Well, friends, the time is nigh. The playoff match up we’ve all been waiting for/dreading starts tonight as the Vegas Golden Knights (43-32-7) come to town to start their best-of-seven series with our very own San Jose Sharks (46-27-9). Much has been written and analyzed heading into what promises to be one of more entertaining first round pairings, so we’re going to mix up the format of today’s preview heading into Game 1.
For more in depth analysis of what we’re looking at over the coming weeks, check out Sheng’s special teams or 5-on-5 previews, Erik’s look at how the Sharks’ defensive corps will hold up against Vegas’ forwards, and Cami’s dive into the Knights’ blueline’s challenge against the Sharks’ front line. Those articles are all very smart people writing very smart things, so read this one if you’d rather read something very dumb.
It seems as if for every positive story for the Sharks heading into the postseason, there’s an equally positive one for Vegas, and for every negative story, the same, so let’s see if we can’t tally up the value of some of these traits and finally establish, once and for all, who will come out on top. Get your betting websites open in the other tab, because this will be infallible. Pros and cons!
PRO: This past off-season, the Sharks imported a legitimate game-breaker. Erik Karlsson is back, jerks, and he’s ready to will another team deep into the playoffs. While Karlsson missed a fair amount of time to injury lately, when in the lineup he was nigh unstoppable. Karlsson’s 45 points in 53 games brought him up to 2.08 points per 60 minutes played, the sixth highest mark in the league among defensemen who played at least 1000 minutes. Karlsson’s shot attempt percentage of 59.86 led all Sharks skaters not named Jacob Middleton (who only played three games, so who is he anyway?) and his impact on every game cannot be overstated.
Karlsson’s health is a concern, but considering he backstopped an Ottawa Senators team that had no business contending for an Applebee’s raffle to within one goal of a Stanley Cup Final appearance with a broken foot, it seems safe to say that barring an actual missing limb, he’ll come to play. That Senators team had very little on it in the way of talent, except for ... oh no.
CON: Mark Stone. The Knights made the add of the deadline this year, shipping out 2017 15th overall pick Erik Brannstrom, Oscar Lindberg and a 2020 second-round pick to Ottawa in exchange for the two-way winger, subsequently signing him to an eight year deal worth $9.5 million per. Stone is a superstar and his impact on this Vegas team has been substantial. Since the trade deadline, Vegas leads the league in expected goals percentage, and his line, with Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty (that’s a second line? Seriously?) took 57.96 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5.
PRO: Just look at the standings. The Sharks’ regular season record may be being overly discounted after a stumbling finish to the season and their 101 points best Vegas’ 93 by a significant margin. So significant, in fact, that the Knights’ meager point total would not be enough to even qualify for the postseason in the Eastern Conference, let alone as a top-three division team. The Montreal Canadiens tragically missed the dance with 96 points, and 98 was the cut off for the second wild-card, held by the Columbus Blue Jackets (also replete with former Senators). 82 games is a larger sample than 13, and should be weighted so, and the Sharks’ 101 points are a model of a longer-term consistency.
CON: Consistency. San Jose’s season has been a stretch of slumps and streaks. The Sharks stumbled out of the gate, posting a 12-10-5 record over their first quarter and change of the season. After a grisly road trip through Eastern Canada and a much publicized closed-door meeting, they hit the jets, recording a 31-9-1 record from December into March, taking a choke hold on the division title. The hold slipped, as the Sharks closed out the season losing seven in a row and a 3-8-1 record to finish. Their record since the trade deadline is a mediocre-at-best 9-9-1, compared to Vegas’ 11-6-2 after acquiring Stone.
PRO: Speaking of stumbling into the postseason, the Knights aren’t exactly burning houses down here. The Knights lost seven of their last eight, and hardly to powerhouses. Vegas tallied regulation losses to the Los Angeles Kings, Arizona Coyotes, Edmonton Oilers and Minnesota Wild, in addition to an overtime loss to the weirdly hot Detroit Red Wings during that span. If entering a playoff series cold is a serious concern, it shouldn’t apply only to this side of the ice.
CON: An unfortunately legitimate caveat to Vegas’ cold stretch is the absence of goaltender and apparent Shark-killer Marc-Andre Fleury. Of those eight games, Fleury started just two. Those starts were not particularly impressive, as he allowed four goals to the Coyotes and Kings to go along with a an .899 save percentage. A key factor in the Knights’ dismantling of the Sharks last postseason, Fleury will be back and (presumably) healthy, throwing a bit of cold water on the team’s recent cold streak (which would just make it colder? Please don’t overthink this metaphor).
PRO: The Sharks weren’t without key injuries themselves as the season wound down. During the aforementioned 13 game stretch, Karlsson missed 12, Joe Pavelski missed eight, Timo Meier missed one and Radim Simek has been out of the lineup since March 12. With that many high profile players out of the lineup, we should hesitate to put too much importance on that stretch of games to close out the season, especially if we’re giving Vegas the benefit of the doubt regarding Fleury.
CON: Simek is still out. While Karlsson, Pavelski, and Meier are all slated to suit up tonight, the Sharks may struggle without rookie phenom Radim Simek. If his injury (which happened in the team’s last win before that 13 game misery fest) had a profound effect on the team’s lineup, it will continue to do so through the playoffs.
PRO: Skating out of a giant shark head is so much cooler than out of a knight helmet. The latter doesn’t even make sense. Are they wearing the knight helmet all together like a bunch of kids stacked atop each other in a trench coat to buy a movie ticket? Did the knight eat them and they are escaping it’s ravenous maw? Did they order it for the mascot to wear and put the decimal point in the wrong place when sizing it but they lost the receipt so now they have to use the dang thing for something, Carl, be creative?
CON: The Sharks might be ceding home ice advantage based solely on the Golden Knights’ jerseys. Those things are so slick; from the white shoulders to the gold filigreed elbows to the white gloves to the red stripes to the tasteful charcoal of the upper arms back to the white gloves again, there may not be a uniform more stylish than the Vegas whites. It will be a challenge for the Sharks’ players not to gawk like a child at their wonder.
PRO: There’s a lot to like about the ways in which this Sharks team has improved from the one that took these Knights to six games last year. Last season Karlsson’s, Gustav Nyquist’s, and Joe Thornton’s skates were filled by players like Dylan DeMelo, Mikkel Boedker and my best friend Chris Tierney. Clear upgrades across the board there. Add in career seasons from Logan Couture and Brent Burns, and breakouts from Tomas Hertl, who has matured into a legitimate top-six center, Timo Meier, a dominant old-school power forward, Marcus Sorensen, a speedy winger with finish and very nice hair and Kevin Labanc, a dangerous passer on the half wall on the power play and at evens, and this team is significantly more dangerous that last year’s model.
CON: Aw, jeez, Mark Stone again? The Knights, while far from the lofty heights they reached in the standings in their inaugural season, may actually be even better this year. Vegas has actually scored one more goal at 5-on-5 this year than last year, 172 to 171, and only allowed seven more. What’s more, their underlying numbers have all improved: shot attempt share up from 50.96 to 54.34, and a massive expected goals increase from 152 to 190.4. Briefly, while they were playing pretty well and getting hugely lucky results last year, this year they’re playing quite a bit better and getting unlucky results. That, combined with a pretty ineffective power play, and an increase in goal-scoring everywhere else in the league, has led to their drop in the standings, not a drop in ability.
PRO: Last year, the Sharks’ top line of Pavelski, Evander Kane and Joonas Donskoi was obliterated by Vegas’ trio of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, outscored 17-3 in the series. This year’s top trio of Pavelski, Couture and Meier is a big improvement. Combined with the natural regression Vegas’ top three have seen, this is a match up ripe for exploitation.
CON: Oh, yeah, that Vegas second line. Hertl, Nyquist and Kane could have their hands full containing Stone, Pacioretty and Stastny. Any way head coach Peter DeBoer chooses to match up his top two lines against Vegas’ will be tough sledding for someone.
PRO: What about the third line? San Jose’s third line of Thornton, Sorensen and Labanc are ranked as the leagues sixth best by Corsica, and the match up against Cody Eakin, Brandon Pirri and Alex Tuch could be an area upon which the Sharks can capitalize. If the top-six skaters on each of these teams can skate each other to a relative draw, the Sharks forward corps could win out on superior depth. As good as Tuch has been this season, he’ll be lining up against the 101st best player this league has ever seen.
CON: The Sharks seem intent on icing a fourth line of Barclay Goodrow centering Melker Karlsson and Micheal Haley. Despite the initial concerns of benching positive and effective players like Donskoi and Lukas Radil, there is a very real worry about Micheal Haley getting mind melted by Ryan Reaves again. The decision to put Haley back out there after he has proven capable only of taking penalties after being goaded into altercations with Reaves over the past two meetings is perplexing and could be dangerous when mistakes are so heavily punished.
PRO: Martin Jones’ playoff resume is impressive. Among active NHL goaltenders, Jones’ .926 post season save percentage ranks fourth, and Fleury’s .911 is 21st. We dumb nerds who look at stats all day and never watch games or play outside or do sports with cool attractive people sometimes forget that these players are human, and there is a real possibility that Jones plays better under the pressure of the postseason. Jones is a clutch performer and can be trusted to come through when it counts.
CON: That’s probably not true. Clutch performers and high pressure players are almost always contrived post-hoc narratives to explain improbable events in a way that is palatable to a commercial audience, and Jones’ .926 in 42 playoff games are not as valuable a predictive measure as the .896 in 62 regular season games he just finished, both in terms of sample size and recency. Further, Jones allowed 55 goals in the first five minutes of a period this season, 31 percent of his total 176, worryingly higher than the 25 percent that would be allowed by pure chance, and the most by any keeper in the league. The Knights’ 34.3 shots per game are second most in the NHL, so Jones will be tested early and often, and concerns about his being up for the task are well-founded.
PRO: On the other side of the ice, Fleury doesn’t exactly have a history of playoff success until recently. Fleury’s postseason save percentage of .913 in 128 career games is good, but not unbeatable, and a Sharks team that has been shooting at 9.03 percent, fifth in the league all year, should have no trouble getting a few by him.
CON: Recently, as I’m sure you remember, Fleury’s performance has been much better. The Knights’ netminder’s save percentage has gone up every postseason since 2015, up to a .930 last year, when they unceremoniously ended the Sharks’ hopes and dreams.
PRO: Sample size again! Fleury’s 19 games last year are likely less indicative of future performance than the 109 games before that and the version of him we see tonight will almost definitely be somewhere in between the beatable average Marc-Andre of seasons past and the dominant force of last year.
Okay, I’m confused. My unimpeachable and empirical analysis has the Sharks winning this round 11-10, which would be a very strange outcome to a seven game series. This has been an exhausting exercise, and I’m still not sure we know anything we didn’t know before we started. Of the eight match ups on tap for the first round of the NHL playoffs this year, we may be settling in to watch the tightest. Fans of neither team will have a great time watching these two heavyweights of the West slam their heads together while we all wring our hands and clutch our pearls in California. As the saying goes, the Sharks don’t need to win four games to win the series, they need to win one game four times.
Bold prediction: Tonight will be that game.