At long last, the Sharks and Golden Knights will restart their march towards the Stanley Cup as they square off for the Pacific Division playoff crown. It’s been a long layoff for both sides, who dispatched of their first-round opponents with four-game sweeps. Vegas was first to get through, playing their final game of Round 1 nine days ago, with San Jose advancing eight days ago. Since then, it’s been nothing but practice and off-days, so you can rest assured that the Sharks and Golden Knights are ready to lace 'em up for some actual playoff competition.
How The Sharks Win
San Jose’s offense wasn’t much to write home about for much of the season — middling at the best of times in the early going — but the addition of Evander Kane at the trade deadline seemed to give the Sharks’ attack the jolt that it needed. In the 19 games San Jose played after the deadline, the Sharks had the second-highest rate of goals per 60 minutes of play. And after an eight-goal explosion against the Ducks, and 16 goals in four games in the playoffs, San Jose’s offense is one of the post-season’s best. The Sharks are going to need to keep that up to break down a Vegas defense that allowed just three goals against in the first round.
Offense alone can’t win the series for the Sharks, though. Good thing San Jose had the second-best defense in the first round. That was in large part thanks to the play of goaltender Martin Jones. Historically a strong playoff performer, sporting a career .931 save percentage in 36 appearances, Jones turned in a stunning performance in the opening round, allowing only four goals against. Goaltending can steal games and, in rare cases, an entire series, and Jones will need to be sharp against a high-octane Vegas attack.
How The Golden Knights Win
Possession darlings in the regular season the Golden Knights were not. But against Los Angeles, one of the long-standing puck-possession giants, Vegas was tremendous. At 5-on-5, the Golden Knights had 53 percent of the shot attempts, 57.7 percent of the scoring chances and 62 percent of the high-danger chances. Owning the run of play will be one key to breaking down a Sharks defense that was incredibly limiting in the first round, too, particularly if the series turns into a battle of netminders. The more pressure they put on Jones, the better the chance of breaking through against San Jose’s keeper.
Vegas will have to be awfully wary of the Sharks' prowess with the man advantage, too, as it operated at a 30-percent clip in the first round. The Golden Knights did play with quite a bit of discipline during the regular season, ranking 19th in times shorthanded, and only found themselves down a skater 13 times through the first round. That’s one way to limit San Jose’s potent power play.
Another is with Marc-Andre Fleury, who was all-world in the first round against the Kings. In fact, Fleury could be the key to the entire series — maybe even the entire post-season — given the way he shut down everything Los Angeles threw his way. He allowed three goals throughout the entire four-game battle, and coming off of the best regular season of his career, there’s no reason to expect anything less than stellar play from Fleury.
Five Things To Watch
1. Who wins the goaltending duel? Jones and Fleury were the stars of their respective team’s first-round sweeps, putting up gaudy totals. Vegas was driven by Fleury’s remarkable .977 save percentage and 0.65 goals-against average, but Jones’ corresponding totals — .970 and 1.00 — shone just as bright in San Jose.
2. Kane made the most of his first taste of playoff action. Now, he’s got to prove he can keep that train rolling. He was a force against the Kings, firing off 21 shots in four games while potting three goals and four points. He’s fast, he’s physical and he can change a game in a single shift when he’s on top of his game. With how long he’s waited for this opportunity, he’s going to be as eager as anyone to make his presence felt.
3. Las Vegas’ offense, the fifth-highest scoring in the NHL during the regular season, was quiet in the first round despite the sweep. The Golden Knights only found twine seven times in four games, good for 1.75 goals per game. Only Los Angeles and Anaheim had a lower rate of offensive output. That’s good enough to win one round, but winning two rounds without at least a couple goals per game is a tall task.
4. The season series suggests these games will be tight. During the regular season, Vegas won three of the four meetings between the two teams. That said, there was a narrow margin of victory in each outing. Only one game was decided by more than one goal, though that Golden Knights two-goal victory came by way of an empty net marker.
5. Does Joe Thornton return? Maybe it was gamesmanship by the Sharks, maybe it was Thornton asking to test out his injury, but the veteran pivot took warmups during the first-round series which hints he might be close to getting back in the lineup. Sure, Thornton is inching close to 39, but he’s still a supremely skilled playmaker who can give San Jose a shot in the arm at even strength and on the power play.
THN series prediction: Golden Knights in six.
LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES: