Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the better part of seven months, you know that the Vegas Golden Knights have been the surprise of the 2017-18 season. Will this incredible run continue or will they run out of steam against the San Jose Sharks?
Despite the Golden Knights’ incredible season, many picked them to bow out in the first round against the Kings. Yeah, big mistake. Not only did Vegas beat Los Angeles, they swept them in four games. That’s not to say that their first playoff series in franchise history was easy, but it went as well as anyone could have expected.
Of the 19 different skaters they used in the opening round, 13 picked up at least one point. That’s some impressive depth scoring for a team that should have been picking leftovers from the other 30 organizations during the expansion draft. If this season has taught us anything, it’s that the Golden Knights aren’t your typical expansion team.
As for the Sharks, they seemed to fly under the radar as much as any team that swept their first-round opponent can. Two of their games against the Anaheim Ducks were decided by one goal, but they also beat them 3-0 in Game 1 and they smoked them 8-1 in Game 3.
Five Sharks finished the first round on a point-per-game pace. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski each had five points, while Evander Kane, Marcus Sorensen and Tomas Hertl each had four points in four games. 15 different Sharks registered at least one point in the last series.
Many hockey fans expected the Sharks’ window to be closed by now, but they’ve found a way to be more than relevant so far this postseason. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau aren’t leading the charge anymore, so it’s up to the current cast to take this team as far as they can go.
Golden Knights: No player surged more for the Golden Knights than Marc-Andre Fleury. He was terrific against the Kings, as he allowed just three goals in four contests. The 33-year-old enters the second round with a stellar 0.65 goals-against-average and a .977 save percentage.
Reilly Smith was the only player on the team to pick up three points in Round 1. They were all assists and they each came in the last three games of the series. The 27-year-old registered the primary helper on Braden McNabb’s series-clinching goal in Game 4.
Sharks: Where to begin? Couture collected all five of his points in Games 2 and 3 of the series against the Ducks. He’s going to be counted on to play key minutes in the second round, so he’ll have to continue being productive if Sharks are going to be able to put the puck in the net.
Pavelski, who also had five points, picked up at least one in each game except Game 4. The 33-year-old had ups and downs through the regular season, but he seems to have found another gear in the playoffs.
Kane proved to be a lethal acquisition at the trade deadline. The 26-year-old has been the perfect for the Sharks, and it hasn’t even taken him long to find chemistry with his new teammates. He’s playing so well that the odds of him signing an extension in San Jose seem to be entirely possible.
As for Sorensen, he was the biggest surprise for the Sharks in the opening round. He had five goals in 32 games during the regular season, but he found the back of the net three times in four games against Anaheim. Can he keep it going?
And we have to mention Martin Jones, who was just as good as Fleury in Round 1. Jones gave up just four goals in four games. Yeah, goals might be hard to come by in this series.
Golden Knights: Golden Knights GM George McPhee gave up some key draft picks to get Tomas Tatar from Detroit, and he simply hasn’t lived up to expectations. Tatar was a healthy scratch in the final two games of their first-round series and he failed to pick up any points in the first two. They clearly need more from their prized acquisition.
Sharks: Suggesting that Brent Burns struggled in the first round is a little silly, but it’s surprising to see that eight of his teammates finished with more points than he did. Burns has a goal and an assist in the playoffs, which is nothing to scoff at. He has the ability to produce a little more though.
Golden Knights: As we’ve mentioned a couple of times already, Fleury has been a monster in the postseason so far. He came up with big save, after big save against the Kings and he’s fully capable of doing that again against the Sharks. San Jose is a lot more dynamic offensively, so the upcoming challenge will be different for Fleury, but he just seems to be so focused and so steady. If the Golden Knights come up short in this series, it probably won’t be because of bad goaltending.
Sharks: The matchup between Jones and Fleury should be incredible to watch. What Jones accomplished in the first round was as impressive as anything any other goaltender did this postseason. Even though the Sharks lost in the first round last year, he still posted some impressive individual numbers. He’s clearly comfortable when the chips are down.
Golden Knights: Vegas’ strength this postseason has been their penalty kill. They’re killing off opposing power plays at a 92.3 percent clip. During the regular season, they ranked 12th in the league at 81.4 percent. Obviously, the numbers are much better in the playoffs, but the sample size is smaller. Still, they’ve been running an affective PK unit all year.
The man-advantage is a different story. The Golden Knights’ power play operated at just 8.3 percent in the first round. Only their opponent, the Kings, had a worse percentage on the power play. They had the 11th best power play unit during the regular season.
Sharks: San Jose had a middle-of-the-pack power play unit during the regular season (they ranked 16th in the NHL), but they’ve hit their stride this postseason, as they clicked at 30 percent in Round 1. Only the Capitals and Bruins were better. The matchup between San Jose’s red-hot power play and Vegas’ stingy penalty kill will be something to keep an eye on.
Their penalty kill ranked eighth of all the teams in the first round at 83.3 percent. That’s a little surprising considering the Sharks had the second best PK in the league in 2017-18.
Golden Knights: Young blue liner Shea Theodore had the best possession stats of any player on the Golden Knights’ roster, as he finished the first round with a CF% of 61.96 percent. Not bad for a guy the Ducks traded away so that they could protect additional players in the expansion draft.
Believe it or not, only Theodore, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson had a better CF% than Tatar, who we already mentioned was scratched in the last two games. Clearly, possession isn’t everything to head coach Gerard Gallant. In fairness, the fact that Tatar started in the offensive zone 65 percent of the time helped boost his Corsi rating.
As a team, the Golden Knights had the fifth best CF% (52.91) behind Winnipeg, Nashville, Tampa and Anaheim. They also ranked fifth in FF%. Their PDO was third in the league at 1.047. More often than not, that number comes back down to 1.000, but Fleury’s incredible save percentage contributed to it being that high.
Sharks: Surprisingly, the Sharks possession numbers weren’t very good in the first round. As we mentioned above, the Ducks had a good CF%, which means the Sharks were lacking in that department. In the end, they controlled less than 50 percent of the shot attempts (46.7 percent). Well, whatever works for you. San Jose and Anaheim also finished 50-50 when it came to high-danger CF%.
On an individual basis, Sorensen led the way for the Sharks with a CF% of 63.64. Again, he was the team’s biggest surprise in the first round. He got shot attempts off and he found the back of the net a lot more regularly than he did during the regular season.
As for Burns, Couturier, Pavelski and Kane, they all found themselves below the 50 percent mark. That’s surprising considering how good the team looked in the opening round.
Golden Knights: Vegas is relatively healthy heading into their second-round series against the Sharks. David Perron, who missed two games against Los Angeles, returned before the end of the series. Meanwhile, defenseman Luca Sbisa has been out since early March with an undisclosed injury.
Sharks: Thornton (right MCL) is the biggest name that’s been banged up for the Sharks. He took the pre-game warmup prior to a first-round game, but he didn’t suit up. It’s unclear when he’ll be able to return to the lineup. Barclay Goodrow and Joakim Ryan are depth players that are also banged up right now. Thornton and Ryan are considered day-to-day, while Goodrow (upper body) is done for the season.
X-Factor for Golden Knights
Golden Knights: For the Golden Knights to win this thing, Fleury will have to play like he did in the first round. That’s not to say that the guys in front of him aren’t good to get the job done, but facing the Kings’ attack and the Sharks’ attack are completely different things. The Sharks can come at you with strong skilled players and their depth guys showed that they can chip in as well if they have to.
X-Factor for Sharks
Sharks: It’s gotta be Burns. If he can start taking over games (especially offensively), he’ll add a different dimension to the Sharks’ offense that they didn’t necessarily have in the opening round. He led the team in scoring during the regular season, and he clearly has the ability to change a game and a series if he wants to.
Golden Knights in 7: I find the Sharks haven’t received enough love from the hockey community for what they accomplished so far. But in saying that, I still don’t think the Golden Knights’ run ends in the second round. They came up with just enough offense to sweep the Kings, but I think their group of forwards can do even more. Now that they have one round under their belts, I expect them to come out and be a little more comfortable than they’ve been around the net. Yes, Jonathan Quick had a lot to do with their limited offense in Round 1 and Jones won’t be an easy goalie to solve, but I think they’ll do just enough to win the series in seven games.