PHT Second Round Preview: 10 things to know about Golden Knights vs. Sharks

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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.

Schedule

Surging Players

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.

Struggling Players

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.

Goaltending

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.

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Special Teams

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.

Fancy Stats

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.

Injuries

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.

Prediction

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.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
10 things to know about Penguins vs. Capitals

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”