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.

PHT Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

4 Comments

There can only be one team lifting the Stanley Cup at the end of the season, and that means the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against your favorite team going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Chances are, your team is going to lose at some point over the next two months.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we keep that in mind and, just as we did at the start of the playoffs a year ago, take a look at why your team can not win it all this season.

Teams are ranked in order their ability to overcome whatever weakness it is they may have.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have to actually finish a big series. In the past four years they have lost two Eastern Conference Finals where they had 3-2 leads and a Cup Final where they had a 2-1 lead. In all three situations their offense was completely shut down at the worst possible time. A fluke? An unfortunate, poorly timed coincidence? Some kind of mental block? All of the above? Whatever it is, until they actually do it that question is going to keep following them around.

2. Washington Capitals — The defending champs have started to play like champions since the trade deadline. The concern here: They are still not a great defensive team and the loss of Michal Kempny will only make that worse. What they do have, however, are a couple of Hall of Fame forwards and a goalie that, even though he didn’t have a great regular season, always seems to play his best hockey in the playoffs. That recipe worked a year ago.

3.  Vegas Golden Knights — They have been a dominant possession team in the second half and can roll three quality lines that can all beat you. Their struggles down the stretch were mainly related to the fact Malcolm Subban isn’t Marc-Andre Fleury. With Fleury back and healthy, and assuming the bad version of him does not show up, this is going to be a brutal team to deal with. That is the big concern, though: Which Fleury will they get. No goalie in the league has been more hot and cold than him this season. He has been great in games, and awful in others.

4. Boston Bruins — One of the best teams in the NHL this season despite some brutal injury luck that robbed them of some of their best, most important players for extended periods of time. The biggest concern I see here, other than still wondering if they are deep enough beyond their top forwards, is the same thing every team in the Atlantic Division bracket has … they are the best teams in the league, they all have to play each other, and somebody has to lose.

5. St. Louis Blues — They have been one of the hottest teams in the league for months now and have some of the best underlying numbers in the NHL since Craig Berube took over behind the bench. It’s easy to write their turnaround off as them simply catching lightning in a bottle with Jordan Binnington, but since Jan. 1 the Blues have been one of the best 5-on-5 teams in hockey. They don’t really have a glaring weakness and the two top teams in their bracket are there for the taking. If you wanted to look for an issue it is probably concern over how long Binnington can keep playing at this level or if he will eventually turn into a pumpkin at midnight.

6. Nashville Predators — I want to say a lot of their struggles at times this season, especially as it relates to their offense, have been because of all the games players like Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson missed. They still have what might be the best defense in hockey and two really good goalies, but their offense — both at even-strength and on the power play — has been a struggle this season.

7. Calgary Flames — I love everything about this team except for the fact I don’t entirely trust David Rittich or Mike Smith. That is the wrong position to have questions about.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — They could win the Cup or they could lose Round 1 in five games. Nobody really knows what this team will do or what it is capable of, and that is kind of the problem here. They are just too inconsistent. There are only a handful of teams in the NHL that can match the star power they have at the top of the lineup, and Matt Murray has been better than anybody gives him credit for being this season, but their defensive play is severely lacking at times and I don’t know that you can trust their second and third pairs on the blue line.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are really good, and their struggles are probably magnified more than the struggles of other teams because of where they play and the expectations around them. I just don’t know if they are good enough to beat Boston and Tampa Bay in the first two rounds should it come to that. There might be six teams in the entire league better than them, and two of them will probably be standing directly in front of them in the first two rounds.

10. Carolina Hurricanes — Since January 1 the Hurricanes have been kind of outstanding. Their points percentage since then? Fourth best in the NHL. Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength? All among the top-10. Sebastian Aho is a star, Teuvo Teravainen has had a great year, Nino Niederreiter gave them another finisher they desperately needed, and Andrei Svechnikov‘s rookie season is better than you realize. Love the way they play and love their approach to the game. My big concern is how long Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney can maintain their current level of play.

[Related: Hurricanes’ long road back to the playoffs]

11. San Jose Sharks — Goaltending matters in the playoffs and history is not kind to playoff teams that have goaltending like this, no matter how good their regular season record is or how good their roster looks on paper. This is a real problem and it might cost them the Stanley Cup.

12. Winnipeg Jets — I don’t know what to make of this team. A couple of weeks ago they looked to be getting into playoff mode and playing some of their best hockey of the season, but for two months now they have been getting obliterated in shot attempts and scoring chances and have only been a very mediocre even-strength team all season. They do have great talent up front that could always carry them on a run, but something is missing this season.

13. New York Islanders — Mathew Barzal is developing into a star, but this roster lacks the type of impact talent after him that every Cup winner needs to have. Since February 1 they are 24th in the NHL in 5-on-5 shot attempt differential, 16th in scoring chance differential, and are only 6-7-1 against playoff teams during that stretch. I could see them winning a round with their goaltending, and then giving somebody a scare in Round 2. But I just don’t see the high-end talent here to win it all this season.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets — They were a mess in that first month after the trade deadline, but the Blue Jackets are kind of quietly heading into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league winning seven of their past eight. That is the good news. The bad news is they are stuck in the divisional bracket from hell and have to have face the Lightning in Round 1, and if they get through that, have to play the winner of Boston-Toronto in Round 2. And as much I hate to be that person to mention a narrative built entirely around small sample sizes, because I usually loathe that person, but Sergei Bobrovsky in the playoffs … yeah … it has been a problem.

15. Dallas Stars — Their goaltending gives them a chance every single night, but eventually Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov are going to get shut down for a couple of games. Once that happens there is nobody else on this team that is a threat to score.

16. Colorado Avalanche — They have the same depth concerns as the Stars without the great goaltending to back it all up.

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.

Fleury returns to Golden Knights’ lineup just in time for playoffs

The Vegas Golden Knights have nothing to gain in the standings on Thursday night (except to play spoiler for the Arizona Coyotes), but they will still be getting some good news as starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will be making his return to the lineup after missing the past nine games due to a lower-body injury.

Fleury has not played for the Golden Knights since he stopped 40 out of 41 shots in a 2-1 win over the Dallas Stars back on March 15.

In his absence the team relied heavily on backup Malcolm Subban and ended up winning just four of the nine games to settle in the third spot in the Pacific Division.

The start on Thursday, which figures to be Fleury’s final start of the regular season, will at least allow him to get some game action in before the team’s Round 1 matchup against the San Jose Sharks.

Prior to the injury Fleury had been playing what was perhaps his best hockey of the season with a personal six-game winning streak that saw him allow just five total goals. During that stretch he had a save percentage of .972 and recorded a pair of shutouts to give him eight on the season.

[Related: Fleury’s boom-or-bust season makes Golden Knights total wild card]

Overall he has a .914 save percentage in 59 appearances for the Golden Knights.

It has been kind of a bizarre season for Fleury as he has gone through stretches of total domination, like his most recent run before the injury, and had a lot of other games where he has been a little off. Which version of him the Golden Knights get in the playoffs will be a pretty big factor in how far they are able to go.

Even so, there is a pretty significant gap between Fleury and Subban and having the former back and healthy is going to be a huge advantage for them, especially in a Round 1 matchup against a Sharks team that has badly struggled down the stretch and has a major hole in net.

Meanwhile on Thursday, Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper is expected to be a game-time decision after he had to exit their most recent game after a stick blade went through his mask and struck him in the face.

The Coyotes are facing a must-win situation on Thursday as any loss (or any point by the Colorado Avalanche) will eliminate them from playoff contention.

Related: Analyzing the remaining NHL playoff races

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.

Sharks finally end losing streak, secure home ice in round one

AP

The San Jose Sharks are finally back in the win column.

Brent Burns‘ goal just 22 seconds into overtime on Saturday night lifted the Sharks to a 4-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights, snapping what had been a pretty miserable seven-game losing streak that had them reeling down the stretch run of the regular season.

Even bigger than the win on Saturday is what it means for the Sharks in the playoffs.

Saturday’s means win they have guaranteed themselves home-ice advantage in the first-round, while they still an outside shot at winning the Pacific Division. Even though the Sharks are still six points behind the Calgary Flames even after Saturday’s win, the two teams meet on Saturday. It would take an incredible finish by the Sharks, as well as a total collapse by the Flames, but the potential is still there. But it all has to start with a win on Sunday.

Most likely, though, the Sharks’ first-round opponent is probably going to be the same Vegas team they played on Saturday.

Based on what we saw in that game, it should be an exciting, intense, and brutally physical series.

The two teams met in the second-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago with the Golden Knights winning the series in six games and as they showed on Saturday there is plenty of bad blood between them.

While the Sharks’ losing streak finally came to an end, Vegas now finds itself on five-game losing streak. All of those losses have come without starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the lineup as he has not played since March 15. He had been playing some of his best hockey of the season up until that point, and the Golden Knights are clearly a different team without him in the lineup as there is a substantial drop between him and backup goalie Malcolm Subban.

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.

Avalanche hold on, regain sole possession of final wildcard in West

In a battle for one lone playoff spot, a massive win by one contending team often demands an equal or greater response from another.

It’s either that or things get dicey.

With Arizona winning 1-0 against the Chicago Blackhawks, they drew level with the Colorado Avalanche on points for the second and final wildcard in the Western Conference. The win threw the ball back in the Avs’ court, a high-stakes game of HORSE that’s drawing ever closer to an epic conclusion after narrowly holding on to a 4-3 win against the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday Night Hockey.

Colorado seemed up to the task right out of the gate, finding goals from Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon inside the first 10 minutes of the opening period to jump out to a 2-0 lead through the first 20.

Winners of six of their past 10 outings, and with points in their previous five, the Avs kept their foot on the gas and Tyson Barrie snatched a 3-0 lead early into the second period. Barrie’s goal was his record-breaking 73rd with the franchise, ushering him past Sandis Ozolinsh for most by a defenseman.

The Golden Knights entered the night needing a single point to clinch their second berth into the playoffs for the second time in their two-year existence. Despite not having Marc-Andre Fleury due to injury, the Malcolm Subban-led Knights had done an admirable job holding the fort in his absence with 10 wins in their past 13 games.

And like a team running hot, Vegas stormed back following Barrie’s goal, striking twice through Paul Stastny and Reilly Smith to pull them to within a goal.

Gabriel Bourque restored the two-goal cushion late in the period, a goal that survived a challenge for goaltender interference.

Vegas poured it on in the third, firing 15 shots on Philipp Grubauer (who ended his night with 34 saves). One beat him — an Alex Tuch swat out of mid-air that made for a nail-biting finish for the Avs.

Vegas had several chances when they pulled Subban as a full-frontal assault came the way of the Avalanche net. Adding to the drama was a penalty to the Avalanche with eight seconds left gave Vegas one final chance.

This is how close Jonathan Marchessault came to tying the game, grabbing a point that would have snagged a playoff spot for the Golden Knights.

Arizona’s win and Colorado’s response only adds to the hype train rolling into their meeting on Friday, a game that could very well decide the race if Colorado is to win or one that will write another chapter if Arizona can continue to defy all expectations.

They don’t get bigger than that down the stretch.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck