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Sharks vs Golden Knights Series Preview: San Jose Offense vs Vegas Defense

Sharks will have to catch Gallant with the wrong units on the ice.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 31: Joe Pavelski #8 of the San Jose Sharks and Brayden McNabb #3 of the Vegas Golden Knights go after the puck in the third period of their game at T-Mobile Arena on March 31, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Golden Knights won 3-2 and Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As Timo Meier scooped up a rebound and inserted it between Ryan Miller’s pads and into the back of the net to bring the score to 8-1 for San Jose last Monday, Sharks fans squealed in joy at the offensive outburst. Not only were noted leaders Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf leading their team in the rush for penalty box time, but the San Jose power play was making them pay for their infractions. The next game — the series clincher — was more of a sphincter clincher than the Sharks had experienced all series and a reminder that one game’s antics don’t necessarily carry over into the next contest.

The closer scorelines of the other three games reminded us also that goals scored and “offense” aren’t synonymous with one another. Better indicators of offense include rates of 5v5 expected goals and scoring chances a team produces, as well as the rate of unblocked shots teams take. With that in mind, we’ll take a look at how the Sharks’ offense matches up with the Knights’ defense.

We can start with a visual representation of 5v5 unblocked shots, thanks to Hockeyviz.

Vegas is fairly solid at keeping teams away from where the Sharks would like to be

If you prefer, an overlay with the Vegas’ defensive map flipped vertically shows how the two line up.

Vegas keeps teams away from the center of the slot

This might not be very legible, but hopefully it shows that Las Vegas has done a good job keeping opposing teams away from where the Sharks like to shoot: There are fairly dark blue blobs near Burns’ position on the right point and in the middle of the slot. Burns and the Sharks’ right-handed defenders must find a way to contribute to the offense without simply taking their own shots, as it appears the Knights do a good job of limiting shots from that part of the ice. Vegas does seem to allow a decent amount of unblocked shots from either circle, so maybe the Sharks can take advantage of that to get Fleury moving side to side.

In numerical form, the matchup looks something like this. (All numbers in this chart are score- and venue-adjusted)

Trend numbers tell a slightly different story,

The teams’ first-round playoff series suggests a good Sharks offense against a good Vegas defense, with the Sharks delivering middling shot and chance percentages (marks of how well they controlled play and predictors of future goal scoring). However, one playoff series offers a small sample size tinged by coaches looking for matchups and bizarre score lines. The resulting numbers, especially after a four-game sweep, can be weird. If we expand our lens a bit, we can look at either teams’ season-long numbers and more recent run of play leading up to the playoffs.

San Jose’s season-long predictive metrics (shots for percent and scoring chances for percent) were average, but their offense was a top-ten outfit. Vegas’ defense was solidly in the top-10 conversation. Since the trade deadline, however, Vegas’ defense has turned into an average unit, while San Jose’s offense and scoring chance percentage have blossomed into a group that looks capable of scoring on any team.

The Knights defense did not play well to end the season

The Knights’ five-game rolling average of shots allowed per 60 minutes shows a team that was closer to average most of the season. It appears they turned in an exceptional November and January, but were otherwise a just-above-average defensive team. The large spike in the wrong direction toward the end of the season is what brings their defensive numbers down to average. Their expected goals against (a different model than that of the table above) shows a similar pattern:

The Knights allowed a higher rate of expected goals against during the second half of the season

For most of the season, the Knights were outstanding at preventing quality chances against. When the calendar turned to February, however, the drawbridge opened somewhat. The Knights finished the season allowing plenty of dangerous chances against.

The Sharks’ offense is ... good

The Sharks have been generating expected goals at an elite rate since about February.

The Sharks’ rate of unblocked shots follows a similar pattern

The quality of shots the Sharks generate begins with the rate of unblocked shots they take. Both counts have skyrocketed since February, and neither has shown any signs of slowing down through the playoffs.

Las Vegas’ defensive matchups slowed down Los Angeles’ offense

In Las Vegas against the Kings, Gerard Gallant used a shutdown group of Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault against the Kings’ top line (typically Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown accompanied by a mishmash of wingers.) To a lesser extent, the Knights’ bench boss sent out Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland, along with James Neal, Erik Haula, and Alex Tuch against the Kings’ Jeff Carter line. Micah Blake McCurdy shows those matchups in the following chart:

Vegas matches up big with big

In Game 1, the matchup worked well. Anze Kopitar spent about 13 of his 15 minutes at 5v5 against the Schmidt and McNabb pairing. With that matchup on the ice, the Kings collected just 40 percent of all score- and venue-adjusted shots and scoring chances. Similarly, Jeff Carter spent about 12 of his 15 minutes at 5v5 playing against the either Theodore or Engelland. With those matchups on the ice, the Kings took between 40 and 50 percent of all score- and venue-adjusted shots and collected a similar range of scoring chances.

In Game 2 (a double overtime affair), Kopitar spent nearly 23 of his 31 minutes at 5v5 matched up with Schmidt and McNabb. With that matchup, the Kings took just 46 percent of shots and only generated 40 percent of all scoring chances. Theodore and Engelland made mincemeat of Jeff Carter’s line, limiting the Kings to just around 30 percent of all shots and scoring chances.

When the series moved to Los Angeles, Gallant chose to distribute his top defense pair’s minutes more evenly among his forward lines in Game 3. Kopitar fared well against Schmidt and McNabb, helping the Kings tally 60 percent of all shots and 100 percent of all scoring chances while those three were on the ice with one another. Jeff Carter fared well against Theodore and Engelland in the shot department, but not so well in the scoring chance column.

During Game 4, a game in which the Knights appeared to have held onto for dear life from the opening puck drop, Gallant returned to his five-man matchup units. Kopitar was able to take 60 percent of shots against McNabb and Schmidt, but only 45 percent of scoring chances. Carter took just fewer than 50 percent of shots against the Theodore/Engelland pairing and about 40 percent of all scoring chances.

With the exception of Game 3, when Gallant separated his shutdown units, the top of the Knights’ lineup won its matchup with the top of the Kings’ lineup handily. Kopitar and Carter found themselves, at best, managing a 50/50 proposition between their lines and the Knights’ two top defense pairs.

During the regular season, the Kings’ line of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Alex Iafallo:

  • Took 52.6 percent of shots and generated 49.77 percent of scoring chances.
  • During the series against the Knights: 49 percent of all shots // 49.79 percent of scoring chances
  • Regular season: 56 shots per hour // 26.7 scoring chances per hour
  • Playoffs: 53 shots per hour // 23.5 scoring chances per hour

Regular season Jeff Carter paired with Tyler Toffoli:

  • 48.5 percent of shots // 44.1 percent of scoring chances
  • Playoffs: 51.8 percent of shots // 37.5 percent of scoring chances
  • Regular season: 58.3 shots per hour // 26.2 scoring chances per hour
  • Playoffs: 63.5 shots per hour // 21 scoring chances for per hour

Both of the Kings’ top lines generated a lower rate of scoring chances in the playoffs than they did during the regular season. If there’s a positive to be taken from this, it’s that maybe the matchups Gallant pursued allowed the Kings’ second line to take more shots.

San Jose’s top forwards will have a difficult series

We can look at the Sharks top two lines to determine whether or not we should fear a similar drop in production.

Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane, Joonas Donskoi:

  • Regular season: 58.3 percent of shots // 66 percent of scoring chances
  • 77 shots per hour // nearly 41 scoring chances per hour

These guys are an offensive powerhouse. Even if the Sharks’ top line suffered the same percentage drop in scoring chance production as the Kings’ top line did, they’d still be operating at a fantastic pace.

The Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Mikkel Boedker line isn’t quite as impressive:

  • 49.6 percent of shots // 52.3 percent of scoring chances
  • 62.7 shots per hour // 32.2 scoring chances per hour
Knights are a better defensive team

Here is how the top defensive units on the Knights match up with the top defensive units on the Ducks. The red, orange and green fills are based on team rates over the course of the entire season. If the Manson/Lindholm pair represented an entire team, that team’s defense would be the best in the league. Red is elite, orange is just outside the top-ten, white is around average, and green is worse than average or an appealing matchup for opposing defenses.

Even though the Ducks’ top defensive matchups limited opponents’ shots, they were a mostly average-to-below-average group at limiting opposing scoring chances, which have been the key to the Sharks’ offensive engine lately. The Knights’ top shutdown units are average at worst in both departments and veritable erasers when they have their ideal five-man unit together.

Against the Ducks, Donskoi posted a team-worse rate of shots among forwards with Pavelski and Kane checking in about team average. All three forwards were in the bottom-six among Sharks forwards in terms of generating scoring chances. Those numbers, compared to league-average rates, are about average or a bit better. So, while the Ducks shut down that top pair relative to the rest of the team, the Sharks’ big three weren’t necessarily wiped clean from the matchup. The fact the Knights’ defensive units are even better than the Ducks’ defensive matchup groups should scare Pete DeBoer.

Depth Matchups: Hope or Hell?

Where things get really interesting is when we venture down the teams’ lineups. Collin Miller and Jon Merrill have formed an exceptional third pair for the Vegas Knights, albeit playing mostly against opponents’ bottom-six forwards. Together this regular season, the two have helped the Knights take 55 percent of all 5v5 score- and venue-adjusted shots and nearly 58 percent of scoring chances. When playing alongside Ryan Carpenter and Cody Eakin this post-season, the pair has helped the Knights take about 60 percent of all shots and 70 percent of all scoring chances.

Things go south for the duo in the shot department when playing with the Tuch, Neal, and Haula line, and they really nosedive with Tomas Nosek, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and William Carrier. However, in the pair’s limited time on ice so far, they’ve managed to keep the team even in the scoring chance column, at worst.

It appears as though the Kids Table line of Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, and Chris Tierney are in for another rough series at 5v5. The Sharks will have to hope that trio doesn’t allow a ton of goals against, as they are likely to be out-shot and out-chanced, so long as they must contend with Miller, Merrill and Cody Eakin’s line all at once.

Finally, San Jose’s fourth line scoring numerous goals during the Ducks’ series wasn’t a fluke. Eric Fehr, Marcus Sorensen, and Melker Karlsson have been flying, posting offensive numbers not unlike the Sharks’ first line during the first round series. They are likely going to continue their run of play against Bellemare, Carrier, and Nosek, who can’t seem to deliver much in the way of offense or defense regardless of the defense pair they’re assigned.

Flower is in full bloom

While goalies aren’t really part of a team’s defense, we’ll take a quick look at Marc-Andre Fleury’s season and postseason performance.

This season, 68 goalies (just more than two per team) have played at least 500 minutes at 5v5. Fleury ranks 20th in save percentage above expected and 14th in goals saved above average. In neither of those numbers does he surpass either one of the Ducks’ goaltending duo, but his postseason performance to date has belied those season-long statistics. During the first series, Fleury played two above-average games by those metrics and two exceptional games. This model suggests similarly, showing all four of Fleury’s games above his season average performance:

How can the Sharks’ offense win this series?

  • San Jose’s forward lines offer more offense than did those of Los Angeles. Still, the Knights’ two top matchup units have played well all season and so far this postseason, and the Sharks’ big boys up top were limited by the Ducks’ shutdown defense pair. The Sharks must hope their big six can avoid being cleaned off the score sheet entirely.
  • Las Vegas’ defensive depth is excellent, except when it comes to their fourth line. Eric Fehr and company must take advantage to help tilt the scales in San Jose’s favor this series.
  • Las Vegas is more than the sum of its parts. San Jose must catch Vegas on the ice without their ideal five-man combinations and leverage those defensive mismatches as often as possible.
  • Fleury has had a strong postseason so far, but he is unlikely to repeat his recent four-game performance for the entire spring. Opportunistic is the name of the Sharks’ offense this round.