The Vegas Golden Knights put their work boots on after falling behind 2-0 early in Game 5.
In the last 8:50 of the first period, the San Jose Sharks were limited to zero shot attempts. Meanwhile, Vegas enjoyed 11, including a Reilly Smith power play goal. The visitors were rolling.
In this stretch, there were three trouble areas for San Jose: Transition, forecheck and execution.
Gustav Nyquist (14) won the puck in the corner and got it up to Tomas Hertl (48). Evander Kane (9) shot forward, but a backchecking William Karlsson (71) read the Hertl lead pass, turning it over.
It was a fine defensive play by Karlsson, but it was also a relatively easy one. Coming up the ice, Hertl didn’t have a lot of options, aside from skating it up himself or targeting Kane.
The key takeaway from this clip was the lack of a third Sharks threat filling the left lane alongside Hertl and Kane. This limited Hertl’s choices and resulted in an easier defensive read for Karlsson.
While Nyquist is the other forward on the line, the winger was understandably trailing the play, on the far side of the left lane, because he had been down low in the right corner defensively.
This made the closest man, Brenden Dillon (4), as the left-side activation option. While jumping up on the rush isn’t necessarily the defensive stalwart’s forte, his mere presence could’ve opened things up for Hertl. Nyquist would’ve covered for him.
Anyway, keep this play in mind. We’ll get back to it later.
As ineffective as San Jose was in transition, they were just as ineffective on the forecheck. In the last 8:50 of the opening frame, I counted nine Sharks dump-ins and just one puck recovery at 5-on-5.
Soft picks like this one, set by Paul Stastny (26) on a Joonas Donskoi (27) forecheck, aided and abetted the Golden Knights’ efforts.
Finally, San Jose simply wasn’t sharp during this stretch.
Maybe this unforced error was due to bad ice, a weak pass, poor reception or all of the above, but this was a play that must be executed properly.
The Sharks steadied themselves after the intermission, wresting the two-goal lead back. From the beginning of the second period, they looked like a different team. Per Natural Stat Trick, they took the middle frame with a 20-11 Corsi for, 12-4 scoring chances for and 3-1 high-danger Corsi for edge at 5-on-5.
One big reason for this response? Their defensemen activated, joining the rush judiciously, putting the Golden Knights on their heels.
“We want to play fast as much as possible,” Barclay Goodrow noted.
Not surprisingly, it was Erik Karlsson (65) stepping up to give San Jose a three-pronged attack. Nyquist trailed, supporting.
It was Karlsson again, offering an instant center lane option.
But it wasn’t just Karlsson.
Going after the puck, Joakim Ryan (47) took a Tomas Nosek (92) hit in the corner, managing to shovel it over to Justin Braun (61). Ryan beelined to the front of the net, taking both good offensive and defensive position, while Nosek, perhaps anticipating a rimaround, went behind it. Joe Thornton (19) absorbed the Alex Tuch (89) forecheck and went up the middle to an open Ryan. Nosek eating his dust, Ryan led the three-on-two out.
“We did a good job of breaking the puck out of our own end,” said Ryan.
Joe Pavelski added, “Guys just hung in there, tried to make plays.”
These small transition successes would help San Jose regain control of the game.
It’s tough being the “young” guy on an experienced defense in a big game.
Such is life for second-year blueliner Ryan, whose last shift in Game 5 was with 7:17 left in the second period. Not surprisingly, there was a goal scored on Ryan’s last shift. Surprisingly, it was a Sharks goal. Ryan even earned his first-ever playoff point on Goodrow’s eventual game-winner.
It’s one thing to be benched when you’re struggling; it’s another thing to be benched when you’re playing well.
“[The coaching staff] gave me a heads up, before the third period, saying we liked your game, nothing you’re doing wrong. But we’re going to go down to five,” the 25-year-old revealed, taking it in stride. “As long as we win, that’s all we care about.”
Speaking of players who were benched recently despite strong performances, Donskoi has been noticeable since his return to the line-up. It was his speedy forecheck that forced the Marc-Andre Fleury turnover which led to Goodrow’s goal.
In the final frame, Donskoi was also promoted to Kevin Labanc’s spot on the third line.
“I thought Donskoi was on. He had good jump, good energy, he was inside,” DeBoer noted. “It was one of those decisions where one guy was, I thought, at the top of his game. Not that Kevin was off by a lot.”
While Donskoi will start Game 6 on the fourth line, at this rate, it wouldn’t surprise anybody if the flying Finn is playing up in the line-up sooner than later.
“I had good legs the last couple games. Obviously a lot of energy after missing the first three games,” Donskoi said. “Just want to work hard, bring my A-game, win battles, keep it simple.”
Hertl certainly brought his A-game in Game 5.
“I thought he was the best player on the ice,” DeBoer said. “He’s carrying a line now. He’s that impactful.”
When people think of Hertl, his impact down-low in the offensive zone, using his wide frame, is what people think of most.
But underrated is how difficult he is to defend when he builds up speed through the neutral zone.
As I wrote after Game 2, a big part of handling Hertl is not allowing him to pick up momentum around center ice. By the time the 6-foot-2 pivot enters the zone, he’s a literal cannonball.
“I like to find a spot in the middle, if you can get speed, you have so many options: You can pass, you can go left or right,” Hertl said. “I try to do that every night, today it was working.”
If you’re San Jose, you want to see Hertl hurtling through the neutral zone like this in Game 6.
Hertl puts the Sharks on the board first! pic.twitter.com/A6kIGEMBzu— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) April 19, 2019
“You have to be willing to put yourself in good spots for everybody else to be successful. I think he’s always doing a good job of that,” Karlsson pointed out. “It’s on the receiver to be in the right spot at the right time.”
Kane leads league again
In the regular season, Kane led the NHL with 153 penalty minutes. He’s the playoff leader right now with 41.
Of course, there’s a fight with Ryan Reaves and a game misconduct in an already-decided contest goosing the numbers, but Kane’s playoff-leading seven minor penalties aren’t ideal. Mattias Ekholm follows with six, while Timo Meier has five.
In fact, Meier took San Jose’s first penalty of the game in Game 1 and 2. Kane has taken the team’s first penalty of the game in Game 3, 4 and 5.
For his part, Kane indicated that officiating standards haven’t been particularly consistent so far in the playoffs: “I really don’t know how things are going to be called.”
No more Timo Time on power play?
The Sharks had just two power plays in Game 5, but curiously, Meier did not participate in either. Instead, Marcus Sorensen was promoted, while Kane took Meier’s regular net front position on the second power play unit.
Yesterday’s practice confirmed that Meier has indeed been taken off the man-advantage.
Meier not working on #SJSharks power play; Kane taking Meier's net front spot, Sorensen in:— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) April 20, 2019
When asked about this power play shuffle, DeBoer was coy. Kevin Kurz of The Athletic suggested that Meier might still be suffering lingering effects from his late-season upper-body injury. Meanwhile, the second power play unit, albeit with significantly less playing time, hasn’t exactly been lighting it up: Their last goal, scored by Nyquist, was on Mar. 28 against Chicago.