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Winning Play: Vlasic returns to form

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San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) and Vegas Golden Knights right wing Alex Tuch (89) battle for control of the puck in the first period of game five of the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center at San Jose. John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The hottest thing this side of the Evander Kane-Ryan Reaves feud in this San Jose Sharks-Vegas Golden Knights series was the Mark Stone line.

That is, before Marc-Edouard Vlasic returned from injury in San Jose’s 5-2 Game 5 victory.

Peter DeBoer waited no time siccing Vlasic on Stone, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, starting Vlasic and Brent Burns against the Stone line at puck drop.

Through two periods, the Stone line created zero high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5, which certainly helped the Sharks swim out to a 3-1 lead. While this wasn’t all because of Vlasic and BurnsBrenden Dillon and Erik Karlsson also saw significant time against the Stone line — they were DeBoer’s pairing of choice against hockey’s most-dominant line.

Underscoring DeBoer’s belief in this pairing, Vlasic and Burns started every period and took every post-goal shift until Joe Pavelski’s empty netter.

Five things stood out, in particular, about Vlasic’s confident work last night.

One-on-One Defending

Vlasic’s overall play has been criticized at times this season, and fairly so, but in my view, he’s still been tough to beat one-on-one. Here, Vlasic (44) matched Stone’s (61) speed and kept a tight gap, forcing Stone to surrender the puck.

No problem for the Golden Knights though: This is a pick-and-roll play that Vegas has run over and over again in this series. Stone gave up the puck in the middle of the zone, while the shooter, Pacioretty (67), rolled with the it. This was Game 4:

This time, however, Vlasic switched on the speedier Pacioretty and got low, adding to his length. Pacioretty, already at a disadvantage because he was on his backhand, tried a difficult pass and turned it over.

Smarts

Why more Vlasic and Burns on the Stone line instead of Dillon and Karlsson?

Besides the uncertainty with Karlsson’s health, they’re a better match-up against a power line like Stone’s.

Karlsson, at his best, is a superior skater with a matching hockey IQ, but who’s overwhelmed on occasion by size and strength. DeBoer knows this, and in the regular season, he used Karlsson more against the likes of Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov.

On the other hand, the 6-foot-4 Stone is a lumbering but Atlas-strong playmaker. Vlasic, at his best, is no speed merchant, but uses world-class smarts and stick to outbattle and outthink the opposition.

Here, Vlasic recognized that the Knights didn’t have any speed coming from behind Stone. This allowed him to leave his position and steer Stone into the 6-foot-5 Burns’s stick. That’s perhaps Burns’ best defensive attribute, his ability to stand up at the blueline with wingspan.

Patience

The Golden Knights are ferocious forecheckers. To beat them, you need cool customers who can take the heat.

That’s Vlasic. Facing the wall, he held and held the puck, knowing he was about to absorb two forecheckers. He backhanded it through Stastny, to an open Burns. The NHL’s highest-scoring defenseman did the rest, put in the best possible position by his partner.

Here’s another veteran move from Vlasic.

Going back for the puck, Vlasic recognized Stastny coming to his left, Stone stalking his far right. Stastny missed, then Vlasic simply outwaited Stone — perhaps the premier takeaway artist in the league — before shooting it up the wall for another zone exit.

Going Back for the Puck

Earlier this season, Vlasic was criticized for not going back for pucks hard enough.

At the very least, Vlasic wasn’t getting the same results, as he was being forced into more turnovers than usual.

This looks like classic Vlasic albeit not against the Stone line: Vlasic used just enough of his feet and more of his length to get inside of speedy William Carrier (28), rimming it up to Gustav Nyquist (14). Jonathan Marchessault (81) shaded toward the middle, expecting a Carrier 50-50 puck battle win, but instead, the Sharks got out in transition.

Knowing the Boards

Vlasic pooh-poohed the notion that there was anything special about this play or his knowledge of the SAP Center boards, so we’ll take his word for it.

“Sometimes, it bounces your way,” Vlasic noted. “Sometimes, they don’t.”

Regardless, this was a perfectly-placed bounce pass for Evander Kane (9) to skate into and kickstart a cycle.

In all, Vlasic’s return to form, Karlsson’s improving health and Jones’s resurgent performance bode well for Game 6.