Sharks vs. Golden Knights Film Room: Special Teams

In mid-March, a struggling, 22nd-ranked Vegas Golden Knights power play torched the San Jose Sharks for three goals.

As I wrote, in the first period of that 7-3 rout, Vegas leaned almost entirely on a specific breakout to confound San Jose:

There was nary a drop pass to be seen in the first period on the Vegas breakout: The drop pass is a staple of their power play breakout, as it is for most teams. Instead, the Golden Knights leaned heavily on a five-man “swing” breakout, one central puck carrier with four in-motion options.

William Karlsson confirmed, “Craiger told everybody [to change it up]. I mean, it worked.” “Craiger” is assistant coach Ryan Craig, who runs the Vegas power play.

Over and over again in the opening frame, the Golden Knights broke out at 5-on-4 in this fashion. In fact, they attempted just one drop pass in eight first period breakouts at 5-on-4. Six times, they used this five-man “swing.”

This outburst, however, did not ignite their power play for the remainder of the year. When Vegas returned to SAP Center on Mar. 30, on its way to a 25th-ranked power play, they were held off the scoreboard.

Interestingly, the Knights did not lean on this same breakout in that 4-3 loss. In their two failed 5-on-4 power plays, they attempted seven drop passes in 10 zone entries. These are the two power play breakouts that the Sharks should see the most of, the drop pass and the five-man “swing.”

In truth, the Golden Knights’ power play has been unsettled for the entire year. It’s so unsettled, hard to say how they’ll align Game 1. But we might see something like this:

Max Pacioretty (67) would be the likely one-timer option in this alignment. While right-hander Mark Stone (61) can also blast a one-timer, he’ll be heavily relied upon to be a playmaker along the half wall. Alex Tuch (89) is the net-front staple. More often than not, Vegas will use this 1-3-1 formation.

Tuch’s presence here calls into question how the other Vegas power play unit will line up.

Among Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, Colin Miller and Brandon Pirri or Cody Eakin or Nate Schmidt, there is no clear-cut net front option. They’ve even tried fourth-liner Ryan Reaves there for a significant stretch. In this case, we’ll probably see a lot of Smith or Eakin screening Martin Jones.

It’s a surprise that George McPhee did not address this weakness during the Trade Deadline. It might — might — suggest that Erik Haula, who was the Golden Knights’ other net-front power play option last year, could be closer to coming back than expected. Haula, however, has been injured since November and hasn’t practiced yet. So this appears to be, more likely, a crack in the Knights’ armor.

However, in much the same way, the Sharks penalty kill has also struggled.

From Jan. 16 to Mar. 29, the San Jose penalty kill was 29th in the league.

There might be some light at the end of the tunnel though, as the Sharks ended the season on a five-game penalty killing shutout streak.

“Dave Barr’s really spend a lot of time going back to the foundation,” Peter DeBoer noted. Barr is the team’s penalty killing guru.

This foundation includes a passive forecheck, an emphasis on taking away the middle and standing up the breakout at the blueline, plus aggressive in-zone puck pursuit. I actually wrote extensively about the San Jose penalty kill last year when I was covering the Golden Knights.

A couple weeks ago, when the Sharks’ penalty kill was having trouble keeping its head above water, Melker Karlsson admitted, of the opposition’s zone entries, “Their break-ins, we haven’t stopped them enough. They get in too easily.”

Tracking the first two games of their current five-game penalty kill shutout streak, Vegas and Calgary enjoyed just a 53 percent carry-in rate on zone entries at 5-on-4. This is over eight total power plays at 5-on-4.

“We’re still doing everything the same way, just doing it better,” Logan Couture offered. “Our stands at the blueline have been better. When we’re PK’ing well, we make it tough for the other teams to break in, force them offsides.”

While this isn’t the sole reason why the San Jose penalty kill has flourished recently, it’s a key reason. Denying carry-ins certainly helps other areas of the kill.

On Jan. 15, the Sharks were ranked fifth in the NHL on the penalty kill. Since then, through Mar. 29, the biggest statistical difference, besides the obvious goals against, has been shots attempts allowed at 5-on-4.

(GP: Games Played, FA: Fenwick Against, SA: Shots Against, SCA: Scoring Chances Against, HDCA: High-danger Corsi Against, MDCA: Medium-danger Corsi Against, LDCA: Low-danger Corsi Against)

In particular, a stumbling San Jose penalty kill had surrendered a much-larger share of low-danger shot attempts. While low-danger shot attempts (i.e. point shots) aren’t the most threatening in itself, they cause chaos in terms of rebounds, getting penalty killers out of position, etc.

Here are numbers for the last five games:

There’s obviously something too good to be true about these recent figures, but they do assert that the improvement of the penalty kill has been both above and beneath the water.

Certainly, denying carry-ins at a greater percentage will discourage all shot attempts and chances, in general.

For a traditionally-stout penalty kill — from 2015-18, the Sharks ranked seventh in the league in this category — their recent struggles may have been a wake-up call.

Brenden Dillon acknowledged, “It was just coming down to us, really bearing down on it, instead of, oh, we’re the San Jose Sharks, we’re a good PK team.”

Or not. Both the San Jose penalty kill and Vegas power play are clearly vulnerable.

Speaking of Jan. 16, that’s when Erik Karlsson first felt his groin tighten up against Arizona. Karlsson would miss 28 of the next 34 contests because of two different groin injuries. Now, I doubt San Jose’s struggles on the penalty kill were tied only to Karlsson’s injury — he, along with Brent Burns, are second-choice defenders on the Sharks penalty kill, after Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun — but his return will help stabilize deployment.

Where Karlsson’s impact may most be felt is on the San Jose power play. Unlike the Sharks, Vegas employs more up-the-ice pressure on their penalty kill.

DeBoer observed that Karlsson’s return would be “critical” to beating the Golden Knights’ pressure: “He’s one of the best, if not the best transporter of the puck in the league.”

I wrote extensively about Karlsson’s ability to be a literal one-man breakout here.

In zone, Vegas kills a lot like San Jose: The penalty-killing forwards switch off in their aggressive pursuit of the puck.

Something to watch in this series will be how the Sharks deploy their power play units. For most of the season, Joe Thornton has manned the left half-wall on the second power play group. Recently, however, DeBoer has re-installed Thornton on the top unit, sliding left-hander Logan Couture to the right flank. In the process, “elite” power play playmaker Kevin Labanc has moved down.

However, DeBoer expressed less than complete satisfaction with his new top power play unit today, “I thought it was okay.” He added though, “But we know it can be very good when we get everybody healthy.”

There was no reason to follow up by asking DeBoer why he promoted Thornton. He has (now) 1,065 reasons: