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Mark Stone is unstoppable right now for the Golden Knights

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What Mark Stone is doing for the Vegas Golden Knights through three games against the San Jose Sharks should come as no surprise.

Stone has an NHL-best six goals and is tied for first on the team with eight points, already matching his career best in the postseason set during the Ottawa Senators’ run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017 in 16 fewer games. As part of Vegas’ second line that was built through free agency last summer (Paul Stastny) and separate trades in September (Max Pacioretty) and February (Stone), the trio have combined to record 22 of the Golden Knights’ 35 points.

“They’ve eaten us up this series so far,” said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer. “We haven’t had an answer for them. You get three really good players playing at a high level right now. That’s part of the issue, and we have to find an answer to slow those guys down.”

A hat trick and five-point night during a 6-3 win in Game 3 only further cemented how good of a player Stone is and how important he’s been to the Golden Knight’s lineup.

“That’s one of the dominant games I’ve ever seen from a player in the playoffs,” said Pacioretty.

When the Sharks mounted a brief comeback to cut the Golden Knights’ lead from 5-1 to 5-3, there was one simple solution to stop the onslaught, according to Nate Schmidt.

“We sent Mark Stone out there,” he said.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stone, who signed an eight-year, $76M extension following the consummation of the trade, immediately clicked with his new team, scoring five times and recording 11 points in the final 18 games of the regular season. He hasn’t need any sort of adjustment period following his years in Ottawa, and certainly going from a lottery team to a Cup contender breeds quite a bit of inspiration.

“I just love being here,” Stone said. “I love playing in Las Vegas. I love my teammates, the fans, the city. This is why I came here, I want to play playoff hockey. We’ve had some success, sure, but we can’t dwell on it. We have to be good professionals and continue to get better.”

The Golden Knights’ second line is one of a handful of issues facing the Sharks ahead of Game 4. Joe Thornton will miss the game due to suspension and Regular Season Martin Jones appears to have returned after a solid Game 1 performance.

As DeBoer said, San Jose needs to find answers as they face a hole that could be too deep to dig out from.

Game 4 of Golden Knights-Sharks is Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN (Live stream)

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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.

Golden Knights need to let Colin Miller out of playoff doghouse

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The Vegas Golden Knights know they need to make changes heading into Game 2 against the San Jose Sharks on Friday night (10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Live stream), but perhaps they’re learning the wrong lessons.

To head coach Gerard Gallant, Vegas wasn’t “hungry” enough in a convincing 5-2 Game 1 loss, while defenseman Jon Merrill emphasized the perceived need for the Golden Knights to check Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson early and often, as the Athletic’s Jesse Granger notes.

We could debate the merits of that plan for quite a while, actually. After all, wouldn’t you think every playoff opponent in existence would want to make life miserable for top-flight defensemen, especially a smaller one like Karlsson? You could probably file that under “Easier said than done,” as if you go too far out of your way to try to hit Karlsson, you might just give him the extra space he covets to send silky-smooth passes. See: his brilliant pass to Evander Kane in Game 1, among many, many, other examples of transition and offensive brilliance.

But, honestly, those tactical tweaks aren’t as important as putting the right players in the lineup.

This discussion starts with the most crucial point: Gallant needs to put Colin Miller back in the mix.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There are a number of choices for who to bring back out to make room for Miller. Nick Holden was the defenseman who seemed to bump Miller in Game 1, and Miller would be an upgrade there. It might be a tough sell to Gallant (who loves his bruisers) to consider scratching Deryk Engelland, but it should be a consideration, too. Engelland struggled possession-wise in Game 1, and while he exceeded expectations since joining the Golden Knights, the bottom line is that he tends to be under water on a nightly basis.

Really, if Gallant is really being stubborn, you could argue for going with a seven-defensemen, 11-forward set … although that might require scratching Ryan Reaves, which might be an even tougher (though possibly valid) sell.

Whoever you’d move out of the lineup, Miller’s the type of player you really want in your mix, especially when every lineup decision counts against a hauntingly deep team like the Sharks. The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs seem like the wrong time for refusing to give up on “sentimental favorites” like Reaves, Engelland, or Holden (the latter standing out, particularly because it might be an argument Gallant would truly consider).

Miller looms as an upgrade from a wide variety of perspectives. Take his potential transition impact compared to Holden, via CJ Turturo’s visualization (which uses Corey Sznajder’s data):

If bar charts and so-called “fancy stats” aren’t your thing, consider that Miller does the really obvious stuff. That includes scoring.

Last season was a breakout year for Miller, as he scored 10 goals and 41 points during the 2017-18 regular season, then tied for second among Golden Knights defensemen with seven points during their run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

My guess is that a colder 2018-19 season (three goals, 29 points in 65 games) may partially explain Miller’s doghouse residence, alongside some specific turnover that probably stuck in Gallant’s craw. Generating 29 points in an abbreviated season still ranks as useful offense, particularly if the bar is merely “getting in the lineup,” and Miller’s puck luck (career-low 2.3 shooting percentage this season, versus a career average of 4.9 percent) could very well warm up when it matters the most.

The Golden Knights lack that Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson-type game-changer on defense, but they have the potential to manufacture offense from a group that’s still pretty effective. Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt can help in that regard, but Miller’s up there in being among the most potent scorers from Vegas’ blueline. Miller also grades well from just about every analytics metric, particularly if you’re comparing him to bottom-of-the-order players.

So, sure, Gallant, ask your players to be “hungrier.” Just reconsider which players you’re sending to the dinner table.

Golden Knights – Sharks Game 2 from The SAP Center will be Friday night at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. (Livestream)

For more on Friday’s Game 2 matchups, read The Wraparound.

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.

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

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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

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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: Oilers visit Golden Knights on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Edmonton Oilers’ playoff hopes are hanging by a thread heading into their game on Sunday against the Vegas Golden Knights, and if they have any hope of pulling off the impossible and erasing what is a seven-point gap (and jumping over four teams!) over the next 11 games it is going to have to begin with a win tonight.

Standing in their way will be a Vegas Golden Knights team that has won seven of its previous eight games and is pretty much locked in to the third playoff spot in the Pacific Division. At this point it is simply a matter of whether or not they will have to play the Calgary Flames or San Jose Sharks in their first-round matchup.

The Oilers are led by Connor McDavid who enters the game riding an 11-game point streak, while also recording at least one point in 19 of his previous 20 games. That 20-game stretch for McDavid features 12 multi-point games, including seven in a row.

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

What: Edmonton Oilers vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Where: T Mobile Arena
When: Sunday, March 17, 2019, 10 p.m, ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Edmonton Oilers

Forwards

Milan Lucic – Connor McDavid — Zack Kassian
Tobias RiederLeon DraisaitlAlex Chiasson
Jujhar KhairaRyan Nugent-HopkinsSam Gagner
Joseph Gambardella – Colby CaveJosh Currie

Defense

Oscar KlefbomAdam Larsson
Darnell NurseKris Russell
Andrej SekeraMatt Benning

Starting Goalie: Mikko Koskinen

Vegas Golden Knights

Forwards

Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith
Max PaciorettyPaul StastnyMark Stone
Tomas NosekCody EakinAlex Tuch
Ryan CarpenterPierre-Edouard BellemareRyan Reaves

Defense

Nate SchmidtDeryk Engelland
Brayden McNabbShea Theodore
Jon Merril – Colin Miller

Starting 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.

How Mark Stone is fitting in with Golden Knights so far

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With zero goals and just one assist in his first four games in Vegas, many might be tempted to say that Mark Stone hasn’t worked out so well early on for the Golden Knights.

Luckily for Stone (not to mention Golden Knights GM George McPhee), there are plenty of other numbers to suggest that things are going right as planned. More or less.

Most obviously, the Golden Knights are winning. They’re currently on a four-game winning streak, including consecutive 3-0 victories with Marc-Andre Fleury in net.

Piling up wins likely cools would-be hot takes, and Stone also doesn’t have to flinch every time he fails to score a point, as he already essentially agreed to an extension upon being traded to the Golden Knights.

The deeper you look, the more promising things get — at least while acknowledging that four games is an incredibly small sample size.

For one thing, Stone is getting his chances. While that first Vegas goal continues to elude the 26-year-old, Stone’s fired 13 shots on goal in his first four contests. Considering Stone’s robust career shooting percentage of 16 (up to 17.7-percent this season), it’s difficult to imagine this cold streak going much longer.

Stone’s carried his strong possession play to Vegas, a team that already showed proficiency in puck hoggery even before they landed Stone. As TSN’s Travis Yost notes, the Golden Knights have been carrying the play when Stone is on and off the ice so far. Overall, they’ve been in a top three possession team (Corsi and Fenwick percentages) since the trade deadline, according to Natural Stat Trick’s numbers.

Gerard Gallant’s made a logical call early on in placing Stone with Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, while keeping the Reilly SmithWilliam KarlssonJonathan Marchessault line intact.

Smith-Karlsson-Marchessault has shown some strain in trying to duplicate last season’s brilliant work, but the Stone addition could really make life easier. In an ideal situation, the Golden Knights could essentially boast two “top” lines.

From matchups to adjusted roles, the Stone trade is making a positive ripple effect. Pacioretty stated as much, as Ed Graney of the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported this past weekend.

“I think Stone coming in and giving us that balance throughout our lineup, I see a lot of similarities in our forwards now compared to when (Nate Schmidt) came back from his (20-game suspension),” Pacioretty said. “It’s not one player that makes a huge difference. I think it’s one player that puts everyone in a position to succeed with a role that they’re comfortable in.”

The Golden Knights have already been a nightmare matchup during their home games in Vegas. Now imagine how much Gallant might be able to exploit different situations with the last change. Stone could be used to shut down an explosive opponent, while Marchessault & Co. might enjoy cushier zone starts.

With Vegas basically locked in to the third spot in the Pacific (see the Playoff Push here), Gallant shouldn’t be afraid to run with different alignments.

Perhaps there would be situation where the Golden Knights would want to load up with Marchessault, Stone, and Karlsson on a top line? Maybe Alex Tuch might find especially strong chemistry with Stone, as they’re both bigger forwards? Which groups of scorers would work best on the power play, and would Gallant be wiser to either go top-heavy or maybe echo Mike Babcock by aiming for two fairly even power-play units?

In most cases, teams that made big trade deadline purchases can only experiment too much. After all, many of those squads either are desperately fighting for a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, or are trying to avoid matchups by securing a better seed.

The Golden Knights have the luxury of basically using the next month as a hockey laboratory to see what works the best, and figure out which wrinkles can be ironed out by April.

If the current combinations work best, that’s a nice problem to have, because from the look of things, the Golden Knights plus Stone equals some serious problems for the rest of the NHL.

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.