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

1 Comment

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

————

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.

Surging Sabres not fearing repeat of last year’s collapse

Getty Images
3 Comments

BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a new coach, an influx of talent and this being a new season, Jack Eichel doesn’t buy into fears the hot-starting Buffalo Sabres are due for a familiar collapse.

Nine games in, the Sabres are leading the Eastern Conference with a 7-1-1 record to match their best start since 2009-10. And yet, it’s difficult to forget what happened last year, when Buffalo was leading the NHL with a 17-6-2 record following a 10-game winning streak before proceeding to win just 16 of its final 57 games.

”I think we’ve grown up a little bit,” Eichel said Tuesday before the Sabres hosted the San Jose Sharks. ”I don’t think we’re guarded at all. I think you can learn a lot from last year, but I don’t think we’re worried about that as much as just trying to be a good hockey team every night.”

Aside from returning players being a year older, the Sabres captain credited first-year coach Ralph Krueger for introducing an upbeat message and simplified system to a team that struggled during Phil Housley’s two-year tenure.

”I think it’s enjoyable to come to the rink every day with the environment that’s been created right now,” Eichel said.

”Yeah, winning takes care of a lot of stuff, there’s no way to sugarcoat that,” he added. ”But I think the overall environment’s been a good one this year. I think guys feel a little bit more relaxed. It’s not as high strung.”

The 60-year-old Krueger in many ways is Housley’s polar opposite. Where Housley demanded the Sabres play a complex positional system, Krueger wants his players to play a more up-tempo, free-wheeling style.

Though Housley is a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and was a first-time coach, Krueger brings with him an array of worldly experience. His resume includes coaching Switzerland’s national team, the Edmonton Oilers and spending the previous five years running soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Krueger was hired in May, and became Buffalo’s fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and takes over a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak.

General manager Jason Botterill is impressed with what he’s seen from a team that has so far handled adversity. After opening a three-game California road trip with a 5-2 loss to Anaheim, the Sabres responded with wins against Los Angeles and San Jose.

”I think Ralph has come with a clear message of what he’s looking for from our players,” Botterill said. ”And I think our players have been very open to receiving that message.”

The Sabres are benefiting from a balanced offensive attack, in which seven players have scored three or more goals. Their power play is leading the league with 11 goals, six coming from rookie Victor Olofsson. And Buffalo’s goaltending has been sound, with veteran Carter Hutton enjoying a two-game shutout streak.

Though realizing the season is still young, Krueger referred to the Sabres’ successful start as validating the plan he and his staff implemented this summer.

”It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Krueger said. ”And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

ZACH SCRATCHED

Botterill dismissed fears of Zach Bogosian missing the entire season, though he didn’t have a timetable regarding when the veteran defenseman will return after having hip surgery in April. Bogosian has been skating on his own the past two weeks.

”It’s difficult for him right now because he wants to be back,” Botterill said. ”But it’s also imperative for him for not only us this year but his career long-term that we get this right.”

D-DEPTH

Botterill isn’t concerned about a potentially crowded blue line once Brandon Montour returns from a hand injury sustained last month. The Sabres are currently carrying seven defensemen and have already informed Henri Jokiharju he’s not going anywhere even though he’s the only defenseman who doesn’t have to clear waivers in being demoted to the minors.

Calling it a ”great problem” to have, Botterill said he still has time to decide. He also explained the team’s depth at defense will be tested with Buffalo set to play 11 games in 19 days next month.

Max Domi continues to excel in year two with Habs

1 Comment

When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Max Domi from the Arizona Coyotes in the summer of 2018, they were landing a player that had nine goals and 38 and 45 points in his two previous seasons. But in his first year as a Hab, he took his game to another level. He finished the season with a career-high 28 goals and 72 points in 82 games while playing down the middle. What does he do for an encore in year two?

Usually, the leading scorer on a team will get to play with some of the better players on the roster, but Domi’s in a bit of a unique spot. Montreal’s “first” line is made up of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, who have played together since last season. They’re a very effective line and head coach Claude Julien likes having them together.

The “third” line is made up of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia (when healthy) and Jonathan Drouin, who spent a considerable amount of time playing with Domi last year (they weren’t overly effective together). So that doesn’t leave many options for the 24-year-old, who opened the season with offensively-challenged winger Artturi Lehkonen and rookie Nick Suzuki.

Lehkonen is a responsible winger while Suzuki struggled to get his footing early on. Paul Byron, Drouin and Jordan Weal have all spent time on that “second” line at five-on-five. Now that Suzuki has started producing on a different line, Julien is promoting him back to Domi’s line ahead of Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks. How have the rotating players affected Domi’s on-ice performance in 2019-20? It hasn’t affected him negatively at all.

As of right now, he’s picked up three goals and nine points in nine games. He has a CF% of 56.36, a SCF% of 57.14, a HDCF% of 63.41 and a very reasonable PDO of .994.

The Habs forward has also contributed to an improving Montreal power play that ranked 30th last season. He’s currently tied for the team lead in power-play points, with four. This is a Canadiens team that missed the playoffs by three points last year. If they can continue to get solid production from their special teams unit, that could be the difference between staying home in April and making it to the postseason.

[MORE: Q&A: Max Domi on the pressure in Montreal, getting Canadiens back to playoffs]

The once controversial trade of Domi for Alex Galchenyuk is no longer being questioned in Montreal. Domi has been so much better and healthier than Galchenyuk that this has become one of the biggest steals of general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure with the Canadiens.

What makes his time in Montreal even more impressive is that he’s putting up these numbers while transitioning from wing to center. Yes, he struggled with defensive-zone coverage at times last year and he won just 44.9 percent of his face-offs, but those are two things that should improve as he gains experience. We’ll see if he can keep it up, but he’s already winning 50 percent of his draws through nine games.

If he had 72 points last year and he continues to improve, it’s fair to wonder just how high his ceiling is. Can he become a point-per-game player on a yearly basis? That’s entirely possible. Another interesting storyline to follow will be his next contract (he’s going to be a restricted free agent at the end of the year). When he was acquired by Montreal, he signed a two-year bridge deal worth $3.150 million per year. If he builds on last season’s numbers and stays healthy, it’s entirely possible that he could fetch upwards of $7 million or $8 million annually on a long-term deal.

Whatever the price ends up being, Bergevin will probably be happy to pay it given how well this trade has turned out for an organization that has been dying for a talented center like Domi for more than decade.

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Penguins, Lightning on two different paths

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As two of the NHL’s best teams over the past five years there is always a championship expectation for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. With both coming off of similarly disappointing postseason exits in 2019 (combined postseasons win between the two teams: zero) there was no doubt plenty of additional pressure on both teams at the start of this season.

For the Penguins, it is about regaining the identity that helped make them a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion and trying to maximize the remaining window they have in the careers of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. You only get players of that caliber for so long, and you owe it to them — and the franchise — to put them in the best possible situation to win. Anytime you do not win, and especially when you lose like they did to the New York Islanders, it is going to feel like a missed opportunity.

For the Lightning, it is about shaking the bad memories of so many recent postseason disappointments and finally breaking through with a championship for what is probably the league’s most talented roster on paper. After blowing 3-2 series leads in two different Eastern Conference Finals, as well as a 2-1 series lead in a Stanley Cup Final, the 2018-19 season seemed like it was finally going to be the year for Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman as they rolled through a 62-win regular season. What followed was the most disappointing of their postseason shortcomings, losing four consecutive games to the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

So far this season the two teams have been on slightly different paths in their quest to reach the top, even if there isn’t much difference in their overall records.

The Penguins entered the season with several questions, ranging from the state of their defense, to their forward depth, to how the power play would look without Phil Kessel following his offseason trade to Arizona. As if that wasn’t enough, the team has been dealt a brutal hand with early injuries as Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, and Brian Dumoulin have all been sidelined for a total of 38 man-games due to injury. Despite that, they have not only managed to win the majority of their games, they have carried the play more often than not, even in defeat. Even their two most recent losses (Vegas and Florida) probably had more to do with some bad puck luck than bad play.

They are playing smart, they are limiting odd-man rushes against, they are playing sound defensively, and they have received strong goaltending from the duo of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Add in more dominance from Crosby and they are keeping pace with the rest of the top teams in the Eastern Conference with a lineup that has been pieced together through call-ups.

There is an argument to be made that they have probably overachieved given the circumstances.

It’s been a slightly difference experience so far for the Lightning.

Other than Brayden Point, who missed the first three games of the season as he continued to recover from offseason hip surgery, they have been 100 percent healthy from the start and have had the roster they have wanted to have at their disposal. Despite that, neither the results nor the process are what they want to be.

Entering Wednesday’s game they have won just four of their first eight games and they are probably fortunate to have won as many as they have. At times they have looked like a fraction of the team that dominated the regular season a year ago. In one early game against Carolina they recorded just three shots on goal over more than 40 minutes of hockey. In another, they were dominated by an Ottawa team that has just one win on the season (the win against the Lightning).

Overall there is nothing about their performance that is close to being up to their level of expectation.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has struggled in goal, their penalty kill is among the worst in the league, and their overall 5-on-5 performance has at times just simply been bad. Entering play on Tuesday they are 26th in the league in shot attempt percentage and 24th in scoring differential, both signs that they are not yet carrying the play in those situations. Given the roster they are returning it has been a rather underwhelming start.

Wednesday seems like a great opportunity to get things trending back in the right direction.

They are rested, they are at home, and they are playing a banged up, tired Penguins team that just dropped a 4-2 decision on Tuesday night against Florida.

It is still too early to be too worried, but at some point they would probably like to start playing closer to their level of expectation. Everything is set up for them to start getting there on Wednesday. If they can not take advantage of the situation in front of them it might be another red flag in a start that has already had too many of them.

NBC Sports will showcase a group of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients that are being recognized by the Tampa Bay Lightning in pre-game ceremonies as part of its Wednesday Night Hockey coverage. Jeremy Roenick will interview Medal of Honor recipients during pre-game and game coverage on Wednesday night, and NHL Live will air a feature with interviews of both current Lightning players and Medal of Honor recipients.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Jeremy Roenick will report on-site from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Penguins-Lightning.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Sabres’ hot start; Coaches on hot seat

Getty
Leave a comment
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.

Matt Dumba and Haydn Fleury got a tattoo to honor a friend that committed suicide. (NHL.com)

• Players and coaches deserve credit for the Buffalo Sabres hot start. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Former NHLer Chris Joseph is still fighting for the victims of the Humboldt bus crash. (The Hockey News)

Ryan O'Reilly will need to be more selfish if he wants to find the back of the net more often. (In the Slot)

• Seattle hockey fans will have to pay a high price to watch their team play in person. (Seattle Times)

• Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog sat down for a Q & A with ESPN.com. (ESPN)

Patrick Kane believes, Kirby Dach and Dylan Strome can build chemistry together. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent Nicklas Backstrom still feels young. (Nova Caps Fans)

• Sam Gagner is still trying to stick in the NHL. (Sportsnet)

• Canadian NHL markets have seen their attendance numbers drop early on this season. (Sporting News)

• How long can the Penguins continue playing the way they’re currently playing and how will they integrate their injured players back into the lineup? (Pensburgh)

• Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted that he steals from each one of the coaches in the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Here’s how the zamboni changed the game for ice rinks all over the world. (Smothsonianmag.com)

• Which coaches are on the hot seat right now? (Scotty Wazz)

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.