Golden Knights at Sharks Preview: Sin City meets Fin City

The first-round playoff matchup we’d all like to avoid.

The Vegas Golden Knights (39-27-5, 3rd Pacific) are in town to take on the San Jose Sharks (43-21-8, 2nd Pacific) in a potential first-round playoff matchup.

These are two Western Conference heavyweights, but the Sharks and Knights haven’t been trending in the same direction as of late. While San Jose has lost their last two contests in regulation, both at home (a rarity for them), Vegas has won seven of their last eight games, getting phenomenal play from netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who leads the league in both wins (35) and shutouts (8). Although Fleury was recently sidelined with a lower-body injury, his stay on injured reserve will likely be a short one; he is listed as day-to-day by head coach Gerard Gallant. Additionally, Malcolm Subban, his understudy, is a former first round pick and has proven capable at the NHL level; Sharks fans likely remember his 42 save, .955 save percentage performance against San Jose last March.

With Saturday night’s loss against the Nashville Predators, the Sharks failed to leapfrog the Calgary Flames for the top spot in the Pacific Division and now trail them in the standings by a single point. If San Jose fails to end the season in possession of that top spot, tonight’s matchup against the Golden Knights will most likely be a playoff preview (assuming Vegas maintains the third position in the division, which is the most likely scenario, as the Arizona Coyotes are seven points behind), meaning the two will meet in the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

Last year, the meeting between the two didn't end in the Sharks favor, and the Golden Knights ended up in the Stanley Cup Final. It isn't a stretch to think the Sharks would much prefer matching up with a team like the Coyotes or Minnesota Wild in the first round, teams that have had virtually no playoff success in recent history, rather than the Knights, considering their recent history.

This is the third meeting between San Jose and Vegas this season, with the Sharks taking a tightly-contested 3-2 win in San Jose on Jan. 10, and getting routed by the Knights at T-Mobile Center in Vegas 6-0 on Nov. 24.

Will Fleury play?

Marc-Andre Fleury has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL this season. He ranks ninth in goals against average (2.46), with a very respectable .914 save percentage, and, as previously mentioned, is first in the NHL in both wins (35) and shutouts (8). While his day to day status shouldn’t necessarily concern Golden Knights fans long-term, being out of the lineup in San Jose would be a massive advantage for the Sharks.

Backup Malcolm Subban has struggled recently, only winning four of his 12 appearances this season, and allowing five goals in each of his last two starts, while AHL call up Maxime Legace posted less than stellar numbers playing for Vegas last year, winning only six of 16 games, while posting a 3.92 goals against average and .867 save percentage. If Fleury isn’t ready to return, the Sharks capture the goaltending advantage (massively).

Joonas Donskoi: Sitting or playing?

In a decision that caused many Sharks fans (and observers) to scratch their heads, head coach Peter DeBoer sat Joonas Donskoi as a healthy scratch over Micheal Haley in Saturday night’s matchup (and Joonas Donskoi bobblehead night, no less!) against the Predators. While Donskoi hasn’t been lighting the lamp recently (he hasn’t scored a goal since Jan. 10), few predicted that with the return of Evander Kane, it would be Donskoi, rather than Micheal Haley, sitting out.

In the past, Donskoi has responded positively to being scratched, and while it’s likely DeBoer again goes with Haley over him (particularly because the Golden Knights will have Ryan Reaves on the ice) in tonight’s game, if he were to return, he may serve as a bit of a spark plug for San Jose, playing with renewed motivation in addition to creating mismatches on the fourth line with his speed and possession driving abilities.

What are you playing for?

The Sharks are in a desperate, magnified situation in which every potential standings point critically matters, in their race for not only first in the Pacific Division, but also home ice throughout the Western Conference playoffs (and potentially the Stanley Cup Final, if the Tampa Bay Lightning somehow don’t represent the East). Evander Kane has rejoined the lineup, providing them a boost to their top-six forward group, and while Erik Karlsson and Radim Simek being sidelined stings, Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed have done a great job in filling in for them.

If Fleury isn’t able to play, the Golden Knights’ biggest difference maker is sidelined, and they’re playing two games in two nights, likely with an AHL level goalie in net at the SAP Center. The Sharks got a break in the Flames’ recent loss to the Winnipeg Jets, but they need to seize control of their own fate if they’re to pass the Flames in the Pacific Division and they can’t afford to drop a third straight game at home.

Bold prediction: The Sharks earn a statement win, 4-2 over the Knights.