Sharks vs Golden Knights Preview: San Jose Defense vs Vegas Offense

Do the Sharks even play defense?

We looked earlier this week at the San Jose offense against the Las Vegas defense. We’ll reverse the situation in this post, but we will probably keep it abridged, comparatively.

We’ll start with unblocked, 5v5 shots side-by-side (these charts courtesy of Hockeyviz):

Despite that red mass of high shot volume in front of the net, the Sharks have done a better job of late keeping dangerous chances away from their goal. The Knights opt not for pucks directly to the crease area, but instead seem to prefer moving the puck between the circles — one imagines in an effort to get the defense split up and goalies moving laterally.

The Sharks do a good job of keeping teams away from the tops and edges of their circles — right where Las Vegas likes to shoot from. San Jose does give up ground in front of the goal, though it appears to be a place the Knights don’t like to take the puck too often. Whether this seemingly positive location-based matchup benefits the Sharks come gametime will be something to watch for.

In table form, we can take a look at some of the other numbers behind either team’s unit.

San Jose’s defense has been pretty mediocre on the balance of the season, since the trade deadline, and so far against the Ducks in round one. There was one glimmer of hope for the Sharks, and that was the team’s 1.99 expected goals against between February 27 and season’s end. However, they look to have lost whatever expected goals against magic they had against Anaheim.

Las Vegas’ offensive numbers dipped somewhat since late February. However, in the series against Los Angeles, they posted their best offensive numbers of the season. Don’t pay too much attention to the league ranks. The important thing to notice is that San Jose’s defensive numbers have held pretty steady no matter what time frame you examine. They show no indication of improving their team defense.

The chart above is a rolling average of the rate of 5v5 (score- and venue-adjusted) shots the Sharks have allowed over the course of the season. The last few months have been pretty rough for the team defensively. The numbers in the chart bear this out, however. There isn’t a lot new here.

You can see in March and April where the Sharks limited opponents’ dangerous chances. Their expected goals against number popped back up during the Anaheim series, but the team is probably closer to average or just-worse-than-average in this metric than they are to the extreme ends.

On the other side of the ice, Vegas’ offense looked a bit deflated toward season’s end. However, Reilly Smith missed a chunk of time, and the forwards who filled in alongside Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson failed to live up to their end of the bargain. That’s one potential reason why the Knights’ numbers waned, then exploded again in the playoffs.

Can the Sharks’ shutdown unit slow Vegas’ cavalry?

We know Pete DeBoer has been hellbent on getting Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun on the ice against the oppositions’ top forwards. He also will often try to slide that pair out alongside Logan Couture’s line as a five-man shutdown unit.

The chart shows how Pete DeBoer mostly sent Couture’s line along with Vlasic out against the Ryan Getzlaf line. Here’s a quick look at the four games to see how the matchups went:

Game 1 (in ANA): Getzlaf played 9:45 of his 15:25 minutes at 5v5 against Vlasic. During that time, the Ducks took just more than 50 percent of all 5v5 score- and venue-adjusted shots and a touch more than 40 percent of the scoring chances. In Getzlaf’s 6:34 against Couture, the Ducks took nearly 70 percent of shots and had almost 61 percent of all scoring chances.

Game 2 (in ANA): Getzlaf spent nearly nine minutes of his 16:00 minutes at 5v5 on the ice with Vlasic. During those minutes, the Ducks took 63 percent of all score- and venue-adjusted shots and generated nearly 69 percent of all scoring chances. In the 6:58 with Getzlaf on the ice against Couture, the Ducks took 63 percent of all shots and generated 57 percent of all scoring chances.

Game 3 (in SJ): Vlasic spent 9:16 of his 12:52 minutes at 5v5 against Getzlaf. During those minutes, the Sharks took just 39 percent of all score- and venue-adjusted shots and generated a hair under 33 percent of all scoring chances. Couture spent 6:21 of his 10:27 minutes at 5v5 matched up with Getzlaf. During those minutes, the Sharks took just 22 percent of all shots and generated about 30 percent of all scoring chances.

Game 4 (in SJ): Vlasic played against Getzlaf for 10:54 of his 18:39 minutes at 5v5. During that time, San Jose took nearly 52 percent of score- and venue-adjusted shots and generated nearly 56 percent of all scoring chances. In the 6:33 of Couture’s 12:19 minutes he spent matched up with Getzlaf, the Sharks took 49 percent of all shots and generated 55 percent of all scoring chances.

Those numbers aren’t very pretty. Scoring chance percentages at a small sample size level like this can be deceiving, however. In Game 4, for instance, the 55 percent of scoring chances the Sharks generated represents  an adjusted ratio of 3.2 to 2.6 chances. In other words, the matchup was closer than the percentage indicates. Even knowing that, it’s clear the Sharks’ shutdown unit had a difficult time slowing down the Ducks’ top line. They should all buy Martin Jones a hearty steak dinner next time they have a chance.

During the regular season, that five-man shutdown unit (Vlasic, Braun, Couture, Hertl, Boedker) played nearly 102 minutes together at 5v5. During that time, they allowed a rate of 64.5 score- and venue-adjusted shots against and 30.4 scoring chances against per 60 minutes. If that five-some were an NHL team, those would both be bottom-five numbers.

How do Vegas’ top dogs compare to Anaheim’s?

Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell spent more than 700 minutes together at 5v5 this regular season. Together, they generated 44.4 unblocked shots per hour and 33 scoring chances per hour. Their rate of unblocked shots is about average (were they an entire team), but their rate of scoring chances is elite by that comparison. During the playoffs, those two helped the Ducks take nearly 47 unblocked shots per hour and generate about 36 scoring chances per hour. Those two performed better against the Sharks than they have for the regular season.

During the regular season, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson took about 47 unblocked shots per hour and generated 32 scoring chances per hour — both represent very strong offensive numbers. The Knights’ top line is comparable, better even, than the Getzlaf/Rakell pairing. If the Sharks couldn’t slow down the Ducks’ big boys, it seems their chances of keeping the Knights’ big three off the scoresheet are slim.

James Neal, Erik Haula, and Alex Tuch did not play many full games together during the regular season. So far against the Kings, that line was an offensive powerhouse, taking nearly 52 unblocked shots per hour and generating almost 40 scoring chances per hour. Had they played enough minutes together and kept up that rate, that line would have been one of the best regular season combos in the league this year.

The only line for Las Vegas that hasn’t been good offensively in the short playoffs we’ve witnessed so far is their fourth line of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Tomas Nosek, and William Carrier.

Help me Martin Jones Kenobi, you’re my only hope

That’s not totally true — San Jose’s defense is more average than they are bad — but Martin Jones will need to continue his strong run of play in this series or the Sharks might be climbing some steep mountains. Jones’ .970 save percentage will almost certainly regress this series, so the question is whether it happens across all four games or collapses during one contest, but stays astronomical during the other games.

With Reilly Smith back in the lineup and three lines that look like they can pile up shots and chances, San Jose’s defense has their work cut out for them in this series. Anaheim had three solid lines, as well, but none were as offensively gifted as any of the top-three lines Las Vegas will trot out of the tunnel this series. The thing to remember here is that the four-game sample size against an OK Kings team isn’t indicative of the Knights’ true offensive abilities. If the offensive numbers from that series continue against the Sharks, however, San Jose will be in for a long series. The Sharks’ best hope may be to fight fire with fire and try to outscore Las Vegas no matter how many biscuits the Knights put in the basket.