If this series looks familiar, it should. These teams also played in the second round of the 2018 playoffs last season and that series ended with the Golden Knights taking the series in six games. And during that series, it was rough and nasty. It was an entertaining series. And even more important it gave Las Vegas their first real rival.
Both teams are returning with the same key players that they had last season outside of Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone joining the Golden Knights during the season via trades. I will hit on that more a bit later on.
With that out of the way with let’s get to breaking down the series.
Regular Season Recap
The Sharks finished second in the Pacific division with a 46-27-9 record and 101 Points and the Golden Knights finished third in the division with a 43-32-7 record and 93 points.
San Jose: 2nd in Goals For (289), 21st in Goals Against (258), 6th on the Power-Play (23.6%) and 15th on the Penalty Kill (80.8%)
Vegas: 13th in Goals For (246), 10th in Goals Against (228), 25th on the Power-Play (16.8%), 14th on the Penalty Kill (80.9%)
The Season Series
In the season series, the Golden Knights had five points with a 2-1-1 record against San Jose while the Sharks only got 4 points, both of their losses came in regulation. The final game of the season series between these teams was very physical, not so much in terms of fighting but the hitting was definitely there. It appeared that both teams were trying to go out and send messages to each other to set the tone for what appeared to be a foreshadowing of the upcoming playoff series.
The Golden Knights Defense VS the Sharks Offense
This is going to be a critical piece to the Sharks offense. Can they penetrate the Golden Knights defense to put a hurting on Marc-Andre Fleury?
Fleury is rock solid in the playoffs and the Sharks will either feast on Vegas’ defense or they will have an extremely difficult time getting past the Golden Knights. Penetrating the zone is a must for the Sharks to have any sustained success moving forward in the series.
Marc-Andre Fleury vs Martin Jones
Goaltending is key at any point of the season but it is especially important in the playoffs. Tim Thomas for the Boston Bruins in 2011 and Jonathan Quick for the Los Angeles Kings are prime examples of goaltenders leading their teams to Stanley Cup Championships. So I would be foolish to not mention this in the key matchups.
If there is one part of the Sharks that has a good chance of letting them down, goaltending is clearly it. Martin Jones during the regular season has not been overly impressive putting up a goals-against average of 2.94 and a save percentage of .896, neither of which would be considered average, in fact, those numbers are pretty bad. Fleury, on the other hand, is rock solid in the playoffs so if there is a clear mismatch in this series, this might be it.
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Let’s Talk About Depth
With the addition of Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, the Golden Knights have the deeper of the two teams. But it isn’t a given like we would have expected and that is because William Karlsson fell off considerably from last season. Which was to be expected considering that Karlsson had that break out season out of nowhere. He had a good year this season but it still fell far below what he did last season.
The Sharks have just as much depth as the Golden Knights and it will be up to their depth to keep them in the series. The Golden Knights have a pretty stacked lineup with the roster that they built over the last two seasons.
Can The Sharks Withstand The Golden Knights Physicality?
The Sharks are a feisty team typically, they have some size and plenty of skill. But I still wonder if they can withstand the physicality of the likes of Ryan Reaves. I never thought that I would have to ask about a fourth line player being a difference maker. But time and time again we have seen teams get eliminated because they didn’t withstand the physical punishment.
The Lightning last season, for example, had the deeper team than Washington but they couldn’t survive the Capitals physicality. They eventually got worn down and lost the series. The Capitals wanted it more. So the question is, do the Sharks want it enough? Can they withstand the Golden Knights punishment?
While I am not one that likes to post open-ended questions, there are exceptions where it is okay. This is one question I want to leave open because if they can withstand the Golden Knights punishment they will be well on their way to a deep playoff run.
Special Teams Will Be Key For Sharks
Special Teams is one area where San Jose has a clear advantage. That is the good news. The bad news is that Vegas is the 6th least penalized team in the NHL, so getting a power play will be hard. But when the Sharks do, they need to convert on them since they are one of the best power-play units in the NHL and about one-fifth of their goals come on the power-play which is a pretty big chunk of their offense.
After looking over the data and seeing how the games have played out this season. I am going with the Golden Knights in six games.
The reason for that is that Martin Jones inconsistencies. He has been average all season long and in the playoffs average just isn’t good enough. The Sharks offense should be able to penetrate the Golden Knights defense enough to generate some scoring opportunities and they will have to convert on them to stay close in the series.
Ultimately the Golden Knights are just too deep with the additions of Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, too tidy on defense and too physical for the Sharks to overcome.
-Kevin Gesterling covers the National Hockey League, focusing primarily on the Pacific Division in the NHL’s Western Conference for Full Press Coverage. You can reach him on Twitter @kgesterling1.