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PHT’s 2018-19 Pacific Division Preview

(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

• Atlantic Division Preview
• Metropolitan Division Preview
• Central Division Preview

At the start of the 2017-18 season there was an expectation that the Western Conference representative in the Stanley Cup Final would come from the Pacific Division. The oddsmakers, misguided as it may have turned out to be in hindsight, believed it would be the Edmonton Oilers, and that the expansion Vegas Golden Knights would be one of the league’s worst teams.

Not exactly how it all played out.

Once the games started getting played the Oilers turned out to be a season-long mess and disappointment, while the Golden Knights came out of nowhere, rolled to a division title, and then won the Western Conference before losing to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Following an unexpected season on the ice, there was a ton of significant roster movement within the division with San Jose, Vegas, Los Angeles, Calgary and Arizona all making significant changes to their roster.

Who ended up getting better and who ended up getting worse? Let us take a look around the Pacific Division as we continue our PHT Divisional previews.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

Better or Worse: Nobody stays the same in professional sports; you’re either doing something to get better or you’re doing something to get worse. And by not really doing anything to get better over the summer it makes me want to say the Ducks might be a little worse, especially given everything that happened around them in the division this summer where San Jose, Vegas, and Los Angeles all made big moves to strengthen their team. Still a good team, but not really much better than they were.

Strengths: The Ducks’ strength is definitely on the back end where they have Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson leading the defense, and then have the duo of John Gibson and Ryan Miller in net. When healthy Gibson is one of the best goalies in the league and Miller was outstanding last year as a backup when needed.

Weaknesses: Corey Perry‘s injury is going to be a major blow to a team that was already lacking in offense. They are going to need Ondrej Kase to take a big step in his development and get a little more out of Jakob Silfverberg to make up for it. 

2017-18 Highlight: Crushed by injuries down the middle the Ducks addressed it by trading Sami Vatanen to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Henrique. A few weeks after the trade Henrique scored one of the best goals of the NHL season against his former team when he did this.

MVP Candidate: Ryan Getzlaf may be entering his age 33 season but he is still an impact player and top-line center. He has scored at a point-per-game level the past two years and still makes everyone around him better.

Playoffs or Lottery: Even with the injury to Perry this is still probably a playoff team — especially in this division — but one that may be behind San Jose and Vegas within the the division.

ARIZONA COYOTES 

Better or Worse: They will be much better. They showed huge improvement in the second half of the 2017-18 season  just by having a healthy Antti Raanta in the lineup, and then they went and added Alex Galchenyuk and Michael Grabner over the summer. I also still have high hopes for Dylan Strome to be an impact player and they will also be getting a full season Jakob Chychrun on defense.

Strengths: Thanks to the additions of Derek Stepan and Alex Galchenyuk over the past year the Coyotes have a pretty decent 1-2 punch at center. Combine them with the potential of Dylan Strome, the presence of Oliver Ekman-Larsson on defense, and Raanta in net and they have a nice foundation down the middle to build from.

Weaknesses: Depth is probably the big one, and it is not just related to any one position. It is almost everywhere except for maybe center. Depth on the wings, depth on the blue line, depth in goal. The talent at the top of the lineup is intriguing and very good, but there just is not enough to complement them just yet.

2017-18 Highlight: Once they got him in the lineup Raanta was everything the Coyotes could have hoped for him to be, and his highlight of the year was this post-to-post glove save against the Montreal Canadiens.

MVP Candidate: It is probably going to have to be the Raanta show for the Coyotes this season. How much of an impact did he make on the Coyotes a year ago? In the games where he earned a decision they played at a 90-point pace (21-17-6). In the games where he didn’t? They played at a 47-point pace. A lot of their problems in the overall standings came from that brutal 1-12-1 start, a stretch where Raanta only played two full games.

Playoffs or Lottery: They will be much better and there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful about where this team can go and what it can be in the future but they still have a little more work to do before they get there. It will be another lottery season, but they will be at the back end of the lottery as opposed to the top of it.

CALGARY FLAMES 

Better or Worse: James Neal is a nice addition, but is he enough to make the team better than it was last year, when it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs? Something to keep in mind here: Neal scored 25 goals and finished with 44 total points in 71 games for Vegas a season ago. He is their big offseason addition. Micheal Ferland, who was included by the Flames in the trade that sent their best defenseman, Dougie Hamilton, to the Carolina Hurricanes, scored 21 goals and finished with 41 points in 77 games. Add in the fact you lost your best defender and it’s hard to see how the roster is better.

Strengths: For all of the things that went wrong for this team a year ago they do have three outstanding young players to build around in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk. All three of them are age 25 or younger and were all among the team’s top-three scorers a year ago.

Weaknesses: It is an extremely top-heavy team offensively, and while Neal might help he is probably not enough of a difference maker to take them from 26th in goals scored to the level they need to be at offensively to contend. The defense without Hamilton is also going to be a question mark because T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic both struggled last season, while Mark Giordano is another year older.

2017-18 Highlight: This is a weird one, but their 2-0 win in Anaheim at the start of the season snapped what had been a 25-game losing streak at the Honda Center that dated all the way back to the 2004 season. That is a remarkable losing streak in one building.

MVP Candidate: How can it be anybody other than Gaudreau? He is one of the best offensive players in the league and is coming off of a monster season that saw him record 60 assists and 84 total points. He is also entering his age 25 season, typically the year players hit their peak offensive production in their careers.

Playoffs or Lottery: They were 11 points out of a wild card spot (and 16 points back of a top-three spot in the Pacific Division) and I don’t see enough improvement here to make up that much ground. They are a lottery team.

EDMONTON OILERS 

Better or Worse: They could really go either way here. If the fix the special teams units that ruined their 2017-18 season they should be better, especially if Oscar Klefbom is healthy and returns to form. But they didn’t really make any meaningful additions to a team that missed the playoffs by 17 points.

Strengths: They have Connor McDavid. Period.

Weaknesses: Perhaps the best way to put this would be to reference you to a story from the Edmonton Journal over the weekend that looked at the players on the roster bubble in training camp and point out the fact that every single player listed at right wing is listed as being on the bubble. My goodness, that is bleak. Also bleak: The defense. And the goaltending. And basically everything that is not Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

2017-18 Highlight: This assist by McDavid to set up Patrick Maroon is truly something to behold.

MVP Candidate: McDavid is the odds on favorite to win the MVP award at the start of the season, mostly because he is the best player in the world at the moment and is coming off of back-to-back scoring title and 100-point seasons. He is going for a third consecutive scoring title, an accomplishment that is incredibly rare in NHL history. To get another MVP award though he is going to need the team around him to be better.

Playoffs or Lottery: As incredible as it may seem for a team that has the best player in the league, they are probably a lottery team again. For the third time in four years. There just is not enough talent around McDavid to make them a contender.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

Better or Worse: He may be 35 years old but Ilya Kovalchuk will be a big addition for an offense-starved team. Will he be a 50-goal, 90-point player? Not a chance. But he should be at least capable of 30 goals and 60 points, something that would make him one of the most productive players on the team.

Strengths: They are one of the best defensive teams in the league with one of the best defensive players in Drew Doughty. They haven’t finished lower than 10th in goals against since the 2009-10 season and are consistently in the top-five. No team in the league gave up fewer goals a season ago.

Weaknesses: Simply put, it’s offense. Even with Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and the addition of Kovalchuk this is simply a mediocre at best offensive team and has been for a few years. They

2017-18 Highlight: Kopitar was the Kings’ best player all year and was perhaps at his most dominant in a 7-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche when he scored four goals.

MVP Candidate: The one that was the runner-up a season ago, Kopitar. He is one of the best two-way players in the league that offers a game-changing combination of top-tier offense and shutdown defense.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Kings have missed the playoffs in two of the past four seasons and have not made it out of the first round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014. They have been, pretty much, a bubble playoff team for the past four years and there really is not much to suggest that is going to change this season.

SAN JOSE SHARKS 

Better or Worse: Better. Much better. They should have a full season of Joe Thornton (injured) and Evander Kane (acquired at the trade deadline and signed to a contract extension) and they acquired a two-time Norris Trophy winner in Erik Karlsson. It would be a shock if they were not better.

Strengths: With Karlsson and Brent Burns they have three of the past seven Norris Trophies on their blue line and a player in Marc-Edouard Vlasic that gets votes every year. There is not a better top-three anywhere in the NHL on defense.

Weaknesses: They are not many. If we were to reach here we could say they were a middle of the pack team a year ago offensively, finishing 14th in goals scored and 16th on the power play, but you have to figure both of those numbers can easily go up this season given the additions.

2017-18 Highlight: Logan Couture scored 12 more goals than any player on the Sharks this past season. None of them looked better than this goal against the Winnipeg Jets.

MVP Candidate: Going to go with Karlsson here, simply because he is going to play a ton of minutes on what should be a Stanley Cup contender and assuming he is 100 percent healthy should have a monster year. Especially playing on a team that has Stanley Cup level talent around him.

Playoffs or Lottery: They were second round playoff team a year ago made some pretty significant additions to the roster, including one of the biggest pick-ups over the summer in Karlsson. They are not only a playoff team, they are a Stanley Cup contender.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS 

Better or Worse: Even though Henrik and Daniel Sedin were at the end of their career and as good as they were in their prime, they were still two of the Canucks’ best players and among their top-three scorers. They are now gone. The players coming in from outside the organization to replace them: Jay Beagle and Antoine Rousell on long-term contracts to be fourth-liners. They are a worse team today.

Strengths: The biggest strength on this team will be getting Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat back for full seasons after both missed 20 games a year ago. Boeser is one of the league’s bright young stars and should be the Canucks’ best player for the foreseeable future.

Weaknesses: Goaltending is going to be a problem. Jacob Markstrom is the starter but has never really been anything better than average at any point in his career. The duo of him and Anders Nilsson is going to have to exceed any reasonable expectation anyone might have for them to help make this team competitive, especially playing behind the defense.

2017-18 Highlight: You could not have scripted a better farewell game in the NHL for the Sedins than this.

MVP Candidate: Brock Boeser finished the 2017-18 season as the Canucks’ leading goal-scorer and point-producer. He did that as a 20-year-old rookie in his first full season of NHL action, and despite missing 20 games due to injury. He is their best player by a mile.

Playoffs or Lottery: One of the worst teams in the league from a year ago that did not really get any better in the offseason. They are not only a lottery team, they are a potential Jack Hughes team.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS 

Better or Worse: I don’t know if they will be “better” in terms of results on the ice, because that would mean actually winning the Stanley Cup, but the roster on paper certainly looks better with the additions of Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty. Sure, they lost James Neal and David Perron, two really good contributors on the 2017-18 team, but the two players coming in to replace them are better.

Strengths: Their top line was one of the best in the NHL a season ago, and while there is every reason to believe that William Karlsson and Reilly Smith will regress a bit, they should still be very good. Jonathan Marchessault is also every bit as good as he showed. They also have an outstanding goalie.

Weaknesses: For as good as their top-six is — especially that top line — their bottom six is definitely lacking a little bit. The fourth line received a lot of praise in the playoffs, but I’m not sure how well it holds up over an 82-game season.

2017-18 Highlight: The whole season was a highlight, but their Western Conference clinching game against the Winnipeg Jets was the culmination of a truly remarkable, totally unexpected season.

MVP Candidate: Marchessault showed that his 30-goal season from the 2016-17 season in Florida was anything but a fluke by following it up with a dominant performance in Vegas, earning himself a long-term contract extension.

Playoffs or Lottery: Nobody should expect another run to the Stanley Cup Final, but this should still be a playoff team and probably even a strong contender in the Western Conference.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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It was only a matter of time until Vladimir Tarasenko started to get on a roll for the St. Louis Blues.

Not only has he been the team’s best and most impactful player for the past five years, he has been one of the most dangerous postseason goal-scorers the league has ever seen. As we wrote at the start of the series, he was going to be one of the biggest keys for the Blues in the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks, especially if his puck luck started to change a little bit.

It has definitely changed for the better, and the Blues are greatly benefitting from it.

First, just a reminder as to how good Tarasenko has been in the playoffs during his career. Before this season his 0.50 goals per game average in the playoffs was second among all players that had appeared in at least 40 playoff games since 2010-11 (trailing only Jake Guentzel), and was among the top-20 in NHL history. The only other players in the top-20 that played in the NHL after 2002 are Alex Ovechkin and Mike Cammallerri.

If you want to call him “clutch,” or a “big-game player” that is entirely up to you, but even more than any of that it is really just a matter of him being an outstanding talent that has always been a great finisher. Get him the puck and enough chances, and he is going to score a lot of goals no matter what the situation is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That is what made his production through the first two rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs a little surprising. He was definitely not playing poorly, but his overall numbers were down a little bit, he was relying almost entirely on the power play to score goals (four of his first five goals in the first two rounds were power play goals), and he had yet to record a single assist. Obviously power play goals are worth the same as any other goal, but with penalties and power plays not always being available come playoff time due to the “let them play” mindset that takes over at this time of year, even-strength scoring becomes even more important.

Despite all of that were still plenty of signs that Tarasenko was due to break out. He had 47 shots on goal in 13 games (more than 3.5 per game) and the Blues were dominating the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength. He was doing everything right except consistently putting the puck in the back of the net. But when you have an all-world talent like Tarasenko does, it is only a matter of time until those attempts, shots, and chances start to turn into goals.

You might limit players like him for a little bit, but you are not going to be able to shut them down forever.

Starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, Tarasenko’s luck started to turn a bit.

After his three-point effort on Sunday in the Blues’ 5-0 win, a performance that included his nearly unstoppable penalty shot goal in the second period to help put the game away, he is now riding a five-game point streak and has at least one point in every game of the series.

He was probably the Blues’ best player in their Game 2 win when he finished with a game-high six shots on goal and set up Jaden Schwartz‘s goal early in the first period, and then assisted on Tyler Bozak‘s game-winning goal in Game 4 to even the series. He followed that up by playing his best game of the playoffs on Sunday with three points (his second multi-point game of these playoffs) in the win that brought the Blues one game closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

His seven points in the series are two more than any other player on the team while he has been on the ice for nine of the Blues’ 18 goals (literally half of them) in the series.

If the Blues were going to put themselves in a position to win this series — which they have if they can win just one of the next two games — they were going to need Tarasenko to be one of their best and most productive players.

He has been with what has been his best five-game stretch of these playoffs.

The timing could not have been better for the Blues.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

‘Canes surge into summer with confidence after playoff run

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the offseason confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.

They hope their nucleus will make postseason appearances an every-year thing.

The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

After getting a taste of postseason hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.

”I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. ”Now we’re even more hungry.”

There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.

The entire defensive corps – including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.

Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.

This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment – both during and after games – to the rink.

They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the ”Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honor – plastering his ”Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.

And, of course, they played winning hockey – especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.

”As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

A few things to watch entering the offseason:

THE CAPTAIN’S FUTURE

The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this offseason. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as ”Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. ”I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. ”I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

THE GOALIES

The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies – Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last offseason to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.

FREE AGENCY

The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS FIX

Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their postseason chances with the man advantage – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Comeback, OT goal helps Great Britain avoid relegation at Worlds

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Ben Davies’ name will be sung forever in hockey circles around Great Britain.

The 28-year-old forward scored the overtime winner in a 4-3 victory over France Monday at the 2019 IIHF World Championship that will keep the Brits, who were facing relegation, in the top flight for next year’s tournament.

With the loss, the French move down to Division I-A for the 2020 event in Switzerland after an 11-year run. Great Britain will compete in back-to-back- top tier IIHF World Championships for the first time since 1950-51.

The historic game started very poorly for Great Britain, who entered the the tournament 22nd in the IIHF world rankings, as they fell behind 3-0 midway through the second period. But the turnaround began with a strong end to the middle frame when Robert Dowd and Mike Hammond scored 3:05 apart to cut France’s lead to 3-2.

The momentum stayed with Great Britain, who had been outscored 38-5 heading into the game, following the intermission as Robert Farmer tied the game with 14:46 to go, forcing overtime.

It was in the 3-on-3 overtime period that captain Jonathan Phillips was knocked to his feet after chasing down a loose puck in the French zone and found a streaking Davies for the winner.

“It’s pretty surreal right now,” Davies said afterward. “We were three down and everything seemed against us but it’s not our character to give up and we stuck with it. Things started going our way and the goals started to go in while [goaltender Ben] Bowns was incredible. I’ve never scored a bigger goal than that and I’ll remember it forever.”

The celebrations featured plenty of hugs and one humorous chant from the British players knowing they’ll be back in the top division for the 2020 tournament.

Great Britain, which hadn’t been in the top division since 1994, finished the tournament with one win in seven games after competing in a group that featured the U.S., Canada and Finland. The roster is made up of mostly players who ply their trade in the Elite Ice Hockey League, as well as Liam Kirk, the Arizona Coyotes’ seventh-round pick in last year’s draft who is attempting to become the first British-raised player to make it to the NHL. In 63 games this season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes, he scored 26 and recorded 47 points.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Karlsson’s health will dictate Sharks’ chances

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If you are a San Jose Sharks fan the current situation might seem a little bleak.

Your team was just dominated on home ice on Sunday afternoon and is heading on the road, facing elimination in the Western Conference Final, and needing to win the next two games to continue its Stanley Cup pursuit.

The odds, it would seem, are stacked against you.

If you are looking for something to be optimistic about it should be the fact Sharks have already been in a worse position this postseason and managed to overcome it. In Round 1 they trailed the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the series, needed to win three games in a row, and then found themselves with a three-goal deficit in the third period of Game 7 after crawling back to tie the series. Sure, they needed one of the biggest breaks in Stanley Cup playoff history to complete the comeback, but they still found a way to do it and take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself.

There is one very big difference this time around that might hold them back, and it is the health of top defender Erik Karlsson.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Karlsson is one of the many Sharks players that exited Sunday’s game due to injury, logging just 10 minutes of ice-time in the team’s 5-0 loss as he continues to deal with a nagging groin injury that has limited him all season. Head coach Peter DeBoer refused to offer any update on his status (as well as the status of injured forwards Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski) or if he would travel with the team.

His health is going to be a major determining factor in what happens for the Sharks over the next two games.

The Sharks acquired Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators just before the start of the 2018-19 season with the hope that he would be the missing piece on a Stanley Cup contender. When he is healthy and at his best, he is one of the best players in the world and on an elite tier of superstars. He is a difference-maker, and when the Sharks have had him at anything close to full health this season he has played like it.

Putting him on a defense that already has Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic gives the Sharks one of the best defensive groups in the league.

When the Sharks overcame their Round 1 deficit against the Golden Knights, Karlsson was a huge factor in that result.

He played more than 92 minutes (more than 40 percent of the total ice-time in those games), had four assists (tops on the team), and was on the ice for nine of the 12 goals the Sharks scored in their Games 5, 6, and 7 wins. Only two other players on the team (Hertl and Logan Couture) were on the ice for more than six goals in those three games. He had at least two points in every game the Sharks won in that Round 1 series. He was at the center of everything and one of the biggest reasons they came back to win.

Unfortunately for the Sharks, the groin injury has resurfaced and he has been obviously limited over the past few games. Not only in terms of his lack of ice time and early exit in Game 5 (as well as the extended stretch in Game 4 where he did not see the ice), but just in watching him play. He is clearly not where he — or the Sharks — want him to be from a health standpoint.

That is going to be a problem because even if he does play in Game 6, there is no guarantee that he is going to make the kind of impact we are used to seeing from him.

The Sharks have overcome the absence of key players in these playoffs, whether it was Joe Thornton‘s suspension in Round 1 or the Pavelski injury that sidelined him for all but one game in their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche. But for as good and important as those players are, having to replace a player like Karlsson is an entirely different animal.

The Sharks have other forwards that can step up and impact a game if they lose a player like Pavelski, or Hertl, or Thornton.

But a No. 1 defender does so much more on the ice given the minutes they play, the number of times they touch the puck, and the way they can control the pace of the game and where it is played. Everything starts with the blue line, and you need those players on the back end that can move the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone. When he is healthy, there is nobody in the NHL that is better at that than Karlsson. It is not just his point production that makes him a superstar and a top-tier player — it is the way he can essentially be a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone and skate the puck out of danger when there are no passing options available.

There is nobody else stepping into his spot and doing that.

Yes, they still have a Norris Trophy winner (and a finalist for the award this season) in Brent Burns on the roster, but having Burns and Karlsson is what makes the Sharks such a fierce team to contend with.

Take one of them out of the lineup, or at least limit their ability to make an impact, and there is a major drop in how the team performs.

We have seen that over the past two games with Karlsson.

If the Sharks are going to come back in another series there may not be a bigger determining factor than Karlsson’s health and what he is able to do. It is going to require a significant turnaround from what we have seen over the past two games.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.