Sharks at Golden Knights Preview: Strike, Pirri, Riposte

The Knights just keep Eakin out wins.

What a difference a week can make.

In a clash of two Pacific division rivals at the tops of their respective games, the surging San Jose Sharks (25-13-7, 3rd Pacific) visit the even-surginger Vegas Golden Knights (27-15-4, 2nd Pacific) at a time when the teams are separated by one little point. One week ago today, the Sharks had just narrowly held onto what was a four-goal lead in Denver to squeak out a one-goal win over the hosting Avalanche, shortly after being dismantled by the Flames in Calgary to the dissonant tune of 8-5. The Tampa Bay Lightning and their league leading 16-game point streak were next, and one wondered exactly how thoroughly the Sharks were about to be taught the difference between a strong team and a true Cup contender.

In a way, that’s exactly what happened. Without three of their top six defensemen, the Sharks beat the Lightning soundly, and rattled off two back-to-back wins over the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers, bringing them to the four-game win streak on which they find themselves so delicately perched. The last time the Sharks played two lottery-bound division opponents back-to-back at home was not quite three weeks ago, when they dropped two extra time decisions to the Kings and Arizona Coyotes. Since then, the Sharks have won six of seven, outscoring their opponents 36-23 in that time period.

The Sharks’ recent run of success is due in no small part to the transcendent play of everyone’s favorite Swedish pirate, Erik Karlsson. Since serving a two-game suspension for a late high hit to Los Angeles’ Austin Wagner, Karlsson has put the Sharks on his back: he’s recorded an absurd 15 points in the six games since returning.

That’s just the back end of Karlsson’s current 14-game assist streak (okay, according to the NHL, it’s technically not a “streak” because he missed two games with a suspension, but that is a silly technicality so, for the purposes of this article and our hype machine, streak it shall be), only the fifth in NHL history by a defenseman. Karlsson joins a list of impressive names to have accomplished the feat and, if he can record an assist tonight, he’ll pass the 14-game streaks of Phil Housley and Bobby Orr, tie the 15-game streak of Brian Leetch, and be well on his way to catching Paul Coffey for the longest assist streak by a defenseman in NHL history at 17.

The smooth skating Swede, now just shy of a point per game pace with 41 in 43 games played, is the third-highest scoring blueliner in the league, and leads all defenseman (with at least three appearances) in adjusted shot attempt share at 5-on-5. He is what we all thought he could be and every shift is a gift.

Keeping the streak alive, Karlsson recorded three assists in the Sharks’ most recent outing, a 7-2 demolition of the Oilers, hapless, heartless and hopeless as ever. It was the second consecutive seven goal outburst the Sharks have laid on the Oilers this season, and the Oilers have now allowed four or more goals in eight of their last ten games. The Sharks’ newly formed “third” line of Tomas Hertl centering Evander Kane and Joonas Donskoi has been doing a lot of damage lately, and Tuesday night was no exception. Donskoi has seven goals in six games and Kane has five goals and ten points in that span; both scored twice on Tuesday.

In a concerning development, head coach Peter DeBoer missed that game due to concussion symptoms after taking a puck to the temple during the previous night’s festivities with the Kings. Luckily, it looks as if he’s on the mend, as he practiced with the team yesterday, relieving Steve Spott of his short-lived, but glorious, reign.

If San Jose’s recent run of success is built on a mountain of points and overwhelming offense, Vegas’ is based largely on suppression and goaltending. The Knights have allowed nine goals total over their last seven games, but two in each of their last three, maybe showing signs of deterioration. Still, two goals allowed per game is hardly a glaring weakness ripe for exploitation, and the two goals the New York Rangers scored in Vegas on Tuesday were tallied after the game was all but decided.

In that 4-2 win at home, the Knights got on the board early and never really looked back. Jonathan Marchessault got a small monkey off of his back with his first goal after a seven game drought, Max Pacioretty tallied an assist in his third straight game after missing seven and the Knights are one win away from tying the longest winning streak in franchise history, a truly historic achievement.

The Sharks’ last visit to Vegas was a tragic affair, as William Karlsson scored 14 seconds in and the Knights never looked back on the way to a 6-0 win. Vegas seems to be winning in a more sustainable fashion than last year, but the Sharks are no easy out, and tonight is shaping up to be a high octane affair.

Buckle up.

Can the Sharks’ defense keep this up?

Tuesday’s game against the Oilers marked the third straight contest the Sharks played without veteran defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. To a large degree, Karlsson and Brent Burns have been picking up the slack, as both have averaged over 25 minutes over those three games, and have the points to prove it. Still, as much as the Braun and Vlasic pairing has been a question mark this year, their absence may only be weatherable temporarily. If the Sharks want to contend with strong teams like Vegas over the course of the season, they’ll need a healthy D corps, and stat.

What are the Knights doing with Brandon Pirri?

Pirri has played eight NHL games this season, and has recorded at least one point in all but one of them. One would presume that scoring seven goals in eight games would give one some rope when it came time to decide who to demote to make room for Pacioretty’s return from injury, but one would be wrong. Pirri was demoted to the AHL on Jan. 4 after scoring nine points in seven games. Vegas management defended the decision, saying that, due to Pirri’s waiver-exempt status, they would rather he head back to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves than expose another player to the wire. Three days later, however, the Knights placed forward William Carrier on the injury list with an illness. Luckily for them, though not so much for us or for Carrier, the hole in the roster allowed for Pirri to come back and score another goal against New York on Tuesday.

The Knights are not in an offensive slump, by any means, their goals for per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 is 14th in the league at 2.45, but that number puts them just above the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers — not exactly the caliber of team with which the Knights prefer to be rubbing proverbial elbows. They should be giving Pirri an extended look with a scoring opportunity, not shuffling him back and forth to protect Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.

When will Marc-Andre Fleury turn back into a pumpkin?

It’s been over a year now and, with some dry spells, the 34-year-old Fleury is still winning games for the Knights all by himself some nights. Fleury is first in the league in wins (25) and shutouts (6), and ninth in goals against average (2.46). These are heavily team-influenced stats, though, and head coach and reigning Jack Adams Trophy winner Gerard Gallant may have a fair amount to do with Fleury’s success. In more individualistic statistics, Fleury has not fared as well, as his adjusted 5-on-5 goals saved above average of -3.36 ranks 39th among 55 goaltenders with at least 500 minutes of ice time. Whether the Knights are stifling opposing offenses through goaltending or through defensive structure is largely academic to us, but to the Knights front office, staring down three years of $7 million per, he may be a cause for concern.

Bold Prediction: Donskoi stays hot, Jones stays not, but the Sharks put Fleury in his place with a 5-4 overtime win. On top of Donskoi’s two goals, Hertl tallies a goal and two assists, and Karlsson continues his streak with two apples. The game, however, will start late, as the knight who adorns Vegas’ frivolous pre-game festivities will be tragically devoured by a live shark he attempts to slice in half.

This will be the 1000th win in San Jose Sharks franchise history, so make sure you have some bubbly handy, and some of those dumb glasses that are shaped like a 1000 but your eyes look through the middle two zeroes. You know the ones. If you can’t find any, just get some from the year 0001 and turn them upside-down.

Next up, the Sharks will come back home to host the Ottawa Senators on Saturday at 7:00 PST, and the Knights will travel to Chicago to face the Blackhawks at 5:30 PST that same day.