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San Jose coach Todd McLellan had his finger near the button since preseason, but for various reasons (injuries to depth players, mostly) he ignored the urge to press it until the Sharks went into a sleepwalk in the second period of a game in Nashville last month. Then, with his team trailing by three goals, McLellan took the nuclear option, putting Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau on the same line.
The fallout: In the first four full games after McLellan top-loaded his best forwards, the NHL-leading Sharks won three and those players combined for nine goals, 14 assists and a +4 rating. "Pretty potent," says Thornton, who had the first assist on the last five of Heatley's 18 goals. "We love playing together. We all see the ice relatively the same way. Guys jump into openings. It's been easy for us."
Powerhouse lines such as Montreal's Punch Line of the 1940s or the Islanders' Trio Grande in the '80s are tenuous today as twitchy coaches barely keep players together long enough to develop a rapport, let alone a nickname. This one should be the Jumbo Line, to honor the players' physical statures and Thornton's roots—the center hails from St. Thomas, Ont., where Jumbo, the famed circus elephant, died after being hit by a locomotive. Sort of the way the Flyers felt after a 6--3 loss in which the trio had four goals and four assists.
Like most coaches, McLellan usually builds lines around pairs, not threesomes. Last season he moved Marleau, a center, to Thornton's left wing. With the acquisition of Heatley from Ottawa in September, McLellan put him on Thornton's left flank and shifted Marleau to the second line. Now, with Marleau back as the top-line left wing, Heatley, a lefthanded shot, plays the right side, which he occasionally did early in his career in Atlanta. "Heater told me he actually likes this better," says Thornton, who at week's end led the NHL with 36 points. "I'm always going up the left side, and we're both big guys"—Thornton goes 6'4", 235, the same height and maybe 15 pounds heavier than his linemate—"so we ran into each other a lot. Now he has more room, and he can open up to shoot one-timers. Coaches generally don't play three guys like us together, but then you generally don't find three guys like us on a team."
There's no guarantee McLellan will keep going Dr. Strangelove on the NHL. (He broke up the line in a loss to Chicago last week but reunited them two days later in a win at Edmonton.) "It's their responsibility to stay together, not mine," he says. "If they keep producing and we get something from the second line"—Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi, when he returns from a leg injury—"then O.K."
For now, the experiment in excellence and excess continues. In Stanley Cup--starved San Jose, this is big. Jumbo, even.
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