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Sharks showed in Round 1 they’re not done yet

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For the better part of the past two decades the San Jose Sharks have been a near constant in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, making 18 appearances in 20 years. Because that run has not yet resulted in a Stanley Cup — and at times resulted in some crushing, premature postseason exits — they have usually been more of a playoff punchline than a celebrated success story for being a contender almost every year. With every passing year that does not result in a championship, and with every year that foundational  players like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski get older, we seem to forget about them a little more.

It’s usually the old “their window has closed” situation as we wait for them to fade into obscurity.

Then two years ago, after everyone seemingly gave up on them being a serious threat to ever win it all, they finally had a breakthrough and reached the Stanley Cup Final.

They entered the playoffs this year as somewhat of an afterthought once again (hey, I admit, I was guilty of that too), lost beneath the hype of the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, and even their second-round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights. But after making quick work of an overmatched and hapless Ducks team in round one, outscoring them by an 16-4 margin in a clean four-game sweep, they are now in the second-round of the playoffs ready to take on the Vegas with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line. They have done all of this while only getting 47 games out of Thornton who has not played since the end of January.

So what has been the key to their success? For one, they finally have a goalie they can count on in the playoffs.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

One of the biggest issues that plagued some of the great Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau teams in the early-mid 2000s were some truly disastrous postseason goaltending performances from the likes of Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi that completely sunk the team’s chances. Those postseason shortcomings were then hung on the two guys at the top of the lineup (Thornton and Marleau) even though they almost always produced.

Now the net belongs to Martin Jones, and in what is his third playoff run with the team he is once again playing some of his best hockey at the right time of year.

Jones was incredible in the first-round sweep of the Ducks, turning aside 128 of the 132 shots he faced. In his 34 playoff games as a member of the Sharks he now has a .930 save percentage. Of the 18 goalies that have appeared in at least 10 playoff games during that stretch, that would be tied for the third best mark in the NHL. That sort of goaltending will always give you a chance.

For as good as Jones has been, it is not just the goaltending that is sparking the Sharks right now.

They have also managed to reshape their roster a bit and work in some youth and speed, even from what the team looked like just one year ago. The Ducks, a classic rough-and-tumble “heavy hockey” Pacific Division team, were overmatched it by from the drop of the puck in Game 1.

When looking at the skaters that played in the first-round this season versus the first round a year ago (when they lost to the Edmonton Oilers) you can see where the changes come in.

After being a healthy scratch in all six playoff games a year ago, 22-year-old Kevin Labanc not only played in all four games in the first-round, he recorded two assists, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and generally played great two-way hockey. The same was true for 23-year-old center Chris Tierney as he came off what was a breakout regular season performance. Twenty-one-year-old Timo Meier, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2015, saw an increased role this season and after scoring 21 goals during the regular season contributed three points in the first-round against the Ducks.

That influx of young talent has been a great complement to the established veterans already on the roster, including Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl, a trio that combined for six goals against the Ducks. And that doesn’t even include trade deadline acquisition Evander Kane whose two goal effort in Game 1 helped lead the Sharks to their first win of the playoffs.

Including playoffs, the Sharks are 16-6-1 since that trade while Kane has had three multiple-goal games during that stretch.

Given how impressive Vegas was in its first round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings — a series that pretty much mirrored the Sharks’ win, where a faster, more skilled team overwhelmed a slower, bigger, more physical team — the Sharks are certainly going to have their hands full in round two. But they have put themselves in a great position to make another deep run in the Western Conference in another year where everybody kind of forgot about them.

The Sharks are still here. They are still good. Given the makeup of their roster, they are not ready to go away anytime soon.

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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.

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 on Fantasy: Phaneuf trade, Burns at forward

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

The trade deadline is looming, so expect the next few fantasy columns to be especially trade-heavy. The wave hasn’t really rolled in yet for the NHL, however, so it’s mainly the Dion PhaneufMarian Gaborik swap to consider.

That said, there’s another development today that brings back memories of this column about Brent Burns, Dustin Byfuglien, and the D/RW designation. So let’s get into those two developments.

Phaneuf: Better in fantasy?

Look, in reality, Dion Phaneuf isn’t very effective any longer. There might be flashy hits and powerful shots, but the bad tends to outweigh the good. Maybe the Kings will put him in a more nurturing environment, yet to my eyes, this seems like an expensive “name” acquisition that probably won’t move the needle a whole lot on the ice.

This is the chart I referenced for the trade, via this handy tool from CJ Turtoro using Corey Sznajder’s data

… but if you need more charts and other infographics:

That only matters so much in fantasy terms, aside from the notion that it might not mean much of a boost for, say, Jonathan Quick.

I’ve often liked Phaneuf as a depth defenseman in fantasy, however, at least in leagues with robust stats and now that his stature in the league has really dropped. Yahoo’s profiles can be quite useful in spotting “multi-tool” players the quickest, and you can see that with Phaneuf.

With three goals and 16 points, Phaneuf isn’t likely to jump out at you in leagues with simpler stats. Instead, he excels in racking up peripheral stats: so far in 53 games, Phaneuf has 34 PIM (100 last season), 108 hits, and 114 blocked shots. With 86 SOG, Phaneuf can check a lot of boxes.

Consider this: Phaneuf ranks among just 12 players (not surprisingly, all defensemen) with at least 100 hits and 100 blocked shots this season. Interestingly, Brayden McNabb – the useful blueliner the Kings lost to Vegas in the expansion draft – is also in that group.

So, Phaneuf is unlikely to blow you away at this point in his career. Still, if you’re in the right league, he can have some use in a “quantity over quality” sense.

Now, as far as Marian Gaborik goes? Meh.

Burns at forward?

Injuries are stacking up for the San Jose Sharks, which is opening the door for Brent Burns to return – at least briefly – to the forward position.

The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz reports that Burns is lining up with Joe Pavelski and Timo Meier, so he’s not exactly roughing it, either. Meier is also getting some reps on the Sharks’ top PP, so he could be worth a short-term add depending upon how deep your league is.

In a Fear the Fin article that hasn’t aged well – though it must be mentioned that Burns’ defensive work has increasingly come into question lately – “The Neutral” argued back in 2014 that Burns was better off as a forward. While Burns has obviously paid off on defense for the Sharks (and his checking account), it’s worth remembering that Burns was an absolute force at forward, and he might actually become more valuable during this experiment:

But we do know how dominant he is up front and the impact Burns can make on the wing is undeniable. Only Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Max Pacioretty, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews scored more 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes than Burns did during his season-and-a-half at wing. Only twelve total forwards, all of them superstars except for Sidney Crosby comfort goat Chris Kunitz, averaged more points per 60. It isn’t merely about the individual scoring stats either; Burns’ impact on both even-strength offense and puck possession, as well as the additional marginal effects of moving players like Pavelski into roles they can crush, significantly improved the entire team in every conceivable category.

One area where Burns may really thrive is quality of chances. Despite firing a ridiculous 242 SOG in 57 games, Burns only has nine goals this season, a shooting percentage of just 3.7. Some of that comes down to an early-season slump, but it stands to reason that Burns was probably taking some lower-quality shots as a blueliner. Burns being closer to the net could mean higher-danger chances, and real headaches for goalies.

Even with an optimal lineup in mind, you wonder if this experiment might be something the Sharks consider revisiting in certain situations, like when they badly need a goal. Naturally, even that hinges on personnel, as a healthy team might be better off with Burns on the blueline, even in those situations.

The one potential downfall could be that, if he gets a longer run as a forward, his ice time might go down. Then again, with the Sharks’ injuries in mind, that might not be much of a worry. In the last two games, Burns logged 28:16 and 29:49 TOI.

Keep in mind that it would take a while for Burns to regain that fun RW/D designation even if the Sharks stick with him. Still, the mere possibility of that happening again is pretty entertaining for us fantasy dorks.

Maybe we’ll get Dustin Byfuglien back at forward, too, this season?

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’ Meier fined, not suspended, for elbowing Del Zotto

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) San Jose Sharks forward Timo Meier has been fined for elbowing Vancouver defenseman Michael Del Zotto.

The NHL announced Sunday that Meier will be fined $2,403.67 for the infraction. The play occurred late in the third period of San Jose’s 5-0 win over the Canucks on Saturday night. Meier was assessed a major penalty for elbowing and a game misconduct.

More AP NHL: apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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Note: You can see the infraction in the video above this post’s headline.

Don’t be surprised if Kings, Ducks, Sharks finish with similar records

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Heading into the 2017-18 season, there’s a lot of optimism surrounding the Anaheim Ducks, a solid amount still going to the San Jose Sharks, and a pile of doom and gloom for the Los Angeles Kings.

Some of this comes down to crummy luck, but here’s an observation: it’s highly likely that the three California teams will finish very close in the standings.

Let’s consider the state of each team.

To go even deeper, check out PHT’s detailed preview for the Pacific Division.

Waddling through injuries

My goodness are the Anaheim Ducks banged up right now.

The OC Register’s Eric Stephens reports that Ryan Getzlaf won’t play in the Ducks’ season-opening game against the Arizona Coyotes. With John Gibson doubtful, it all adds to a troubling situation. Resounding workhorse Ryan Kesler could be gone for quite some time. Kesler is on IR with wildly underrated defenseman Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Patrick Eaves, and Ryan Miller. Woof.

It’s a testament to what GM Bob Murray’s built that the Ducks still have a fighting chance, as young players like Rickard Rakell bring something to the table.

Still, even well-stocked teams can only withstand so many injuries. Anaheim might just pay the price for its deep playoff run in 2016-17, not to mention the emphasis on aging, physical forwards in the well-compensated duo of Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

In an NHL with injuries turned off like a video game, the Ducks would be one of the NHL’s deepest teams.

Sharks getting sleepy?

Even in losing 5-3 to the Philadelphia Flyers last night, the Sharks put on a pretty good show. When those top-end players are clicking, they’re still pretty special.

That said, consider how old those guys are. Joe Thornton might be the next Jaromir Jagr in aging like hockey-themed wine, but he could also slip at 38. Joe Pavelski, somehow, is 33 already. With a shaky year or two in Minnesota in mind, many might be surprised that Brent Burns is 32. Paul Martin is 36 and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a high-mileage 30. Even younger cornerstones Logan Couture (28) and Martin Jones (27) aren’t necessarily spring chickens. Joel Ward is 36 and even a supporting guy like Jannik Hansen is 31. This is an old group despite allowing Patrick Marleau to leave for a three-year term.

(Yes, Marleau was great last night, but the Sharks still made the difficult-but-necessary choice there.)

Although there’s skill in players such as Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier, being a regular contender has generally limited the Sharks’ ability to surround those aging veterans with a ton of talent.

A slip is coming, and the drop could be sharp. The Sharks just have to hope that it doesn’t come now.

Reports of Kings’ demise exaggerated?

Look, there’s no doubt that the Kings’ salary cap situation is … appalling.

In the long-term, GM Rob Blake has a mess on his hands that Ron Hextall might have winced at early in the Flyers rebuild. Even in 2017-18, there are some problems.

Still, it’s easy to get swept into excessive pessimism and forget that it wasn’t all bad for the Kings; it’s also possible that their luck might go up a tick.

Don’t forget that the Kings still dominated puck possession in 2016-17. Also don’t forget that, even at their best, the Kings tended to struggle during the regular season. Los Angeles ranked third in the Pacific during its two championship seasons; the Darryl Sutter Kings won two Stanley Cups and zero division titles.

Anze Kopitar‘s contract looks scary, yet a 2017-18 rebound is far from unreasonable. They can still revv up “That ’70s Line” with Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson, and Tyler Toffoli (or at least elements of that). Perhaps system tweaks will allow Drew Doughty to be the fantasy-friendly scorer many dreamed of?

Now, again, there’s some negative stuff. Even beyond predictably depressing updates about Marian Gaborik, the Kings’ defense looks to be without Alec Martinez for some time.

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With the Central Division looming as a threat to take as many as five of the West’s eight playoff spots (for all we know), the Pacific Division could come down to the Edmonton Oilers and two other teams.

Don’t be surprised if one or more of those positions become, well, a battle of California. And don’t count the Kings out altogether in that joust, either.