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Winning Play: Reaves gets into Haley’s head

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SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 14: Micheal Haley #18 of the San Jose Sharks skates during warmups against the Florida Panthers at SAP Center on March 14, 2019 in San Jose, California. NHLI via Getty Images

Haley VS Reaves

It seemed natural to ask Micheal Haley about Mark Stone. After all, the former Panther had just left the Atlantic Division, where the ex-Senator star had also recently toiled.

“Um, I don’t know. I usually don’t play that much against him,” the fourth-liner laughed at morning skate before the San Jose Sharks took on the Vegas Golden Knights. “I play everyone the same, whether it’s him or Ryan Reaves. I only know one way.”

This wasn’t the first time that the rival enforcer had been mentioned, unprompted, by Haley, since the Sharks plucked him off waivers.

Reaves, however, was looking elsewhere during his first shift of last night’s Golden Knights’ 7-3 rout.

Behind Martin Jones, facing the boards, Brent Burns (88) considered moving the puck with his backhand. However, Reaves’s (75) richter-scale forecheck forced Burns to turn the other way.

Nate Schmidt (88) pinched, preventing Melker Karlsson (68) from a clean clear. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) supported Schmidt, punching it back in deep. This led to 30-plus seconds of sustained pressure from the Golden Knights’ fourth line, a timely pushback after the Sharks had jumped out to an early edge.

“Reavo was huge. He goes out and finishes them bodychecks,” Gerard Gallant said. “It’s not just him, it’s the line. They worked off each other. They kept the puck in their zone.”

At the end of this momentum-swinging shift, a changing Reaves made sure to cruise directly into a changing Haley. Haley, to say the least, appeared agitated.

“Haley wants to go, Reaves doesn’t want to,” observed Sharks color commentator Jamie Baker, who was between the benches.

A couple minutes later, apart from Reaves, Haley was ticketed with an unnecessary offensive zone interference penalty. Naturally, it was Stone who took advantage, giving Vegas a 2-1 lead.

Reaves and company would continue to push San Jose’s fourth line around.

It all came to a head — or was it Reaves in Haley’s head? — late in the opening frame.

Reaves crunched Karlsson in the numbers by the bench. It looked bad, but it was Karlsson who turned his back at the very last second, perhaps to brace himself. It also wasn’t a particularly dangerous area, with no glass to collide into.

Haley admitted afterwards that he didn’t see the hit, only the aftermath. In that case, his reaction was understandable and commendable — fallen teammate, Reaves, go — however, the result wasn’t helpful.

Smartly, Reaves refused to engage a steamed Haley. Haley, once again, was shuffled off to the sin bin.

There was a furor when the Sharks reunited with Haley last month. This dismal showing seemed to confirm fans’ worst fears. And indeed, there’s no other way to slice it: We saw the worst of Haley in the first period, as his line was roundly outplayed and he was outdisciplined.

Ironically though, Reaves’s impressive performance underscored Haley’s positive potential, why San Jose sought a reunion. Like Reaves, can Haley, at his best, forecheck ferociously, get under the skin of the opposition and avoid unnecessary penalties? As I wrote last month, absolutely.

It’s easy to forget now, because Reaves proved himself to be an integral part of the Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup Final run, but there was a similar tumult when Vegas traded for Reaves before last year’s trade deadline. Like Haley, Reaves was an analytics disaster and a clearly limited player.

But looking harder, you could see what Reaves could be. And while Reaves is considered a more impactful player than Haley — one has proven recent trade value, while the other was just waived — the same arguments for Reaves hold for Haley.

Vegas Surprise?

The Sharks were expecting Reaves, but their penalty kill may not have expected the subtle change in the Golden Knights’ power play breakout.

There was nary a drop pass to be seen in the first period on the Vegas breakout: The drop pass is a staple of their power play breakout, as it is for most teams. Instead, the Golden Knights leaned heavily on a five-man “swing” breakout, one central puck carrier with four in-motion options.

William Karlsson confirmed, “Craiger told everybody [to change it up]. I mean, it worked.” “Craiger” is assistant coach Ryan Craig, who runs the Vegas power play.

Over and over again in the opening frame, the Golden Knights broke out at 5-on-4 in this fashion. In fact, they attempted just one drop pass in eight first period breakouts at 5-on-4. Six times, they used this five-man “swing.”

Gallant had been displeased with the Vegas power play. Between shellacking San Jose and a 6-3 win over Edmonton the previous night, he noted, “I didn’t like the power play. Besides that, we played good.”

Ken Boehlke of Sinbin.Vegas observed, of that contest, “Connor McDavid was sniffing out the drop all over the place.”

Meanwhile, William Karlsson agreed that the Sharks might have been thrown off by this wrinkle to their attack.

A former head coach spelled out the advantages of such a breakout to me: Besides offering a different look — such a breakout is not as commonplace these days, as say, the drop pass — it also helps with puck retrieval if you’re forced to dump it in, what with five skaters entering the zone with speed.

If San Jose draws Vegas in the first round of the post-season, this will be something to watch. While the Golden Knights are more likely to vary their breakouts from now until then — the drop pass isn’t going away — the Sharks will need to be aware of this wrinkle.