Vegas Golden Knights fans, are your heart rates returning to normal yet?
The Golden Knights hopped back on their magical playoff ride on Friday night in Sin City, but they sure didn’t make it easy on themselves after amassing a 4-0 lead through the first 50 minutes of the game.
Few figured the Golden Knights were going to roll over and die off after getting shutout in Game 3, and while they showed no signs of any lingering effects in Game 5 early following their worst loss of the playoffs two days earlier, things certainly got shaky in the third period.
Vegas was on cruise-control until the final 10 minutes, when the San Jose Sharks began their all-out assault on Marc-Andre Fluery’s net.
In a span of 6:09, the game went from a comfortable 4-0 rout to an uncertain 4-3 scoreline thanks near-epic comeback effort from the Sharks.
Earlier in the game, Alex Tuch scored two goals, including a third-period marker — a slick redirect that spelled the end of Martin Jones‘ night. Tuch’s goal proved to be an ever-important, being the fourth strike in what ended up being a 5-3 win and a 3-2 series lead for Vegas.
Jones allowed four goals on 31 shots while Fleury, who appeared to be on his way to his fourth playoff shutout this season alone, ended up stopping 27-of-30.
After scoring five goals and two assists in 32 games during the regular season, the 26-year-old has already racked up four goals and one assist in eight games this postseason. He didn’t even make the team out of training camp, as he started the year with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. Sorensen posted 18 points in 23 games in the minors, which led to him being recalled in early December. Once he arrived in the NHL, he was made a healthy scratch 15 times between Dec. 2 and Mar. 27. He suited up for the final five games of the regular season and he hasn’t been out of lineup since.
Despite his increased production in the postseason, Sorensen hasn’t been receiving more ice time from head coach Peter DeBoer (he averaged 10:08 in the regular season and 10:16 in the playoffs). Still, he’s managed to remain productive.
During Wednesday’s Game 4 win over the Vegas Golden Knights, Sorensen opened the scoring with this terrific individual effort:
Outside of simply producing offensively, he’s also managed to use his speed to his advantage by creating scoring opportunities for his team.
Even though he’s never really been productive at the NHL level, Sorensen has put up numbers in the past. He accumulated 32 points in 50 games with Sweden’s Djugardens in 2014-15 and 15 goals and 34 points in 47 games with them the following season. So there’s a bit of an offensive pedigree there.
Sorensen won’t be able to sustain his shooting percentage of 50 percent, but his advanced stats have improved from the season to the playoffs. His CF% has gone from 48.71 percent to 53.33 percent and his FF% has climbed from 48.61 percent to 56.52 percent. His PDO of 1.135 would indicate that his offensive totals aren’t sustainable. Even if he doesn’t continue scoring, it looks like he’s earned himself a spot in the lineup.
Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the better part of seven months, you know that the Vegas Golden Knights have been the surprise of the 2017-18 season. Will this incredible run continue or will they run out of steam against the San Jose Sharks?
Despite the Golden Knights’ incredible season, many picked them to bow out in the first round against the Kings. Yeah, big mistake. Not only did Vegas beat Los Angeles, they swept them in four games. That’s not to say that their first playoff series in franchise history was easy, but it went as well as anyone could have expected.
Of the 19 different skaters they used in the opening round, 13 picked up at least one point. That’s some impressive depth scoring for a team that should have been picking leftovers from the other 30 organizations during the expansion draft. If this season has taught us anything, it’s that the Golden Knights aren’t your typical expansion team.
As for the Sharks, they seemed to fly under the radar as much as any team that swept their first-round opponent can. Two of their games against the Anaheim Ducks were decided by one goal, but they also beat them 3-0 in Game 1 and they smoked them 8-1 in Game 3.
Many hockey fans expected the Sharks’ window to be closed by now, but they’ve found a way to be more than relevant so far this postseason. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau aren’t leading the charge anymore, so it’s up to the current cast to take this team as far as they can go.
Golden Knights: No player surged more for the Golden Knights than Marc-Andre Fleury. He was terrific against the Kings, as he allowed just three goals in four contests. The 33-year-old enters the second round with a stellar 0.65 goals-against-average and a .977 save percentage.
Reilly Smith was the only player on the team to pick up three points in Round 1. They were all assists and they each came in the last three games of the series. The 27-year-old registered the primary helper on Braden McNabb’s series-clinching goal in Game 4.
Sharks: Where to begin? Couture collected all five of his points in Games 2 and 3 of the series against the Ducks. He’s going to be counted on to play key minutes in the second round, so he’ll have to continue being productive if Sharks are going to be able to put the puck in the net.
Pavelski, who also had five points, picked up at least one in each game except Game 4. The 33-year-old had ups and downs through the regular season, but he seems to have found another gear in the playoffs.
Kane proved to be a lethal acquisition at the trade deadline. The 26-year-old has been the perfect for the Sharks, and it hasn’t even taken him long to find chemistry with his new teammates. He’s playing so well that the odds of him signing an extension in San Jose seem to be entirely possible.
As for Sorensen, he was the biggest surprise for the Sharks in the opening round. He had five goals in 32 games during the regular season, but he found the back of the net three times in four games against Anaheim. Can he keep it going?
And we have to mention Martin Jones, who was just as good as Fleury in Round 1. Jones gave up just four goals in four games. Yeah, goals might be hard to come by in this series.
Golden Knights: Golden Knights GM George McPhee gave up some key draft picks to get Tomas Tatar from Detroit, and he simply hasn’t lived up to expectations. Tatar was a healthy scratch in the final two games of their first-round series and he failed to pick up any points in the first two. They clearly need more from their prized acquisition.
Sharks: Suggesting that Brent Burns struggled in the first round is a little silly, but it’s surprising to see that eight of his teammates finished with more points than he did. Burns has a goal and an assist in the playoffs, which is nothing to scoff at. He has the ability to produce a little more though.
Golden Knights: As we’ve mentioned a couple of times already, Fleury has been a monster in the postseason so far. He came up with big save, after big save against the Kings and he’s fully capable of doing that again against the Sharks. San Jose is a lot more dynamic offensively, so the upcoming challenge will be different for Fleury, but he just seems to be so focused and so steady. If the Golden Knights come up short in this series, it probably won’t be because of bad goaltending.
Sharks: The matchup between Jones and Fleury should be incredible to watch. What Jones accomplished in the first round was as impressive as anything any other goaltender did this postseason. Even though the Sharks lost in the first round last year, he still posted some impressive individual numbers. He’s clearly comfortable when the chips are down.
Golden Knights: Vegas’ strength this postseason has been their penalty kill. They’re killing off opposing power plays at a 92.3 percent clip. During the regular season, they ranked 12th in the league at 81.4 percent. Obviously, the numbers are much better in the playoffs, but the sample size is smaller. Still, they’ve been running an affective PK unit all year.
The man-advantage is a different story. The Golden Knights’ power play operated at just 8.3 percent in the first round. Only their opponent, the Kings, had a worse percentage on the power play. They had the 11th best power play unit during the regular season.
Sharks: San Jose had a middle-of-the-pack power play unit during the regular season (they ranked 16th in the NHL), but they’ve hit their stride this postseason, as they clicked at 30 percent in Round 1. Only the Capitals and Bruins were better. The matchup between San Jose’s red-hot power play and Vegas’ stingy penalty kill will be something to keep an eye on.
Their penalty kill ranked eighth of all the teams in the first round at 83.3 percent. That’s a little surprising considering the Sharks had the second best PK in the league in 2017-18.
Golden Knights: Young blue liner Shea Theodore had the best possession stats of any player on the Golden Knights’ roster, as he finished the first round with a CF% of 61.96 percent. Not bad for a guy the Ducks traded away so that they could protect additional players in the expansion draft.
Believe it or not, only Theodore, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson had a better CF% than Tatar, who we already mentioned was scratched in the last two games. Clearly, possession isn’t everything to head coach Gerard Gallant. In fairness, the fact that Tatar started in the offensive zone 65 percent of the time helped boost his Corsi rating.
As a team, the Golden Knights had the fifth best CF% (52.91) behind Winnipeg, Nashville, Tampa and Anaheim. They also ranked fifth in FF%. Their PDO was third in the league at 1.047. More often than not, that number comes back down to 1.000, but Fleury’s incredible save percentage contributed to it being that high.
Sharks: Surprisingly, the Sharks possession numbers weren’t very good in the first round. As we mentioned above, the Ducks had a good CF%, which means the Sharks were lacking in that department. In the end, they controlled less than 50 percent of the shot attempts (46.7 percent). Well, whatever works for you. San Jose and Anaheim also finished 50-50 when it came to high-danger CF%.
On an individual basis, Sorensen led the way for the Sharks with a CF% of 63.64. Again, he was the team’s biggest surprise in the first round. He got shot attempts off and he found the back of the net a lot more regularly than he did during the regular season.
As for Burns, Couturier, Pavelski and Kane, they all found themselves below the 50 percent mark. That’s surprising considering how good the team looked in the opening round.
Golden Knights: Vegas is relatively healthy heading into their second-round series against the Sharks. David Perron, who missed two games against Los Angeles, returned before the end of the series. Meanwhile, defenseman Luca Sbisa has been out since early March with an undisclosed injury.
Sharks: Thornton (right MCL) is the biggest name that’s been banged up for the Sharks. He took the pre-game warmup prior to a first-round game, but he didn’t suit up. It’s unclear when he’ll be able to return to the lineup. Barclay Goodrow and Joakim Ryan are depth players that are also banged up right now. Thornton and Ryan are considered day-to-day, while Goodrow (upper body) is done for the season.
X-Factor for Golden Knights
Golden Knights: For the Golden Knights to win this thing, Fleury will have to play like he did in the first round. That’s not to say that the guys in front of him aren’t good to get the job done, but facing the Kings’ attack and the Sharks’ attack are completely different things. The Sharks can come at you with strong skilled players and their depth guys showed that they can chip in as well if they have to.
X-Factor for Sharks
Sharks: It’s gotta be Burns. If he can start taking over games (especially offensively), he’ll add a different dimension to the Sharks’ offense that they didn’t necessarily have in the opening round. He led the team in scoring during the regular season, and he clearly has the ability to change a game and a series if he wants to.
Golden Knights in 7: I find the Sharks haven’t received enough love from the hockey community for what they accomplished so far. But in saying that, I still don’t think the Golden Knights’ run ends in the second round. They came up with just enough offense to sweep the Kings, but I think their group of forwards can do even more. Now that they have one round under their belts, I expect them to come out and be a little more comfortable than they’ve been around the net. Yes, Jonathan Quick had a lot to do with their limited offense in Round 1 and Jones won’t be an easy goalie to solve, but I think they’ll do just enough to win the series in seven games.
• The Sporting News came up with a first-round mock draft for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. There’s no surprise at no. 1, as Rasmus Dahlin is the pick, but things get interesting after that. (Sporting News)
• Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper has added the Golden Knights’ logo to the end of his bats. (Sports Logos)
• Ellen DeGeneres paid tribute to the victims of the tragedy in Humboldt at an event in Calgary last week. (CBC)
• Boston University head coach David Quinn will serve as the bench boss for Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championship next December. (College Hockey News)
• One year after leaving the NHL, Andrei Markov took home the KHL’s Gagarin Cup with AK Bars Kazan. (Associated Press)
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.
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.