Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Karlsson’s health will dictate Sharks’ chances

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If you are a San Jose Sharks fan the current situation might seem a little bleak.

Your team was just dominated on home ice on Sunday afternoon and is heading on the road, facing elimination in the Western Conference Final, and needing to win the next two games to continue its Stanley Cup pursuit.

The odds, it would seem, are stacked against you.

If you are looking for something to be optimistic about it should be the fact Sharks have already been in a worse position this postseason and managed to overcome it. In Round 1 they trailed the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the series, needed to win three games in a row, and then found themselves with a three-goal deficit in the third period of Game 7 after crawling back to tie the series. Sure, they needed one of the biggest breaks in Stanley Cup playoff history to complete the comeback, but they still found a way to do it and take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself.

There is one very big difference this time around that might hold them back, and it is the health of top defender Erik Karlsson.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Karlsson is one of the many Sharks players that exited Sunday’s game due to injury, logging just 10 minutes of ice-time in the team’s 5-0 loss as he continues to deal with a nagging groin injury that has limited him all season. Head coach Peter DeBoer refused to offer any update on his status (as well as the status of injured forwards Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski) or if he would travel with the team.

His health is going to be a major determining factor in what happens for the Sharks over the next two games.

The Sharks acquired Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators just before the start of the 2018-19 season with the hope that he would be the missing piece on a Stanley Cup contender. When he is healthy and at his best, he is one of the best players in the world and on an elite tier of superstars. He is a difference-maker, and when the Sharks have had him at anything close to full health this season he has played like it.

Putting him on a defense that already has Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic gives the Sharks one of the best defensive groups in the league.

When the Sharks overcame their Round 1 deficit against the Golden Knights, Karlsson was a huge factor in that result.

He played more than 92 minutes (more than 40 percent of the total ice-time in those games), had four assists (tops on the team), and was on the ice for nine of the 12 goals the Sharks scored in their Games 5, 6, and 7 wins. Only two other players on the team (Hertl and Logan Couture) were on the ice for more than six goals in those three games. He had at least two points in every game the Sharks won in that Round 1 series. He was at the center of everything and one of the biggest reasons they came back to win.

Unfortunately for the Sharks, the groin injury has resurfaced and he has been obviously limited over the past few games. Not only in terms of his lack of ice time and early exit in Game 5 (as well as the extended stretch in Game 4 where he did not see the ice), but just in watching him play. He is clearly not where he — or the Sharks — want him to be from a health standpoint.

That is going to be a problem because even if he does play in Game 6, there is no guarantee that he is going to make the kind of impact we are used to seeing from him.

The Sharks have overcome the absence of key players in these playoffs, whether it was Joe Thornton‘s suspension in Round 1 or the Pavelski injury that sidelined him for all but one game in their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche. But for as good and important as those players are, having to replace a player like Karlsson is an entirely different animal.

The Sharks have other forwards that can step up and impact a game if they lose a player like Pavelski, or Hertl, or Thornton.

But a No. 1 defender does so much more on the ice given the minutes they play, the number of times they touch the puck, and the way they can control the pace of the game and where it is played. Everything starts with the blue line, and you need those players on the back end that can move the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone. When he is healthy, there is nobody in the NHL that is better at that than Karlsson. It is not just his point production that makes him a superstar and a top-tier player — it is the way he can essentially be a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone and skate the puck out of danger when there are no passing options available.

There is nobody else stepping into his spot and doing that.

Yes, they still have a Norris Trophy winner (and a finalist for the award this season) in Brent Burns on the roster, but having Burns and Karlsson is what makes the Sharks such a fierce team to contend with.

Take one of them out of the lineup, or at least limit their ability to make an impact, and there is a major drop in how the team performs.

We have seen that over the past two games with Karlsson.

If the Sharks are going to come back in another series there may not be a bigger determining factor than Karlsson’s health and what he is able to do. It is going to require a significant turnaround from what we have seen over the past two games.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Luck finally on Sharks’ side in Stanley Cup pursuit

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There are four key factors that all need to be working in near perfect harmony for a team to win the Stanley Cup.

First and foremost, the team needs to have talent. A lot of talent. Nobody is going to make the playoffs and then successfully get through four best-of-seven series against other playoff teams without impact players at the top of the lineup and plenty of depth to go around them.

Going hand in hand with that is the fact that talent needs to be playing well at the right time of year. It needs to be “the hot team” come playoff time. Even the very best teams are prone to a four-or-five game stretch in a season where things simply do not click for them. If you hit one of those slumps in April or May a strong regular season is going to quickly be forgotten (just ask Tampa Bay, Washington, or Pittsburgh this year).

But those two factors can only take a team so far.

It also needs to be healthy and have its key players in the lineup. There are very few teams that get through an entire postseason while dealing with a significant injury to a core player the entire time. It’s not necessarily just the best team that is still standing at the end of the playoffs, but rather a very good team that is also extremely healthy.

Then there is the fourth factor, which is often times the most difficult to come by and the one that is most out of a team’s control.

Luck.

Plain old fashioned dumb luck.

Some stupid, unpredictable, random moment that is completely out of your control that just so happens to go your way when you need it most.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Luck can be a nasty four-letter word to mention to sports fans when you are referring to their team because it creates the sense you are invalidating their team’s success.

“Luck? My team wasn’t lucky, you coward… it was GREAT!”

Or something along those lines.

Here is the reality: Your championship team may very well have been great, it certainly deserved to win, but it was also undoubtedly lucky at some point during its championship run. It is not a slight. It is not an insult. It is simply a big part of what sports is, especially hockey where you have 10 people chasing a frozen piece of rubber around a sheet of ice at lightning quick speeds. Sometimes weird stuff happens.

Pick any random championship team and look at its postseason and you will probably find something, somewhere along the way, that flipped a game or a series in its favor that wasn’t necessarily due to the result of its play or talent level.

The thing about “luck” in this context is that it can literally be anything. It can be a fortunate bounce off the glass or boards that sets up a tap-in goal. It can be injury luck (either your team being healthy or your opponent being hurt by an injury). It can be a call that goes a certain team’s way, or a replay review, or something that is entirely out of its control. It can be a random player catching fire at the right time and shooting the lights out for a few weeks, scoring

This all brings us to the 2019 San Jose Sharks who are the most dangerous type of Stanley Cup playoff team. They have great talent and they have a lot of it. Now that Joe Pavelski is back in the lineup after a six-game absence in Round 2 they are mostly healthy. And, yes, they have been incredibly lucky to this point.

“Incredibly lucky” may even be underselling it because they have had a key break go their way in every series they have played against every opponent.

In Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights it was the controversial (or, let’s just call it what it was — wrong) call on Cody Eakin that gave them a five-minute power play late in the third period of Game 7 while trailing by three goals. Yes, the Sharks still needed to score three power play goals — something that was far from a given and still statistically unlikely to happen at the beginning of the power play — and yes Vegas still needed to self-destruct, but the reality is that break kept a door open that should have shut, locked and completely secured. That is an element of luck.

In Game 7 of Round 2 against the Colorado Avalanche it was the replay review that negated what would have been a game-tying goal because Gabriel Landeskog took too much time getting off the ice during a line change and was maybe offside. There is a good chance that call was correct, but the fact is that goal wasn’t taken off the board because of anything San Jose did defensively. It was taken off the board because of what was ultimately a meaningless action by a player that had nothing to do with the play itself. That, too, is luck.

Then on Wednesday night in St. Louis they were able to take a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference Final thanks to an Erik Karlsson overtime goal that was clearly set up by a hand pass that should have negated it and was ultimately not reviewable by the current NHL rule book. You don’t need me to tell you what that should be considered.

If you are not a Sharks fan you can (and should) hate some of those results, and they will no doubt eventually lead to significant changes to the game in future seasons (or at least the possibility of significant changes).

If you are a Sharks fan you shouldn’t run from the fact there is a strong element of luck at play here. And you shouldn’t care because, again, this is sports.

This is also a new development for the Sharks and it’s an important one in their quest for their first-even championship, especially since it almost seems as if two decades worth of bad postseason luck is all being undone in two months. The Sharks have had a lot of outstanding teams over the years, including top-seeded teams, a Presidents’ Trophy team, and teams that should have been very real threats to win the Stanley Cup only to be undone by something come playoff time. Sometimes it was a goaltending meltdown (pretty much any Evgeni Nabokov series), an injury at the wrong time (Marc-Edouard Vlasic in 2014), or just simply not catching a significant break of their own or getting their best players to all click at the same time.

Right now, everything, including the luck element, is going in their favor.

Whether all of it is enough to continue carrying them through to the Stanley Cup Final and give them their first championship is still to be determined, but there is no denying it is a key part of their story so far and a big part of why they are still playing and are just two wins away from advancing again.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Goalies helped spark turnarounds for Blues, Sharks

SAN JOSE, Calif. — St. Louis’ season started to turn around as soon as goalie Jordan Binnington came up from the minors to help lead the Blues from the bottom of the standings.

The key moment for their opponent in the Western Conference final came much later in the year when San Jose coach Peter DeBoer made the decision to stick with struggling Martin Jones in net midway through the first round. Jones found his game and has helped carry the Sharks into the final four.

The decision to change goalies in St. Louis and stick with one in San Jose now has these two star-crossed franchises eight wins away from a first Stanley Cup title.

”When we put him in Philly as the starter, we haven’t looked back,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said Friday on the eve of Game 1. ”It would be disingenuous to say that this was anywhere part of the plan. This is the Jordan Binnington story in the sense that he’s made the best of the opportunity.”

Binnington was called up from the minors in December and then had a shutout in his first start against the Flyers on Jan. 7, becoming a big reason why the team in last place in the NHL on Jan. 2 is still alive.

He helped anchor an 11-game winning streak that got the Blues back into contention and became a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie at age 25. He’s been steady in the playoffs with a .915 save percentage and 2.39 goals against average.

”There were some years there where I wasn’t sure,” Binnington said when asked if he ever doubted he’d become an NHL goalie. ”It took a lot of maturing and experience. I was in the right place.”

Jones came into the season with much pedigree, having led the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final just three years ago. But he was one of the worst goalies in the league this season with an .896 save percentage and then was pulled twice in the first four games of the opening round against Vegas.

But he rebounded from there with a .928 save percentage in the last 10 games, including a franchise-record 58 in a double-overtime win at Vegas that helped spark a comeback from 3-1 down in the series.

”There was never a doubt in anybody’s mind that he’d go out and play well,” teammate Logan Couture said.

DeBoer said all Jones needed was a few small adjustments as he had overcompensated from being too passive late in the season to being overly aggressive in the first four games against the Golden Knights.

Having found the happy medium and getting better support from his teammates, who have limited odd-man rushes, Jones is playing at a high level once again.

”It’s tough as a goalie, you want to go out and make a difference and make a big save,” he said. ”You just have to be a little bit more patient and wait for the game a little bit more.”

Here are some things to watch in the series:

CHECKERED HISTORY: Both franchises have had their share of playoff disappointments. The Blues reached the Cup final their first three years as the top team in the all-expansion Western Conference but were swept all three times. They haven’t been back to the Cup final despite making the postseason 39 times since.

They lost in the conference final in 1986 to Calgary, in 2001 to Colorado and three years ago to the Sharks as they’ve too often had quality teams that just weren’t good enough.

”Over the last eight years we’ve averaged 99 points, we’ve been a solid team,” Armstrong said. ”But we haven’t gone to the promised land of winning a championship.”

The Sharks have also been one of the most consistent teams in the league without winning the ultimate prize. They lost in the conference finals in 2004, 2010 and 2011 before finally breaking through with the win against the Blues. But they fell to Pittsburgh in six games in the Cup final and are running out of time to deliver a title for 39-year-old star Joe Thornton.

”It’s not just win one for Joe, it’s win one for all of us. Win one for San Jose,” captain Joe Pavelski said. ”It would be a cool story.”

CAPTAIN COMEBACK: Pavelski has also provided inspiration this postseason. He was knocked out with a bloody concussion in Game 7 against Vegas, leading to a major penalty and four power-play goals that erased a 3-0 deficit in the third period. Pavelski then made it back on the ice for Game 7 last round against Colorado where he had a goal and an assist in the first period to spark the win.

WHERE’S VLAD?: Vladimir Tarasenko led the Blues with 33 goals in the regular season but has struggled so far in the playoffs, especially at even strength. Tarasenko has four power-play goals but only one point at even strength through 13 games. Tarasenko was shut down by Marc-Edouard Vlasic when these teams met in the conference final three years ago. He had no points the first five games before scoring two late goals in San Jose’s decisive Game 6 victory after the game had been decided.

STICKING AROUND: Coach Craig Berube still has the interim tag after taking over early in the season from the fired Mike Yeo. But after leading the Blues to the conference final, Armstrong said a long list of candidates for the full-time job has been whittled down.

”Now we’re at a list of one,” he said. ”When the season is over and the right time comes, we’ll sit down and discuss it.”

The Playoff Buzzer: Bruins advance; Avalanche survive

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  • The Blue Jackets were able to sweep the Lightning in front of their home fans in Columbus. Now their season is over as they fell in Game 6 against Boston at that same arena. The Bruins move on to face the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final.
  • While the East half of Round 3 is set, the West side is still totally unsettled. The Sharks didn’t fall easily on Monday, but the Avalanche grabbed a gutsy OT win to send this series to Game 7.

Bruins 3, Blue Jackets 0 (Boston wins series 4-2)

Charlie McAvoy only receiving a two-minute minor for his hit on Josh Anderson was a big part of the Game 6 storyline, no doubt. But, really, Tuukka Rask strangled any chance for the Blue Jackets to rally around the anger of not getting a call they believed they deserved. David Krejci managed the lone goal of the first 40 minutes of this one, and Sergei Bobrovsky allowed two quick goals in the third period to sap any last-minute drama. Columbus has some things to build on going forward, even with Bobrovsky and others possibly leaving, but the Bruins get the upper hand.

Avalanche 4, Sharks 3 (Series tied 3-3; Game 7 airs at 9 pm. ET on Wednesday on NBCSN [stream here])

This was a fascinating game. The Avs managed leads of 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, yet the Sharks just kept fighting back. When Game 6 went to overtime, there was at least a faint feeling that San Jose was going to stun Colorado in its own building. Instead, Gabriel Landeskog scored the overtime game-winner, forcing a Game 7 in this series. Two unsung heroes loomed large in Game 6, and they follow Rask in the three stars below …

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask

Rask already turned heads with strong work during the Bruins’ Round 2 series against the Blue Jackets, but Game 6 might count as his best performance yet. While Rask enjoyed a little bit of luck from posts hitting his posts, he was still incredibly sharp for Boston, and thus outrageously frustrating for the Blue Jackets. Rask generated a 39-save shutout to close out Columbus, and the occasionally-criticized goalie is cementing his status as a true difference-maker for a Bruins team eyeing a glorious run.

2. J.T. Compher

Heading into Game 6 for Colorado, Compher had one three-point game to his career, yet he scored two goals and one assist at the most crucial time, with the Avalanche facing down elimination. Check these highlights and decide for yourself: is his assist to Tyson Jost to open scoring the best of Compher’s three points, or was it the 3-2 goal where he showed some pretty impressive hands?

That 3-2 goal sure seemed like it would be the game-winner, except an equally unlikely hero forced the issue for San Jose …

3. Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Again, Vlasic can be a “likely” hero for his work in his own end. And, really, Vlasic was his usual, defensive-defenseman-dynamo self against Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen, his most frequent opponents in Game 6. Yes, Landeskog scored an overtime game-winner, but generally speaking, the Sharks did a great job of limiting that dangerous trio’s chances. Vlasic was a big part of that.

Few would have expected Vlasic to be so prolific offensively, though.

Vlasic scored two goals for the Sharks while firing three SOG, blocking four shots, and managing two takeaways in Game 6. Impressive stuff, even if San Jose couldn’t quite close out Colorado.

Oh, by the way, this is only the second two-goal game of Vlasic’s career, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. Again, it was a rare night.

Factoids

TUESDAY’S GAME 7

Game 7: Dallas Stars at St. Louis Blues (series tied 3-3; 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN [stream here])

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.

Compher, Avalanche force Game 7 against Sharks

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Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog scored the overtime-clincher in Game 6 to push the San Jose Sharks to a Game 7. Leave it to the Avs’ captain to cap a night that was often dominated by unsung heroes.

J.T. Compher scored two goals and one assist in Game 6, nearly lined up Erik Karlsson for a big hit, and generally played the game of his life. To give you an idea of how rare nights like these have been for Compher at this level, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman notes that Compher had just one three-point game in his entire NHL career coming into Game 6.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a bigger name than Compher, what with winning a gold medal for Canada and frequently being named as one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL, at least before slowing down just a bit lately. Still, you wouldn’t expect Vlasic to score two goals in a single contest, but that’s exactly what he did in Game 6, including the tally that sent things to OT.

Landeskog didn’t need much time to score in overtime:

The Avalanche built leads of 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, but the Sharks kept finding ways to tie things up. Colorado didn’t flinch in the face of sudden death, however, and the Avs thus avoided elimination.

There are some lingering storylines and situations to monitor heading into Game 7, which airs at 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday (NBCSN; stream here).

  • Will Nathan MacKinnon be able to put his frustrations behind him? The Avs superstar’s scoring struggles have gotten to him at times, as he’s looked furious on the bench and leaving the ice.
  • Is Mikko Rantanen really OK? He returned to Game 6 after a hard hit from Brent Burns, but Rantanen’s mobility looked pretty limited when he returns.
  • Can the Avalanche contain Timo Meier? While Meier was only credited with an assist in Game 6, he created havoc on all of the Sharks’ goals, using his creativity and physicality to really make life miserable for Colorado.

While the 2019 Eastern Conference Final is set at Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes, both West series are heading to Game 7’s, as Dallas Stars – St. Louis Blues is also going the distance. The Avalanche are generally a younger, less proven team than the Sharks, but they’re absolutely playing like they belong. Even the guys not named Nathan MacKinnon.

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.