Playoff Preview: Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks

The San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights already have a nice rivalry and that’ll be on display when they meet in the first round. Last season, the Golden Knights defeated the Sharks in the second round and outscored them 22-14 over six games. They went on to the Stanley Cup Final.

This time around, both teams have upgraded their rosters and both teams are a little more studied in one another’s traits. For San Jose, that means knowing how to avoid Vegas’ transition game. The Sharks have dropped a lot of blowout losses to the Golden Knights and that’s in large part due to an inability to contain the offence.

If San Jose can find an advantage, it’ll be on the power play. Theirs was sixth overall at 23.6 percent, which rubs up against Vegas’ middling penalty kill. The Golden Knights’ power play isn’t a threat unless they tighten up. They finished the regular season 25th overall, just 16.8 percent.

But the memories will hold over and that’s when it all comes back to history. The first time Vegas and San Jose met in the playoffs, the expansion team had just swept the Los Angeles Kings and won the first game against the Sharks by a final score of 7-0. That ability to surprise and dominate an opponent, even a physical one, is the ace in the hole.

Scoring

The Golden Knights average three goals per game, sticking them 14th overall. Scoring is generally not a problem, but the trick to their game is getting that puck. The Golden Knights play a huge forecheck and put lots of pressure on puck carriers, which is where the offence is generated. This is a systematic approach, not a run-and-gun style that makes things up on the fly, and Vegas is all-in.

That’s put scoring as a total team effort. The Golden Knights have five players with over 20 goals, but nobody over 30 goals. Jonathan Marchessault leads the charge with 25 goals and a total of 59 points, while William Karlsson is second with 24 goals. Cody Eakin and Max Pacioretty have 22 goals and Alex Tuch rounds it out with 20 goals.

Offence also comes from Reilly Smith (19 goals), Paul Stastny (13 goals) and Shea Theodore (12 goals). Brandon Pirri also chimed in for a dozen goals, a feat all the more notable considering it took him just 31 games. He hasn’t seen totals like that since his time in Florida.

The Sharks average 3.524 goals per game, which puts them third overall. That’s a potent offensive difference and they have the capacity to blow the game wide open, but that hasn’t happened yet against Vegas. What wins they have collected have been based on trivial differentials, which means San Jose will have to find a way to crack through the belligerent forecheck.

The Sharks have four scorers with over 30 goals, including Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, and Evander Kane. For Meier, just in his third year, this is a big leap forward. He had 21 goals last season and is making the right strides at the right time. The 22-year-old had six goals on the power play and 250 shots on goal.

Brent Burns fuels the attack from the defence and that’s translated to him leading the team in points. His 83 points put him nine ahead of Hertl, who’s in second place, and he has more shots on goal than any other Shark (300). If Burns can find a way to keep things moving away from that infamous Vegas forecheck, offence can come.

Defence

Vegas has allowed 2.78 goals against per game, putting them 10th overall. This, again, is due to playing a high pressure forecheck game that cuts down on chances. If the action reaches the defensive zone, the Golden Knights collapse and congest the lanes to prevent cross-seam passes and shots. This is a team effort.

Shea Theodore exploded for a career-best 12 goals this season and he’s been able to use that aforementioned system to come alive. The 23-year-old had four goals on the power play. Brayden McNabb is also a big piece, averaging 19:29 of ice time a game. He’s a classic shutdown guy, coming up with 16 points in 81 games.

Nate Schmidt is a big part of the checking system in Vegas. He averages 21:57 of ice time a game and scored nine goals in 61 games. He’s a quality puck-mover. Veteran blueliner Deryk Engelland puts in ice time, clocking 19:53 a game, and loves the physical game. He scored two goals this season and had a dozen points in 74 games.

The Sharks like to drive the attack from their own end and that all starts with Brent Burns, who led the team in points and has 183 goals in a dozen seasons since 2007-2008. He scored 16 goals this season and he’s a plus-13, with one short-handed goal and seven power play goals.

San Jose went and snagged Erik Karlsson to bolster their fortunes and he could be primed to emerge in the playoffs. He suffered a groin injury that dogged him in the second half of the season, but he was back in the final game of the year. This wasn’t his finest hour and the Sharks have to be hoping he’ll get back to business against Vegas.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a mature defenceman who plays a controlled, mistake-free game. He averages 21:03 a game and likes to move the puck. That makes him yet another mobile threat, although his physicality is wanting.

Goaltending

Marc-Andre Fleury was the guy for Vegas when the challenged for the Cup and they’re hoping he’s ready to rumble again. He saw things drop off percentage-wise this season, but his stats are still at or around his career average. He tied for fifth overall in wins with 35, but he missed nine games due to injury and just came back for the last two regular season contests. That may be a factor.

Malcom Subban is the backup. He struggled through periods of the season, generating just eight wins in 20 starts and posting a goals against average of 2.93 with a save percentage of .902. He had one shutout, but those stats will have to pick up if he’s going to be a challenging threat at his position.

The Sharks, likewise, have struggled to get good goaltending. While Martin Jones nabbed 36 wins, his 2.94 goals against average and .896 save percentage is far from imposing. In fact, Jones ranks 52nd out of 58 goalies to have played at least three games since March 1.

And his backup, Aaron Dell, is 58th on that list. Dell picked off 10 wins in 20 starts this season for a goals against average of 3.17 and a save percentage of .886. Ouch. The Sharks are hoping their netminding tandem can turn things around when the fun starts, but this is looking like a pretty dubious bunch.

Prediction

If it comes down to goaltending, as the cliché says it does, it’ll come down to Fleury saving the day again. The Sharks might feed him a lot of rubber, but a return to playoff form (and the regular season form of last season) will benefit. If he can’t pull out the magic, goals might pile up. On the other hand, the Vegas forecheck can generate woes for the San Jose net. And that means we could see more than a few blowouts on the scoresheet.

If it’s down to big-time hockey with lots of scoring, Vegas will take the historic edge and win this series in six games.

(Photo credit: NHL)

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