Healthy Vlasic making huge impact for Sharks

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The Vegas Golden Knights haven’t found getting shots on Martin Jones to be a particularly difficult task over the last two games. The problem is that Good Martin Jones returned in time for the San Jose Sharks to help force a Game 7 Tuesday night at SAP Center (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

In Game 5 the Golden Knights fired 32 shots towards Jones, only beating him twice during a 5-2 defeat. During Sunday’s double overtime loss, Vegas outshot San Jose 59-29 and couldn’t put the puck past Jones more than once. They’ve dominated possession in the last two games (60-39 Corsi percentage advantage at 5-on-5) but goaltending, which was the Sharks’ Achilles heel earlier in the series, has rebounded and brought us to this Game 7 scenario.

The other problem for their Golden Knights? Their dynamic second line has been held in check.

Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty were extraordinary during the first four games of the series. The trio combined for 12 goals and 28 points, 10 of which came on the power play. They were unstoppable. Then Marc-Edouard Vlasic got healthy.

The Sharks defenseman, who was injured early in Game 2, returned for Game 5, the start of the San Jose comeback. Vlasic has spent a lot of time against that Golden Knights’ second line, and done a good job of limiting their chances. The trio is pointless in the last two games, managing a combined seven shots at even strength, per Natural Stat Trick.

“Shutting down the top line. That’s my job,” Vlasic said. “You look at the last two games, if I keep them off the scoresheet I did my job.”

Game 5 was a good example of what Vlasic can do when fully healthy. He broke up a 3-on-1 chance for the Golden Knights in the second period with the score tied 1-1 and later sent a one-touch pass to Tomas Hertl out of the Sharks’ zone in double OT, which resulted in the winning goal.

“He’s just always in the right place at the right time,” Sharks defenseman Justin Braun, who’s been a consistent partner of Vlasic’s, told Pro Hockey Talk earlier this season. “He’s got one of the best sticks in the league knocking down passes, breaking up plays. He’s got the ability to jump up into the play and finish. It’s what you want in a partner. He’s never outside of his game, pushing the pace too much. He makes every guy around him better.”

Vlasic has been an underrated defenseman for most of his career. He’s averaged 32 points a season through 965 NHL games and been a consistent positive possession player. Despite strong numbers at both ends of the ice, he’s never been a finalist for the Norris Trophy having finished 12th, 20th, 21st, and 11th in the voting in four of the past five seasons.

While 2018-19 was a tale of two halves for Vlasic, he’s returned to good form of late, which is something the Sharks have needed from their blue line.

Vlasic doesn’t stand out like a Brent Burns or an Erik Karlsson, he just does his job steadily, and Braun gets a close-up view of  those little impactful things that can easily missed.

“Just how many plays he breaks up,” said Braun. “Two-on-one, in the corner, shutting guys down. You’re talking about the best players in the world that can’t get away from him. He’s keeping them off the scoresheet every night. That’s the biggest thing. You don’t really see who’s breaking up the passes every time, but he’s right there. Good gap, making guys dump it in, you don’t notice that on TV.”

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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.

The Buzzer: Vatrano’s four-point night; Laviolette earns win No. 600

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Three Stars

1. Frank Vatrano, Florida Panthers: Continuing his career year, Vatrano notched his 16th goal and added three assists as the Panthers beat the San Jose Sharks 6-2. The score was knotted at two as the third period began but goals from Keith Yandle and Vincent Trocheck nine seconds apart blew the game open in the Panthers’ favor. Aleksander Barkov chipped in with three helpers of his own. According to the NHL, Vatrano is the third undrafted player in franchise history to record a four-point game, joining Steve Reinprecht and Jesse Belanger.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: The Finnish netminder turned aside 35 of 36 shots he faced as Nashville downed the Colorado Avalanche 4-1. The win snapped Rinne’s three-game losing streak and helped Predators head coach Peter Laviolette earn his 600th NHL victory. Nick Bonino recorded his 100th career goal and now has four goals in his last four games. Nashville has won 12 of its last 13 regular-season games against Colorado.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild: Staal scored his 15th of the season and later helped set up Charlie Coyle‘s game-winning goal during a 4-2 Wild victory over the Vegas Golden Knights. Devan Dubnyk made 30 saves and has stopped 64 of his last 67 shots faced. Minnesota is now 4-0-1 against Vegas and are one of two teams (St. Louis) without a regulation loss against the reigning Western Conference champions.

Highlights of the Night

Pretty little goal here from Viktor Arvidsson, who leads all NHL players with 10 goals since the calendar turned to 2019:

Paul LaDue‘s first goal since October was the difference as the Kings topped the Blues:

Congrats to Mackenzie MacEachern for scoring his first NHL goal in the Blues loss:

One heck of an effort by Mikael Granlund and Zach Parise to help set up Mikko Koivu‘s empty-netter:

Justin Braun‘s going to want another shot at this one:

Factoids of the Night

• Via the AP: Laviolette is the 20th coach in NHL history to each 600 career wins and third this season joining John Tortorella and Claude Julien.

• Per the NHL, birthday boy Jonathan Quick recorded his 302nd victory, which is fourth-best among U.S.-born goaltenders. He’s now 67 behind Tom Barrasso.

• Also per the NHL, Aaron Ekblad of the Panthers is the 13th defenseman in the League’s modern era (since 1943-44) to record at least 10 goals in each of his first five seasons.

Scores
Predators 4, Avalanche 1
Kings 4, Blues 3
Wild 4, Golden Knights 2
Panthers 6, Sharks 2

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Sharks visit on Coyotes on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes. Coverage begins at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Seven games in 2019 have equated to seven straight wins for the San Jose Sharks, who own the longest active winning streak in the NHL.

The Sharks are doing so well that they’ve climbed into second place in the Pacific Divison and can take top spot if the first-place Calgary Flames lose to the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sharks come into the game having played on Tuesday, with Tomas Hertl scoring a hat trick to down the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2.

It might be time, then, for the Coyotes to capitalize.

Arizona has won three of its past four and sends Darcy Kuemper into the crease. Kuemper has won four straight starts

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: San Jose Sharks at Arizona Coyotes
Where: Gila River Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sharks-Coyotes stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SHARKS
Marcus SorensenJoe ThorntonJoe Pavelski
Lukas RadilLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Evander Kane — Tomas Hertl — Joonas Donskoi
Melker KarlssonBarclay GoodrowKevin Labanc

Radim SimekBrent Burns
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson
Tim HeedJustin Braun

Starting goalie: Aaron Dell

COYOTES

Clayton KellerJordan WealChristian Fischer
Richard PanikDerek StepanVinnie Hinostroza
Alex GalchenyukNick CousinsConor Garland
Lawson CrouseMario KempeJosh Archibald

Oliver Ekman-LarssonNiklas Hjalmarsson
Jakob ChychrunIlya Lyubushkin
Jordan OesterleAlex Goligoski

Starting goalie: Darcy Kuemper

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

Burns, Karlsson leading Sharks’ resurgence

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The San Jose Sharks are starting to look like the Stanley Cup contender we thought they would be at the start of the season.

It is their two-headed monster of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on defense that is driving them back to that level.

The Sharks enter Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Kings (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) having collected a point in 13 of their past 16 games (with 11 of those games being wins) to keep pace in the suddenly tight Pacific Division race with the Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights.

This is the type of performance we expected to see from the Sharks this season after adding Karlsson to a blue line that already boasted Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, and Brendan Dillon.

On paper, it is one of the best defensive groups in the league, and the addition of Karlsson gave them a collection of Norris Trophy caliber players that few teams in recent league history have ever had. The few teams that have had that type of star-power on their blue line have typically gone very far in the playoffs and made serious runs at the Stanley Cup (if not actually winning it).

Over the past month Karlsson and Burns have been playing at a level that makes the Sharks look like a serious threat to do just that.

[Related: Timo Meier power Sharks during breakout season]

Since Dec. 1 Burns and Karlsson are first and second in the league in scoring among defensemen with 21 and 20 points respectively, while Karlsson has recorded at least one point in 13 of his 15 games during that stretch. That includes his current 12-game point streak.

Burns, meanwhile, has been especially hot over the past two weeks with 12 points in his past five games, including at least two in each of the past four games.

For the season as a whole, both players have been among the NHL’s elite when it comes to driving possession and scoring chances and now the actual production is starting to catch up to really highlight that dominance.

It could not be happening at a better time for the Sharks given the state of the rest of their blue line.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Vlasic has had a down year from his usual standard. Making matters worse, he and Braun are both currently sidelined due to injury. Those two injuries have not only left them short on defensive depth (their third pairing on Monday is expected to be Jacob Middleton and Tim Heed) but has forced Karlsson and Burns to take on major minutes, with both logging more than 29 minutes in each of the past two games.

They have been great in those minutes.

This is what is going to make the Sharks such a tough out in the playoffs. They not only have two Norris Trophy winning defenders on their blue line (Karlsson and Burns have combined to win three, and be finalists three other times), they have a third defender in Vlasic that, when he is at his best, is a legit top-pairing defender in the NHL. When you can send a No. 1 defensemen over the boards at literally any point during a game that is a huge advantage to have in a short series, especially when one of them (Karlsson) has shown the ability to log huge minutes and carry a team on his back deep into the postseason. Given the talent he has around him on this team he won’t have to do it all on his own.

The wild card for this team is going to be getting adequate goaltending. They have managed to stay in the race for the top spot in the Pacific Division despite having some of the worst goaltending in the league with Martin Jones and Aaron Dell both checking in with save percentages under .900 for the season.

Even during this recent stretch where the Sharks have piled up wins, neither one has played at even a league average level. That, more than anything, has taken away from just how good this Sharks team (and their top defenders) can be.

If they can figure out a way to get that position settled, whether it be Jones returning to form or an in-season trade to upgrade the position in the short-term, this could be a fierce team to have to deal within the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs with that type of impact talent on defense.

More: Sharks on the rise in this week’s PHT Power Rankings

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.

WATCH LIVE: Sharks visit Avalanche on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Sharks and Avalanche meet for the first time this season in a matchup of teams that would each be in the playoffs if the season ended today but enter the new year on very different paths. San Jose won nine of 15 games in December (9-4-2) including a 7-2-2 stretch in its last 11. Colorado, on the other hand, is mired in a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) and has lost nine of its last 11 games (2-6-3).

San Jose has been streaky over the last five weeks or so, losing four straight at the end of November into December followed by winning seven of eight and then losing three straight prior to Christmas before winning two in-a-row ahead of Monday’s loss.

Sharks captain Joe Pavelski leads the Sharks with 23 goals. The 34-year-old finished with 22 goals last season in a full 82 games. Pavelski picked a good time to be on a career pace (on track for 46 goals – career high is 41 from 2013-14), since he will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

The Avs are led by their trio – what was known as the MGM line – of Landeskog, last year’s Hart Trophy runner-up in MacKinnon and rising star Rantanen. Like the team, the three of them have come a long way since Colorado’s disastrous 2016-17 season when they finished last in the NHL.

Rantanen ranks second in the NHL in points and MacKinnon sits third. Not since Evgeni Malkin (1st) and Sidney Crosby (3rd) in 2008-09 has a pair of teammates finished in the top three in scoring in the same season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: San Jose Sharks at Colorado Avalanche
Where: Pepsi Center
When: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sharks-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SHARKS
Lukas RadilLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Marcus SorensenJoe Thornton – Joe Pavelski
Evander KaneTomas HertlJoonas Donskoi
Kevin LabancBarclay GoodrowMelker Karlsson

Marc-Edouard VlasicJustin Braun
Joakim RyanBrent Burns
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson

Starting goalie: Martin Jones

AVALANCHE
Tyson JostNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen
Gabriel LandeskogAlex KerfootJ.T. Compher
Matt NietoCarl SoderbergMatt Calvert
Gabriel Bourque – Sheldon Dries – Logan O’Connor

Sam GirardErik Johnson
Ian ColeTyson Barrie
Patrik Nemeth – Ryan Graves

Starting goaliePhilipp Grubauer

John Forslund (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Sharks-Avalanche from Pepsi Center.