1, at the SAP Center on Sunday night.
“That’s playoff hockey,” the Sharks coach said. “This isn’t the first team that’s tried to be physical on key guys. Logan Couture’s been targeted for physicality his whole life being the player he is.
“It’s not an issue.”
As a star player, Couture is used to facing chippy play, but he isn’t necessarily accustomed to taking contact to the face after having his mouth restructured. If it hurts Couture to simply eat and talk right now, one can only imagine what Kassian’s punishing blow felt like.
By the end of Game 2, Couture, who led the NHL in scoring during the 2016 playoffs, was visibly struggling, fumbling the puck and stumbling on his skates. He produced just one shot attempt in 19:11 of ice time. Although Couture is the Sharks’ best penalty killing forward, DeBoer kept him on the bench during two shorthanded situations in the latter stages of the third period.
But DeBoer said Couture’s struggles are unrelated to the physicality the Oilers are throwing his way. Instead, DeBoer sees the alternate captain’s sluggish play as a product of missing the final seven games of the regular season after he took a puck to the mouth on March 25.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the contact or punishment,” he said. “This guy played four rounds of tough playoff hockey last year in the Stanley Cup (playoffs). The reality is he missed the last three weeks of the season with a serious injury and he’s working his way back in. You’re seeing a little bit of rust, but he’s getting better every night.”
Couture wasn’t the only Sharks player who took a physical pounding in Game 2. The Oilers recorded 41 hits, 20 more than the Sharks, including Kassian’s heavy blow to defenseman Brenden Dillon’s head in the opening frame.
The Sharks could respond to the Oilers’ physicality by putting tough guy Micheal Haley into the lineup in Game 3. Haley led the Sharks in penalty minutes this season (128) and he participated in 16 fights, according to hockeyfights.com.
Haley’s presence would give the Sharks’ lineup more sandpaper while sending a message to the Oilers that any heavy contact on Couture will be met with a response.
In addition to protecting Couture, the Sharks will need to find a way to get their power play going in Game 3, especially if Joe Thornton misses his sixth consecutive game (three in the regular season) with a left knee injury.
One consequence of the Oilers’ physical play is that they have committed 12 minor penalties in two games. But the Sharks have failed to capitalize, going 1 for 12 (8.3 percent) on the power play while surrendering two shorthanded goals in Friday’s loss.
“You can’t overreact to that,” DeBoer said. “Our power play in our second game mimicked our five-on-five play: we weren’t hungry enough, we got outworked in a lot of areas. We’ve just got to get back at it.”