Sharks vs. Golden Knights: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Golden Knights used the 2018-19 NHL season to prove that their inaugural year, where they reached the Stanley Cup Final, wasn’t a fluke. The regular season wasn’t as successful at 2017-18 (a 16-point decrease), but they still finished third in the Pacific Division and strengthened their roster with the additions of Paul Stastny in free agency and Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone in separate trades.

It was a bumpier road to the playoffs this season, however. Vegas had five losing streaks of three games or more and saw an expected step back in offense, especially from William Karlsson, who went from 43 goals to 24. But the Stone acquisition gives the Golden Knights not only a formidable second line, but also a strong two-way presence.

Acquiring Erik Karlsson before the season was Sharks general manager Doug Wilson’s way of finding that “difference-maker” he sought for so long. Unfortunately for San Jose, injuries limited the blue liner to only 52 games, but he returned in the season finale and the hope is he’ll be 100% going forward.

Finishing second in the Pacific Division, the Sharks were led by four 30-goal scorers — Joe Pavelski (38), Tomas Hertl (35), Evander Kane (30) and Timo Meier (30)  — and Brent Burns, who was first in points in the team with 83. Their special teams were strong, as were their possession numbers. But the biggest flaw was the play of Martin Jones, who posted an .896 even strength save percentage and just hasn’t been the same netminder who helped lead them to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

It’s a rematch of Round 2 from 2018 where the Golden Knights advanced in six games. Can the Sharks exact a measure of revenge in 2019?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 10:30 p.m.: Golden Knights @ Sharks | NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports
Friday, April 12, 10:30 p.m.: Golden Knights @ Sharks | NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 14, 10 p.m.: Sharks @ Golden Knights | NBCSN, SN, SN360, TVA Sports
Tuesday, April 16, 10:30 p.m.: Sharks @ Golden Knights | NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports
*Thursday, April 18, TBD: Golden Knights @ Sharks | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Sharks @ Golden Knights | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Golden Knights @ Sharks | TBD

FORWARDS

VEGAS: Once again, Vegas’ top line led the way as Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith were top-three on the team in scoring. But what’s made the Golden Knights even stronger was the creation of their second line, which features three players acquired since last season. Pacioretty, Stastny and Stone now gives head coach Gerard Gallant another line to roll out and cause havoc for opponents.

So two strong lines is worrisome enough for the Sharks, but the bottom six can also provide a challenge for San Jose. Cody Eakin (22 goals) and Alex Tuch (20 goals) lead a strong set of depth forwards that have the experience of last year’s Cup Final run and ability to chip in a timely goal when needed. Throw in Ryan Reaves, who scored two big goals for Vegas last postseason, after a career year offensively with nine goals and 20 points, and Peter DeBoer and his staff will have their work cut out for them.

SAN JOSE: The Sharks were tied for the second-highest scoring team in the NHL with 289 goals. Four players hit the 30-goal mark, four others reached at least 16. The addition of Gustav Nyquist (six goals in 19 games) at the trade deadline bolsters an already dangerous arsenal and strengthens a very good power play.

Like Vegas, San Jose can roll a dangerous top two lines and a third line featuring a now healthy Joe Thornton is still a creative genius on the ice. Beyond their biggest names, the Sharks have also been buyoed by the likes of Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen, who don’t get a lot of headlines, but have make impactful contributions this season. Joonas Donskoi, who hasn’t scored since Jan. 10 and finished with 14 this season, could really use a goal if he’s in the lineup.

ADVANTAGE: San Jose, but it’s pretty close. When clicking, the Sharks can attack you in waves and keep the pressure on. Vegas upped their goals per game average after acquiring Stone, jumping from 3.0 goals/game to 3.32 goals/game.

DEFENSE

VEGAS: Unlike the Sharks, where Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns ate a ton of minutes, Gallant spread out the ice time among his defense pretty evenly. Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt were the only two to finish with at least 20 minutes a night, while Deryk Engelland, Colin Miller, Brayden McNabb, and Nick Holden played between 18-19 minutes per game. Jon Merrill was right there with 17:53 per game.

Theodore emerged this season as a viable top-pairing defenseman, finishing with 12 goals and 37 points along with a fantastic 56.28% Corsi rating.

SAN JOSE: A healthy Erik Karlsson will pose plenty of problems for the Golden Knights. But if he’s well less than 100%, plus Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s inconsistent play lingers in the postseason, that will put plenty of pressure on goaltender Martin Jones. The Sharks were the second-best shot suppression team in the NHL (28.3 shots allowed per game) but allowed 3.16 goals per game.

ADVANTAGE Even*. The asterisk here is if Karlsson plays at 100% he could give the Sharks a slight edge. But there’s no doubting the defensive unit Vegas offers, and how they work well together and there really is no standout name on their blue line. San Jose offers threats in perennial Norris Trophy contenders in Karlsson and Burns, but Vegas’ pairings have shown their up to the task at limiting opponents’ chances, and they’ll be busy doing so going up against a Sharks team that averaged 33 shots on goal per night.

GOALTENDING

VEGAS: Marc-Andre Fleury returned to the net last week, a great sign for the Golden Knights after his strong performance last spring. He finished the season with a .917 ESSV% and was second in the NHL with eight shutouts. Vegas was also a strong shot-suppression team, allowed 28 per night at even strength, and as we’ve seen throughout his career Fleury’s acrobatics can quickly turn a strong scoring opportunity for an opponent into a highlight-reel save.

SAN JOSE: Martin Jones will hope for reset once Game 1 arrives. He had a forgettable regular season with an .896 ESSV% and a .788 high-danger save percentage, which was 24th out of 25 goaltenders with at least 2,000 minutes played, per Natural Stat Trick. His partner, Aaron Dell, wasn’t much better with an .899 ESSV% and a .793 HDSV%. There are plenty of strengths to this Sharks team, but their goaltender might the weakness that holds them back.

ADVANTAGE: Vegas. A healthy Fleury means good things for Vegas. Jones has shown no signs that a rebound is coming this season, and Dell doesn’t offer any help behind him if things get ugly.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can Vegas’ power play wake up?

The Golden Knights scored 39 power play goals this season and finished with a success rate of 16.8%, good enough for seventh-worst in the NHL. With extra man situations becoming tougher to draw in the postseason, Vegas needs to take advantage of their extra man opportunities as they could be the difference in any game at this point.

Which Martin Jones will show up?

There’s no fallback option here for the Sharks. Dell has struggled as well, and when playoff hockey gives us those tight, low-scoring games, it’ll be up to Jones to come up with a big save and even steal a game or two if San Jose is to have a shot. Can a reset heading into Game 1 work wonders for Jones? We’ll see.

PREDICTION

VEGAS IN 6. Unless Jones reverts back to his old form, it’ll be tough to see the Sharks really making a challenge at getting revenge for last year’s playoff exit. The Golden Knights are well-balanced up front, have played strong defensively in front of Fleury and Malcolm Subban, and have the clear better goaltending heading into this matchup. 

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Islanders vs. Penguins
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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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.

Dan Girardi hangs up his skates after 13 NHL seasons

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Dan Girardi has announced his retirement from hockey after 13 NHL seasons with the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I would like to thank all my coaches, family, friends and teammates for supporting me throughout my entire hockey career,” Girardi said in a statement. “I want to thank the New York Rangers for giving me a chance to fulfill my childhood dream of playing in the NHL. Throughout those 11 incredible years I have made so many friends on and off the ice. I bled Ranger blue and gave it my all for my team, the city and the Garden faithful.

“I also want to thank the Tampa Bay Lightning for helping me continue my career by giving me a chance to play for such an amazing organization, city and fan base. The last two years in Tampa Bay have been so much fun for me and my family. I will always fondly remember my time here. Finally, I want to thank my wife Pamela for always being there for me and holding down the fort and to Landon and Shaye for always being daddy’s No. 1 fans.”

Undrafted out of the Ontario Hockey League, Girardi was invited to Rangers camp in 2005 and earned himself a two-way contract. After a year-and-a-half in the ECHL and AHL, he was called up to the NHL where he would remain until the end of the 2018-19 season. He would help lead the Rangers to the postseason 10 times, which included a trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

Following his 11 seasons in New York, Girardi was bought out of the final three years of his contract in 2017 and would sign on with the Lightning for the final two seasons of his career.

The 35-year-old Girardi finishes with 927 NHL games played, 56 goals, 264 points, and 1,954 blocked shots, the most by any player since the league began recording the stat in 2005-06. His 143 playoff games puts him 30th all-time by a defensemen.

“I gave my all every single night and left it all out on the ice,” Girardi said. “Now it’s time for the next chapter of my life to begin and I couldn’t be happier…and so is my body.”

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Anaheim Ducks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse. The Ducks have been competitive for over a decade, so it wasn’t surprising to see them take a step back last year. Unfortunately for Anaheim, their core is getting older and they really didn’t improve their roster very much over the course of the summer. They lost Corey Perry and some other depth players, but they didn’t add any significant pieces. They hired Dallas Eakins as their new head coach, but it’ll be tough for him to make a significant difference. It’s tough to argue that this group is better.

Strengths: Their biggest strength is between the pipes. John Gibson put together an incredible season last year. His numbers may not jump off the page but make no mistake, he was the reason they weren’t out of it earlier than they were. The 26-year-old had a 26-22-8 record with a 2.84 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage last season. If the Ducks are going to improve this season, they’ll likely need their goalie to stand on his head on a nightly basis. Gibson is one of the top goalies in the league and that shouldn’t change in 2019-20.

Weaknesses: Their overall depth has taken a hit over the last few years. Sure, they still have good players like Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique down the middle, and Rickard Rakell, Ondrej Kase and Jakob Silfverberg on the wings. They also have Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Cam Fowler on defense. The rest of the team has taken a bit of dip. Perry’s gone and Ryan Kesler is injured, and Patrick Eaves is likely retired. When you’ve been good for so long, these things will eventually happen.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 1. Let’s give Eakins some time. He’ll have plenty of challenges ahead with the edition of the Ducks. It’ll be important for him to assess the talent at his disposal quickly and he’ll need to figure out a way to get the most out of this group of players. Again, success probably won’t come as early as this season, but if the Ducks allow him to shape the roster how he sees fit, they could make strides in the near future. How much time he gets to build this program remains to be seen, but he can’t be on the hot seat yet!

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure: Getzlaf | X-Factor]

Three Most Fascinating Players: It’ll be interesting to see how some of the young players perform this season. Daniel Sprong, Nick Ritchie and Brendan Guhle should all be part of this roster when training camp ends. How much will they contribute though?

Sprong was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. In 47 games with the Ducks, he put up 14 goals and 19 points, which isn’t terrible. Can he build on that season? We’ve mentioned that Anaheim’s depth may be a problem for them this year, so getting added contributions from talented youngsters like Sprong will be key. There’s no denying his ability on the ice, but the 22-year-old needs to put it all together now. 14 goals in 47 games works out to a 24-goal campaign over 82 contests. Can he flirt with 25 goals?

Ritchie is also a fascinating case. The 23-year-old was drafted 10th overall by the Ducks back in 2014, but he hasn’t had as big an impact as many expected him to since turning pro. Ritchie had nine goals and a career-high 31 points in 60 games in 2018-19. He needs to pick it up. He needs to lead the next waive of young players in the organization. He’s got size, he’s got skill and now he needs to make an impact on this Ducks roster. He can’t just be another depth player.

As for Guhle, he was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres last season. The former second-rounder played in just six games with Anaheim last season. The Ducks have Fowler, Manson and Lindholm on their blue line, but there are openings behind those three players. Guhle has to show that he’s capable of making this roster and eating up some important minutes for Anaheim this season. The 22-year-old needs to add stability to the Ducks on the back end.

Playoffs or Lottery: They’ll be in the lottery this year. Again, they have some talented players, but they don’t have enough of them. It’ll take some time for them to draft and develop the next generation of Ducks, but that re-tooling had to begin eventually. No playoffs for the Ducks this year.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Laine apologizes to Little; Can Isles keep having success?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Bruins forward Karson Kuhlman will get an opportunity to break camp as a second-line winger. (Boston Globe)

Shea Weber still has a desire to improve every day. (Montreal Gazette)

• The Dream Gap Tour is trying to find a way to build a sustainable women’s hockey league. (TSN)

• Who will serve as the Washington Capitals’ backup goalie this season? (NBC Sports Washington)

• The Tampa Bay Lightning have more openings on their roster than ever before, according to head coach Jon Cooper. (Tampa Times)

• Can the Islanders sustain what they did last year under head coach Barry Trotz? (Light House Hockey)

• Will the Panthers make the playoffs this season? The Rat Trick makes five predictions for Florida’s 2019-20 season. (The Rat Trick)

• Sabres defenseman Matt Gilmour took a different path to get to the NHL. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Alex Nylander has produced during the preseason, but will that be enough to get him a spot on the Hawks roster? (NBC Sports Chicago)

Klim Kostin may finally be ready to make the jump to the NHL with the Blues. (St. Louis Game-Time)

Patrik Laine apologized to Bryan Little for the comments he made to a Finnish reporter. (NHL.com)

• Speaking of Little, he deserves to play with better players. (Jets Nation)

• 2019 first-round pick Thomas Harley has been impressing during Dallas Stars training camp. (Defending Big D)

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.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Change or keep current playoff format?

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The topic of the Stanley Cup playoff format has bubbled up over the last few seasons which makes you wonder if we’ll see a change in the near future. After switching to the 1 vs. 8 conference format in 1993-94, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to bring back the divisional concept beginning with the 2014 postseason. While the emphasis on bringing back rivalries has worked in some areas, there has been plenty of opinions out there about moving away from the current setup.

During the NHL Player Media Tour earlier this month in Chicago we asked a number of players their thoughts on the current playoff format and whether they’d keep what we’ve got or make a change. Here’s what they said.

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “I’d probably keep it. Maybe the top seed should play the eighth, but this creates a lot of rivalries between team, so I kind of like it as it is.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “The wild card is perfect like that, but I would do whoever has the most points play against [team with fewer] points.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I think it works right now. I’d keep it.”

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: “I don’t think it’s beneficial for our division because our division is so tough. In my opinion I would like it to be [1 vs. 8, re-seed after Round 1]. First round you play Tampa Bay, best team in the league, and third round you might play Carolina who was number whatever. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I prefer the conference [1 vs. 8] because you have the chance to play different teams every year instead of having to go through the same division team in the first or second round every single year.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I would keep it. I don’t have any issues with it.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “I’d change it. I think majority of the guys are on that side. I do understand the rivalries and what it creates and it has created some great rivalries. I think from our perspective you want to earn that rank and that position you have in the playoffs, 1-8. I’m probably just a little biased, that’s what I grew up with.”

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers: “It is what it is at this point. I do think it should be the top eight teams from each conference. To me, it kind of seems to make the most sense. You’re going to have 32 teams in the league, you want the top 16 teams in the playoffs, right? It’s kind of the way it works. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Maybe go back to the old way [1 vs. 8].”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “I like it. I don’t have a problem with it. I think once you get to the playoffs you’re going to have to win out anyways. Whether you beat the best team in the first round or in the Stanley Cup, they’re the best team, right? You’re going to have to win it all anyway. I don’t mind it.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “I would keep it, I don’t mind it. For me, it doesn’t matter. If you want to win the Cup you have to beat anybody, so I’m good with that.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “I’d change it. It should be No. 1-8 in the conference, doesn’t matter your division, anything. It should just be the top eight teams ranked 1-8.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “I say change it. Either 1 vs. 16 or 1 vs. 8.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I like the current playoff format. I’d also like to see some type of wild card, maybe a three-game play-in series to get a couple more teams. From a business side of it, looking on the other side, you can have a great season and miss the playoffs by a couple of points. Now with adding teams in the league and still being a 16-team format, when you’re the ninth seed and miss the playoffs by two spots, from a fan’s perspective it’s an unsuccessful season not making the playoffs when you were really so close. I think it kind of adds something to support those teams that just missed the playoffs to have some type of play-in series like baseball has now so those market can feel like they accomplished more when they just missed out by a little and the next season the teams a little more ammo when they go and try to sell tickets.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
Most underrated player
2019-20 sleeper team

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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.