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Futures of Thornton, Kane among key questions for Sharks

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With long-term commitments to Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Martin Jones (not to mention some mid-term deals for less prominent pieces), the San Jose Sharks are largely “set” on defense and in net. They even have backup goalie Aaron Dell locked up through 2019-20.

Things get almost as fuzzy as Joe Thornton‘s beard when it comes to the futures of their forwards, though.

Plenty of questions lingered as members of the Sharks addressed the media on Tuesday.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For one thing, it’s more than reasonable to wonder about how viable Thornton can be. This isn’t as much about his age alone (38, turning 39 in July), but how much can be expected of “Jumbo Joe” after tearing up each of his knees.

In 2016-17, Thornton dealt with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. It turns out that his 2017-18 season was derailed by a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, as he told reporters including the Athletic’s Kevin Kurz. Yikes.

On the bright side, it sounds like Thornton is willing to be flexible when it comes to making things work with San Jose. The Mercury News’ Paul Gackle is among those who report that Thornton said he’d be willing to a) take a one-year deal and b) accept a cut from the $8 million he received last season.

And that’s where things get fun, at least if you’re a nerd for armchair GM/”franchise mode” discussions. Via Cap Friendly, the Sharks have about $60.49 million committed to their 2018-19 cap as of this moment. With next year’s ceiling expected to be somewhere between $78-82M, that’s ample room for the Sharks to make some interesting moves.

Joe and Evander

On one hand, that could open the door for the Sharks to bring both Thornton and Evander Kane back while also making some other, smaller moves.

There’s a scenario where that could really work for the Sharks. Considering the chemistry Kane developed with Joe Pavelski, the Sharks could have Thornton carry a line, roll with Kane – Pavelski, and then ask Logan Couture to exploit some matchup issues. They could also load up in different ways, maybe putting Pavelski and Kane with Thornton.

The most tantalizing thing for San Jose is that there’s another scenario that could work out even better, at least on paper.

The inevitable Tavares talk

Now, just about any NHL team with a shot at John Tavares should pursue him. It’s a stance that we might as well copy-and-paste at this point. Still, the Sharks hold some key advantages over other pursuers, and they’ve earned specific mentions as an interested party.

Heck, the connection’s been made for more than a year.

They have ample cap space not only to sign Tavares, but also to make some other moves to supplement their group. If Tavares leaves the New York Islanders – a big if, by the way – he’d likely justify such a decision by trying to give himself the best opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. The Sharks stand among the better “win now” teams who also have space to add Tavares. They don’t need to make trades to clear up space for him, either. That’s rare.

It’s to the point that, to some Islanders fans, it might become an irritating meme.

If the Sharks believe they have a real chance at Tavares, they might find themselves delaying other decisions. That’s what happens when you can add the sort of player who not only has a chance to change your fortunes, but perhaps one who could take up close to 20 percent of your cap space.

There’s some precedent to bigger name free agents taking at least a few days to make their big choices. Brad Richards did it, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter added some suspense, and there were even times when things dragged out months when contract details needed to be ironed out, such as when the Devils loophole’d their way to Ilya Kovalchuk. Tavares might want a few nights to sleep on a decision.

Along with that, the Sharks will probably want to really get an idea of how much Thornton has left in the tank. If Evander Kane believes he can get a great deal on the open market, that might mean that his days with San Jose are numbered, even though there were signs that there was a good fit (especially for Kane).

The ripple effects could go beyond 2018-19, too.

Extensions possible

The Sharks also get their first chances to make extension decisions/offers regarding Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. The two forwards will see their matching $6M cap hits expire after next season, so if San Jose wants to lock them up long-term, they can do so as early as July.

The relief is that Thornton’s willing to go one year, so those decisions would not need to clash.

A possible Tavares addition makes that more complicated, though such an addition may also help the Sharks to convince one or more parties to take a little less money. Maybe.

(We’ve seen Connor McDavid take less than the max, so hockey players make that call at times, whether they actually should or not.)

San Jose does have to mull over the risk/reward regarding a roster that could get old fast, however. Couture turned 29 in March, so he’d be 30 before an extension would kick in. Pavelski is already 33 and will turn 34 in July. Burns is 33 and Vlasic is 31. Kane is relatively young compared to that group at 26, but sometimes snipers age that much more dramatically.

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These are all situations for GM Doug Wilson to mull over, although the Tavares situation would be a rubber stamp for any executive even halfway worthy of having the gig.

If Tavares is an unrealistic dream – and, again, it’s very dangerous to assume that he won’t stick with the Isles – then the good news is that the Sharks still have space to bring back some key players, maybe dabble in free agency, and maybe even try to make a splashy trade or two.

Falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round might be the sort of thing that gets the Sharks in a Twitter squabble with the Kings, but there could be some really interesting possibilities in this franchise’s future. Wilson just needs to make the right moves … and maybe enjoy some good luck.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Vegas jumps all over Sharks with four first period goals, wins in rout

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The Vegas Golden Knights magic does not appear to be running out.

After stunning the hockey world by winning the Pacific Division in their inaugural season, Vegas easily dispatched the Los Angeles Kings in the first-round with a clean four-game sweep, setting the stage for a second-round matchup with the San Jose Sharks.

That second-round matchup opened on Thursday night and Vegas continued to do what it has done all season — jump all over teams early and with no mercy and never slow down.

The Golden Knights opened the game with four consecutive goals in the first period on their way to a 7-0 win in Game 1.

They received goals from seven different players while 11 different players recorded at least one point. Seven of those players had at least two points in the win.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Alex Tuch‘s goal to close out the first period scoring was especially beautiful as he effortlessly cut through four Sharks defenders

Just in case you have forgotten, the Golden Knights ended up getting Tuch because the Minnesota Wild gave him to them to convince them to take Haula in the expansion draft, and they were able to get Marchessault from the Florida Panthers for taking on Reilly Smith‘s contract. A lot of general managers around the NHL made bad decisions to help build this team.

Sharks goalie Martin Jones was pulled after giving up the fifth goal early in the second period. He was replaced by Aaron Dell who went on to give up a pair of power play goals in the third period after Evander Kane was given a five-minute major penalty — and ejected — for cross-checking Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in the head.

Along with the offensive outburst, Marc-Andre Fleury also recorded his third shutout of the playoffs. Vegas has only played five games.

Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

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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 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Teams under pressure, sleeper picks

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1. Which Round 1 series are you most looking forward to and why? 

SEAN: The obvious is Penguins/Flyers, but I’m real interested in seeing how the Vegas Golden Knights respond to their first playoff series. They have plenty of postseason experience on the roster but over the last month of the season they haven’t been playing their best hockey. But that’s the good thing about the playoffs, it’s clean slate and the focus is solely on one team. LA, meanwhile, is back and we’ve seen before how the likes of Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty can propel this team to success. Kopitar had a wonderful bounceback season and Doughty is in the Norris Trophy discussion. But will the Kings’ roster overall be able to handle the speed that Vegas will throw at them?

JAMES: Penguins/Flyers is almost always thrilling, and not just from a rubber-necking standpoint. Kings/Golden Knights should be a ball when you consider the absurdity of Vegas winning the Pacific in its inaugural season and the clash in styles at play.

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

Those are just two other examples of great series, but for my money, Bruins/Maple Leafs has it all. You have two bitter rivals with plenty of history, some of it scarring. The Bruins aren’t just a great defensive team, as even with buckets of injuries, they only scored seven fewer goals (270) this season than the high-flying Buds (277). This series could be an instant classic between two blindingly talented teams.

Also, this series likely to produce at least once epic Mike Babcock scowl per game. Consider that the tie-breaker.

JOEY: Boston/Toronto should be a whole lot of fun. Both teams have a lot of good, young players that can play fast. But the most intriguing matchup in this series will take place between the pipes. I have no idea how the Frederik Andersen vs. Tuukka Rask matchup will play out. Both guys have had strong years for the most part, but it’ll be interesting to see what they can accomplish in the playoffs.

Obviously, having Auston Matthews and Patrice Bergeron go head-to-head is every hockey fan’s dream (or at least it should be). Having Brad Marchand and Nazem Kadri lighting fires all over the ice doesn’t hurt either.

ADAM: Penguins/Flyers just because I really have no idea what is going to happen in that series. It’s set up to be really high scoring because neither team has great goaltending, they both have high-end players up front, and they both can score a ton of goals. They are also both capable of completely blowing the other one out. And while neither team really plays a physical style it’s still the Penguins and Flyers, it’s still the playoffs, and it is almost certain that it is going to turn into complete chaos at some point. Sign me up for it.

SCOTT: Many will say Toronto/Boston. It’s a great Original Six, I hate you, you hate me series, but for me, it’s Pittsburgh/Philadelphia. There’s simply more hate for each other in this one. And it’s not as much Sidney Crosby vs. Claude Giroux this time around as it is Crosby vs. Sean Couturier, which will be intriguing. Not to mention the Penguins are going in search of the three-peat. 

2. What team in each conference is feeling the most pressure to succeed this postseason?

SEAN: This is the one title the Capitals can claim. Another postseason filled with pressure to win. It was 20 years ago this spring that they last got past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 2009, they’ve been knocked out of the playoffs three times by the Pittsburgh Penguins and they could meet yet again in Round 2. First, however, they need to slay the Columbus Blue Jackets which won’t be an easy task and getting the first crack in goal is Philipp Grubauer, who’s been playing like a No. 1 for most of the season.

In the West, the Predators are built to win the Stanley Cup. They earned valuable experience in their run last year, but now anything short of a championship is a disappointment. GM David Poile bolstered his roster by adding Nick Bonino, Mike Fisher, Kyle Turris and Eeli Tolvanen up front, while Pekka Rinne is having a Vezina Trophy-type season in goal. Can he keep his play up for another two months?

JAMES: Compared to previous seasons, the Capitals probably feel like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders … yet it still comes down to Washington or the Lightning. Consider this a vote for D.C., as the baggage of multiple letdowns and Barry Trotz’s uncertain future make for quite the pressure cooker. At least they’re used to it, though, right?

Out West, the Jets could very well win the Stanley Cup, yet things could get really awkward if they struggle early against Minnesota. After all, the Thrashers/Jets haven’t won a playoff game, let alone a playoff series.

JOEY: I have to go with the Capitals in the East and the Predators in the West. Washington is an obvious one because they’ve iced a lot of good teams, but have failed to get past the second round of playoffs. This year, they didn’t come away with a Presidents’ Trophy, but they’re still one of the top teams in the league. Failing to get out of the second round would be seen as another disappointing end.

The Predators made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year and they were pretty dominant this year. Failing to make another run will be seen as a disappointment. Nashville didn’t have much pressure last year as an eight seed, so it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to being top dog in the Western Conference.

ADAM: The easy answer in the East is Washington because, well, it’s Washington and at some point they have to get through that glass ceiling. If they don’t do it this year you have to wonder if Barry Trotz gets another chance or what sort of changes they make. But honestly, I think Toronto might be facing a lot of pressure simply because it’s Toronto and now that they are back in the playoffs for the second year in a row, and because the Toronto media is always out for blood, I feel like expectations are a lot higher this year and if they don’t get out of the first-round (remember, a Mike Babcock coached team has not gotten out of the first-round since 2013, and only once since 2011) I feel like the knives could be out a little. In the Western Conference I think it comes down to either Winnipeg just because they still haven’t won a playoff game yet, or Nashville simply because expectations are so high at this point. It almost seems like it is expected the Predators will be in the Stanley Cup Final again and anything less than that would be a disappointment.

SCOTT: In the East, surely it’s the Washington Capitals. They once again one the Metropolitan Division but once again, it doesn’t matter unless they can show up in the playoffs finally. Can Philipp Grubauer do what Braden Holtby hasn’t been able to do? Will the Capitals figure out a way to keep scoring? They’ve made the playoffs 10 times in the last 11 seasons. Their longest run in any of those 10 times? The second round. The pressure to prove they belong couldn’t be any higher.

In the West, I believe it’s on the Nashville Predators. Last year, they were the second wildcard. With no pressure, they made an improbable run to the finals. This year, reaching the same stage wouldn’t be surprising in the least. The Predators appear to have all the tools and they’re well-versed in using them. Anything other than a return trip to the Stanley Cup finals would be a disappointment.

3. Give me one sleeper team in each conference and why?

SEAN: Don’t sleep on the Columbus Blue Jackets. Good possession numbers, balanced scoring up front and a power play that improved eight percent since the trade deadline. Sergei Bobrovsky needs to be his regular season self unlike the past where he’s posted .929 and .898 even strength save percentages in his two previous postseason experiences. They have the right Round 1 matchup with the Capitals, a team facing plenty of pressure to win and hoping they made the right choice in goal with Grubauer.

The San Jose Sharks know how to win this time of year. It was only two years ago they pushed the Penguins to six games in the Final before falling short. While the focus in the West is on Nashville, Winnipeg and Vegas — rightfully so — San Jose is sitting there with a stingy defense, a balanced offense (with a big boost from Evander Kane) and good special teams. Their question mark is in goal and making us wonder which Martin Jones we’ll see. It wasn’t the best of regular seasons for him. How long is he leash considering how well Aaron Dell played behind him?

JAMES: Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets generated a fantastic 13-4-2 record. The only East team with a better record during that span is the Panthers, who fell a stride short of the playoffs.

With Artemi Panarin on a roll, the Seth Jones/Zach Werenski combo on defense, some nice depth players, and an elite goalie desperate to prove himself in the playoffs in Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets check a lot of the boxes for a dark horse candidate.

Honestly, all three California teams could feasibly make a run out West. If forced to pick just one, let’s go with the Ducks … at least if John Gibson can heal up soon. If not, pretend we never spoke of this.

JOEY: At one point, it looked like the Columbus Blue Jackets were never going to win another hockey game again, but they managed to right the ship. After a slow start, Cam Atkinson finally came around. He’s a big reason why the Blue Jackets are in the position they’re in. Facing the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions won’t be an easy task though. If they’re going to go on a run and surprise a few people, they’ll need Sergei Bobrovsky to steal the show. He’s certainly capable of doing that.

In the West, the San Jose Sharks seem to be a bit of an afterthought. Evander Kane, who they acquired at the deadline, has fit in perfectly to his new surroundings and he’s added another dimension to this team. After going through a rough patch last season, Martin Jones has also bounced back in the second half of the year. If Jones can give the Sharks some solid goaltending, they’ll have a chance to go a round or two. Obviously, having Brent Burns firing on all cylinders doesn’t hurt.

ADAM: I gave them the lowest chance to win the Stanley Cup in my pre-playoff Power Rankings but even if they do not win the whole thing I could see New Jersey causing some headaches. They have the (most likely) MVP, they play a fast, aggressive game, and they are getting a Tampa Bay team that kind of limped into the playoffs. Will it happen? Probably not, but I could see the Devils maybe upsetting the apple cart a bit. In the West I kind of want to say San Jose just because I feel like they are lurking under the radar quite a bit, had a surprisingly good season, and seem to have exceeded expectations all year.

SCOTT: In the east, it’s the New Jersey Devils. It’s the typical team that has nothing to lose and everything to gain against the team that placed tops in the Eastern Conference. We saw the same scenario play out last year with the Predators. The Devils finished the year on a 7-2-1 clip in their last 10-games and they have Taylor Hall, who may just be the hottest player in the league at the moment.

In the West, it’s tough to count out the Anaheim Ducks. They finished second in the division on the back of an 8-1-1 stretch to close out the regular season, including a five-game winning streak. The Ducks are far from favorites, but they ice one of the most underrated goaltenders in the NHL in John Gibson, give up fewer goals than most as a result and have playoff experience oozing from every pore. There’s nothing the core of the Ducks hasn’t seen in the playoffs.

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4. How far can the Vegas Golden Knights go?

SEAN: They’ve been doubted all season, and already fueled by being cast off by their previous teams, why not have something else to motivate them after an historic season? Despite a final few weeks where they were a tad inconsistent, playoff time is wakeup time. Getting out of the Pacific Division poses a challenge, but their speed can help them get by the Kings in the first round and then you wonder how beat up the Sharks/Ducks will be coming out of their series. 

Marc-Andre Fleury is a goalie who’s had his issues in the postseason, but in this situation, with his experience, is certainly someone you want in net. But will those who produced in the regular season see that continue in the playoffs? Can William Karlsson sustain his 23 percent shooting percentage? Can Erik Haula, Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal find time and space to continue their scoring prowess? Can the special teams hold up and take advantage of situations when presented?

Vegas has already answered a ton of questions through 82 games. Now comes an entirely new set.

JAMES: Well, according to my own predictions, they’re most likely to see the dream end against Los Angeles.

Still, the Golden Knights get to see if their home-ice advantage extends to the playoffs when their opponents should be on their best behavior. And, while it’s conceivable that the other Pacific teams could catch fire (see question 3), there’s also a reason why they rank as sleepers: this division has been far weaker than the Central in 2018-19.

With that in mind, it’s not that outrageous to picture the magic lasting until the Western Conference Final. Even if the Central teams mash each other into paste, it’s tough to picture Vegas outlasting Nashville or Winnipeg, in particular.

So, if the stars align, they can win two rounds. I’d wager that they fall short against the Kings, which shouldn’t diminish this magical run.

JOEY: That’s a tough one. I can see the Golden Knights getting past the Kings, but I can also see them lose out to an experienced group that has Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and many others. But I’ve learned my lesson from the regular season, so I won’t doubt them. Still, I can’t see them getting further than the second round. I don’t think a trip to the conference final is in the cards for Vegas just yet.

ADAM: Honestly, I could see them in the Western Conference Final. The Pacific Division is a favorable field for them, I think they match up well with the teams in the division because of their speed, and they have that four-line recipe offensively that can be tough to match up with. A fast, high-scoring team with a suspect defense and Marc-Andre Fleury in net. Not like we have not seen that recipe go on a postseason run before.

SCOTT: When is reality going to catch up with this team? Is there even a reality other than the one they currently exist in? Vegas has defied all the odds in the regular season and now there’s a chance for them to continue to re-write the history books again. They face a tough Los Angeles Kings team that knows a thing or two about playoff hockey. Vegas took the season series 2-1-1, but L.A. scored more goals, 11-10 in those matchups. It was a close season series and that won’t likely change come puck drop in their first-round matchup. Personally, if think the Golden Knights could make the conference finals. They have a three-time Stanley Cup champion in goal and an uncanny ability to come back from deficits. I stopped betting against this team a long time ago.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

PHT’s 2018 Stanley Cup playoff previews

Lightning vs. Devils
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets
Penguins vs. Flyers

Predators vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Wild
Golden Knights vs. Kings
Ducks vs. Sharks

Ducks vs. Sharks: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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This all-California battle seems to be flying under the radar, but this one should be a physical, back-and-forth series between two good teams.

After dropping three games in a row to Nashville, Dallas and St. Louis in early March, the Ducks managed to turn their game and their season around. That loss to the Blues came on Mar. 12, but they responded by winning five of their next six contests (5-0-1). The Ducks had a let-down game against a horrible Vancouver team on Mar. 27, but again, they were able to rattle off five wins in a row to close out the year.

Anaheim ended up finishing the season with fewer wins than San Jose, but their 44-25-13 record (101 points) was good enough to put them in second place in the Pacific Division, which means they’ll have home-ice advantage in the series. That’s good news for the Ducks, as they had a solid 26-10-5 record at the Honda Center.

Even though the Ducks finished with one more point than the Sharks, who had a 45-27-10 record (100 points), Anaheim came away with just one win during the four games between these two teams in 2017-18. San Jose may have won three of the four clashes, but most of these games were extremely close. Three of those four games were decided in a shootout. Only once did a team get blown out, and that was Anaheim when they fell 6-2 at home on Jan. 21.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

A few of San Jose’s top players got off to really rocky starts this season. Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Martin Jones struggled early on. Pavelski had just four goals and eight points in his first 19 games, but the 33-year-old still managed to finish with 22 goals and 66 points. Burns failed to score in his first 20 games and he racked up only seven points in his first 19 outings. Like Pavelski, Burns finished strong, as he had 67 points when it was all said and done. As for Jones, he lost his starting gig to Aaron Dell for a while, but he managed to get his game back together.

SCHEDULE:

FORWARDS: 

Anaheim: Rickard Rakell led the Ducks in scoring this season, as he had 34 goals and 69 points in 77 games. He had a great year, but the biggest reason why he led the team in the points department is because Ryan Getzlaf missed time due to injury. The Ducks captain had 61 points in just 56 contests. It was another disappointing season for Corey Perry, who failed to hit the 20-goal mark for the second year in a row (17 goals, 49 points in 71 games). Outside of Rakell, the other two Ducks that hit the 20-goal mark were Ondrej Kase and Adam Henrique. You all know about Ryan Kesler and how he’s capable of getting under the opposition’s skin. He has to stay healthy.

San Jose: Pavelski and Logan Couture (34 goals and 61 points) were the Sharks forwards that finished with the highest amount of points in 2017-18. San Jose also got valuable contributions from Tomas Hertl (22 goals and 46 points), Timo Meier (21 goals and 36 points) and Joonas Donskoi (32 points in 66 games). But the deadline acquisition of Evander Kane changed the game for them. Kane had nine goals and 14 points in 17 games after being traded from Buffalo on Feb. 26.

Advantage: A slight edge to the Sharks. The forward depth these two teams possess is fairly close. Getzlaf is probably the best forward on either side, but the Sharks have slightly more high-end options in Pavelski, Couture and Kane.

DEFENSE:

Anaheim: The Ducks have one of the deepest blue lines in the NHL, but they’re currently dealing with a significant injury. Cam Fowler suffered a shoulder injury earlier this moth. He’s expected to miss anywhere between two-to-six weeks, so it’s entirely possible that he misses the entire first round. Even without Fowler, Anaheim still has Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Brandon Montour. Veteran Kevin Bieksa, who isn’t as effective as he once was, is considered questionable with a hand injury.

San Jose: Burns is obviously the key piece of the blue line for the Sharks. He led the team in points and he averaged over 25 minutes of ice time per game during the regular season. Justin Braun (33 points) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (32 points) are the other important defensemen on the team. San Jose’s group of blue liners have the ability to move the puck as efficiently as any other team in the league.

Advantage: Sharks. If Fowler was healthy, this wouldn’t even be a discussion, but with him sidelined the gap has been closed. Burns, Vlasic and Braun have an edge over Linholm, Manson and Montour, but it isn’t as far as some may think. Again, things change on the blue line because of the Fowler injury.

GOALTENDING: 

Anaheim: John Gibson missed the final three games of the regular season because of an upper-body injury. Veteran backup Ryan Miller stepped in and did a solid job, but there’s no denying that Gibson is the best option for Anaheim. The 24-year-old was really good for the Ducks this season. He didn’t grab as many headlines as some of the other star goalies in the East, but there’s a legitimate argument to be made that he was Anaheim’s MVP in 2017-18 (he had a 31-18-7 record with a 2.43 goals-against-average and a .926 save percentage). It sounds like he could be ready for Game 1.

San Jose: As we mentioned earlier in this story, Jones had a tough start to the year but he bounced back down the stretch. The 28-year-old finished the season with a 30-22-6 record with a 2.55 goals-against-average and a .915 save percentage. He’s capable of playing solid games in the postseason (he had a 1.75 GAA and a .935 save percentage during last year’s playoffs), but that still wasn’t enough to get them out of the first round.

Advantage: Anaheim. Gibson has the ability to be the difference maker in this series. If he stays healthy and he continues to play like he did at times this season, he can propel the Ducks to the second round.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Anaheim: The Ducks weren’t so hot on the man-advantage this season, as they ranked 23rd in the league in that category. Of all the teams in the playoffs, only the Blue Jackets converted on the man-advantage less often than the Ducks. On the PK, things were a lot better for them. Anaheim had the fifth-best penalty-kill at 83.2 percent. Only Los Angeles, San Jose, Boston and Colorado were better in that category.

San Jose: As we just mentioned, the Sharks had the second-best PK unit in the entire NHL at 84.8 percent (they were just 0.2 percent away from matching the Kings). The Sharks were slightly better than the Ducks on the power play, but they still finished with the 16th ranked unit on the man-advantage (20.6 percent). Burns is the straw that stirs the drink on the power play.

Advantage: Sharks. They have a better penalty kill and power play. That’s significant, but there isn’t a huge gap between these two teams when it comes to special teams.

X-FACTOR:

Anaheim: Corey Perry can be a game-changer for the Ducks, but they need him to score more goals than he did during the regular season. If he regains that scoring touch, he could change things for the better. Perry had four goals and 11 points in 17 games during Anaheim’s run to the Western Conference Final last season.

San Jose: As we saw after the trade deadline, Kane made a huge difference for the Sharks. He was engaged, productive and he was one of their better players. He hasn’t played any playoff hockey in the NHL, so it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts to the postseason. The pending unrestricted free agent should be motivated to keep the ball rolling this spring.

PREDICTION:

Ducks in six games. These two teams are as evenly matched as any of the opponents going head-to-head in the first round. San Jose may have a slight edge up front, on defense (with now Fowler) and on special teams, but the Ducks have similar quality. They aren’t too far behind the Sharks in those categories. Anaheim has a net advantage between the pipes and they also have experience on their side. They managed to get to the Western Conference Final last season, and they have the ability to do that again this year.

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: Team USA drops Olympic opener; Mike Fisher’s ETA

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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.

• It’s a rough day for American hockey fans, as Team USA dropped a 3-2 OT decision to Slovenia in their first game at the Olympics. (USA Hockey)

• Winning a gold medal in Korea would make Pavel Datsyuk a member of the triple gold club. (Pyeongchang2018)

• Both Korea and Japan are feeling good after playing each other in tournament action. (NBC Olympics)

• The Canadian and American women will do battle on Thursday. A medal isn’t on the line, but top spot in the group is. (Associated Press)

• Even though Ottawa is retaining 25 percent of Dion Phaneuf‘s contract, the trade they made with the Kings will save them roughly $5.5 million in real cash. (TSN.ca)

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Chris Kreider, who was diagnosed with a blood clot late in December, is close to returning to action. (NY Post)

• Sharks goalie Aaron Dell worked hard to get to where he is, but his family was a huge help along the way. (NHL.com)

• The Predators would like to have Mike Fisher back in their lineup by early March. (The Tennessean)

• ESPN looks at possible reasons why no coaches have been fired yet this season. (ESPN)

• The Chicago Blackhawks struggles can be blamed on time and mismanagement. (Fan Rag Sports)

• Former NHLer Stephen Peat is struggling to pay his medical bills. He’s even living in his truck. (CBC.ca)

• The Florida Panthers are not in the market for a rental player, according to GM Dale Tallon. (Sportsnet)

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.