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Fear the Five: Things to watch in Game 4

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The Sharks can’t afford to dig this hole any deeper.

Apr 30, 2018; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks left wing Mikkel Boedker (89) and Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt (88) battle for possession in the second period of game three of the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Cente John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The Sharks probably have their tails between their legs right now and it’s for a good reason. Losing a game that was absolutely within reach — more than within reach, was their for the taking — is difficult and embarrassing and frankly, they’re out of excuses. Whatever Pete DeBoer may have said about this team being the underdogs, with how good this Sharks team had been over the last month, this series shouldn’t have felt so impossible.

So they need to strap in for Game 4 and tie this series up at home, or else this could be the last that home fans see of them this year. Guaranteed, it’s not how they’ll want to be remembered.

Here’s what to watch out for tonight:

Are the Sharks in the right mindset?

The number one intangible: have they been broken down in the mental aspect of their game? This question might be bigger than ever after their last loss. The Sharks seemed to give Vegas the business and earn their first lead of the series, only to then find themselves in a 3-1 hole that they spent the third period digging themselves out of. This series has been a grind and going in to each night fresh gets harder and harder as it goes on.

The only certainty is that they can’t afford to let Vegas get under their skin.

Game-time Decisions

While Joonas Donskoi sat out with an apparent lower-body injury, the Sharks have been teasing the return of Joe Thornton to the lineup since round one. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and it does seem like Jumbo is closer than ever to getting back to the ice. Here’s what we know so far:

With no Donskoi, Chris Tierney may be forced back into a top-line role if Joe Thornton doesn’t make his return. While he appeared to do well, DeBoer also favored giving him offensive zone starts, as the defensive aspect of his game might not be top-line material just yet. He’s a fine patch, but likely not a long term solution, and DeBoer did take to shuffling lines after entering the third period down by two goals. At the same time, last year we saw how ineffective an injured Donskoi could be.

We’ll see who slots in where tonight, but being backed in new line combinations after a set lineup seeing a lot of success at the end of the season doesn’t necessarily bode well.

A series of unfortunate power plays

The Sharks had four power play opportunities in Game 3 and made good on only one of them, the opening goal from Timo Meier. That’s not to say the power play has looked bad, they just can’t seem to finish — a problem they’re having at 5-on-5 play, as well. Some difficulty scoring at even strength is expected when the best teams in the league face off against each other. But the Sharks’ power play is too good to not be converting.

That answer lies in —

Marc-Andrew Fleury and How to Crack Him

Regression, regression, regression. It’s got to happen with Fleury at some point, right? The 33-year-old goaltender is playing out of his mind right now and those 42 shots the Sharks nailed him with last game brought his save percentage to an unreal .960.

This is a man with a career post-season save percentage that averages out to .912, and that’s including this crazy run. The Sharks need to be the ones to bring him back to earth.

What adjustments will be made to the defense?

Of course none of this matter if the Shark can’t keep pucks out of their own net. For as much as we love his offense, Brent Burns is a defensive liability, something that becomes even more obvious when he’s not paired with the right D-partner. This is how Paul Martin earned the title of the Wookie Whisperer back in 2016, being able to make up for the defensive aspects of the game Burns lacks.

But it’s not 2016 and Paul Martin may have been fine against a garbage Ducks team, but he’s making inexcusable mistakes against Vegas — one of which cost them a game they should’ve won. All while Joakim Ryan, who held down that top pairing’s defense all season, sits in the press box.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun are getting gassed by their heavy shutdown minutes. That’s how Martin and Burns ended up on the ice for Game 3’s game winning goal. If other pairings can’t take on heavy defensive duties, then adjustments have to be made. But Pete loves his veterans, so change feels unlikely.