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2019 NHL First Round Playoff Preview: San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights

The Sharks loaded up in the off-season with a Stanley Cup run in mind, but getting through the Golden Knights, who made a major deadline acquisition to bolster their roster, will not be easy.
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The Sharks spent much of the season flirting with top spot in the Pacific Division and in the hunt for top spot in the Western Conference, and hindsight being what it is, San Jose is probably looking back wishing they would have earned themselves that top seed. After all, who in their right mind would want to draw the Golden Knights in Round One? Vegas is a skilled possession team that only got better at the deadline with the acquisition of Mark Stone, and if the season series between these two teams is any indication, the Golden Knights aren't a friendly draw for the Sharks.

Offensive diversification is the key to San Jose’s success. The Sharks finished the season with Joe Pavelski in the 40-goal neighborhood, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Evander Kane reaching the 30-goal plateau, Logan Couture approaching 30 and six other forwards (including deadline day acquisition Gustav Nyquist) with a dozen or more. And that doesn’t even include the top goal-scoring defenseman of his era, beastly Brent Burns, whose 183 goals in 12 seasons since 2007-08 average to more than 15 per year. It’s tough to shut this group down.

And even though the Sharks have several players in their twilight seasons, the offensive strength and depth are better than they’ve ever been. Consider that three years ago, when a rock-solid San Jose lost in the Stanley Cup final to Pittsburgh, San Jose received just nine goals in six games from its forwards and averaged just 23 shots in the final series. Today’s Sharks average 33 shots per game and have the second best offensive output behind Tampa Bay. One reason for that diversification is the addition this season of all-world defenseman Erik Karlsson. He and Burns average almost 25 minutes per night, meaning if you’re a Sharks forward you’re almost always being iced in an environment to succeed.

Playing run and gun sometimes catches up to the Sharks. It’s been four years since the Sharks fielded a team that was this unreliable defensively. Martin Jones has struggled with consistency behind an experienced defense corps that isn’t young anymore. After three years finishing in the top 10 defensively, the Sharks are middle of the pack. Yet San Jose allows among the fewest shots, meaning they’re high-percentage chances being allowed or Jones isn’t delivering.

Uncharacteristically, the Sharks can be beat big. They had five games last season in which they gave up six or more goals. This season: nine.

X-Factor: A lot off of things are hinging on the uncertain groin of Erik Karlsson. The two-time Norris Trophy winner missed most of March with a delicate injury that history has taught us can be nagging for athletes. He also missed a month of duty before and after the all-star break. When he was playing, Karlsson was far from his best. The blueliner scored at a near-17 goal pace per 82 games during nine seasons with Ottawa. That pace this season is just five goals. The Sharks don’t necessarily need Karlsson at his goal-scoring best to succeed, but they do require him to be a heavy contributor in other facets of the game.

There isn’t a team in the league more obsessed with puck retrieval than the Golden Knights. Coach Gerard Gallant has his troops dialled in on the same wavelength. If the other team has the puck in its own zone, it’s going to face a full-court forecheck like that puck is the last scrap of food on Earth. If the other team has the good fortune to maintain control in the Vegas zone, it’s going to have to endure a five-man back pressure support network with sticks and bodies in every passing lane. That’s called complete buy-in. So the secret to Golden Knights success is believing in the coach and each other.

It’s helped that Vegas has punched up the attack with Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty becoming everyday contributors and forming perhaps the NHL’s most imposing second line. There’s plenty of support on other lines with Alex Tuch, Cody Eakin and Brandon Pirri helping offset market corrections from William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was the league leader in shutouts and deserves full credit for another prove-it-again season. But he does get a lot of help from teammates who work hard to tilt the ice in the other direction. And home ice, where they collected points at a .646 clip, is still a big advantage.

The Golden Knights got off to a slow start this season, losing four of their first five games and eight of their first 11 on the road. Did they let up after a miraculous run as the best expansion-team performance in the history of pro sports? Maybe, but the power play was off from the beginning, and coaching league-wide focused pre-game scouting reports on smothering Karlsson and Marchessault in the offensive zone. Even with new layers added to the Vegas offense, the power play is still bottom 10 in the league. Defensively, the Vegas backline can be prone to giveaways when faced with heavy pressure.

X-Factor: Even though Mark Stone got off to a slow start offensively after coming over from Ottawa, the team won six straight games with him in the lineup. The Golden Knights scored 23 goals in those six games, and the belief is a player of Stone’s caliber is only going to thin out the opposition defense and allow more room for Vegas’ other dynamic forwards to find room. And Stone will contribute in other areas as well. He’s a large body that doesn’t wither in high-traffic areas, and he’s very astute defensively, leading the league in takeaways with more than 100. He’s built for playoff hockey and ups Vegas’ Cup chances considerably.

Nov. 24, 2018 – VGK 6, SJ 0
Jan. 10, 2019 – SJ 3, VGK 2
March 18, 2019 – VGK 7, SJ 3
March 30, 2019 – SJ 4, VGK 3 (OT)

Wednesday, April 10, 10:30 p.m.: Golden Knights at Sharks
Friday, April 12, 10:30 p.m.: Golden Knights at Sharks
Sunday, April 14, 10 p.m.: Sharks at Golden Knights
Tuesday, April 16, 10:30 p.m.: Sharks at Golden Knights
*Thursday, April 18, TBD: Golden Knights at Sharks
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Sharks at Golden Knights
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Golden Knights at Sharks
(All games listed in Eastern Time)


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