Golden Knights at Sharks Preview: Kessel’s killer climb

The Knight Slayer is busy dominating the AHL.

The Vegas Golden Knights (4-2-0) come into town for the first time this season to take on the San Jose Sharks (2-6-0). The Sharks are coming off a 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers where James Reimer posted his first shutout of the season, ending the annual early season East Coast swing with a 2-2-0 record. They’ll now start a tough four-game homestand with games against the Golden Knights, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and finally, the Anaheim Ducks. Vegas is traveling to San Jose after playing the second game of a back-to-back against the Maple Leafs tonight.

Last season, Vegas missed playoffs for the first time in franchise history, thanks in no small part to Timo Meier’s late-game theatrics and Thomas Bordeleau earning the nickname “Knight Slayer” for his shootout goal. Let’s watch it again:

Oh yeah, that’s the stuff.

The Golden Knights finished fourth in the Pacific Division with a 43-31-8 record and 94 points, but were decimated by injuries all season long. Mark Stone missed 45 games, Jack Eichel slowly returned from neck surgery and Robin Lehner was not, in fact, taking a maintenance day, no matter what Pete DeBoer claimed.

It wouldn’t be an off-season in Vegas without drama and this summer didn’t disappoint. DeBoer was fired and replaced by former Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, as the team looks to add more structure and improve a power play ranked worse than the Sharks last season at 18.4 percent. I just can’t Spott what could be wrong with special teams.

Cap-strapped from birth, the team traded veteran Max Pacioretty to the Carolina Hurricanes for everyone’s favorite player, future considerations, in an attempt to clear some space. Phil Kessel, hotdog connoisseur, signed in free agency and is expected to break the iron man streak for consecutive games played with 990 straight games. A cheap solve in net, they acquired Sharks netminder Adin Hill to give Logan Thompson an NHL-caliber back-up. General manager Kelly McCrimmon spent the rest of the off-season taking care of the team’s vets, re-signing Nicolas Roy to a five-year, $15 million contract and Nicolas Hague to a three-year deal.

Entering this game, both teams remain relatively healthy. The Golden Knights do have several players on LTIR in Shea Weber (acquired this off-season for the cap relief), Robin Lehner (expected to miss the entire season after hip surgery) and Nolan Patrick (potentially career-ending health complications). Laurent Brossoit is on IR after recovering from hip surgery and no timetable is set on his return.

Sharks forward Nick Bonino missed Sunday’s game with an upper body injury and is considered day-to-day.

A blitzkrieg start?

As frustrating as the well-documented woes of second period have been, the first period has often been amazing. The Sharks are outscoring opponents 7-1 in the first frame, with the only goal coming during the first game of the season against the Nashville Predators. San Jose has an inability to play a full 60 minutes, but always seem to start the game hot. Vegas is no slouch in the first period, either, outscoring opponents 9-2 through the first six games.

Both teams will try to establish their game through the first 20 minutes, though neither team is above average in shot attempts at even-strength. With Vegas traveling on the second half of a back-to-back, this could be an opening for San Jose to build a lead and hope to hold on. For what it’s worth, Vegas is even in the second period with four goals scored and allowed, while giving up five goals in the third and scoring four.

Whoever can get off to a hot start will set themself up for success.

An edge in the crease

The Sharks haven’t scored a lot of goals this season, so in order to win games, they’ll need to have absolutely stellar goaltending. Kaapo Kahkonen played his best game of the season in a 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Kahkonen faced an onslaught of shots all game long, including a second period where he faced 20 shots. He posted 3.63 expected goals against during the game, making some incredible saves, including this one:

James Reimer has been no slouch, either. He posted his 26th career shutout on Sunday against the Flyers. Entering Monday, he was ranked as the third-best goaltender in the league in goals saved above expected.

If Kahkonen can round out his game after a slow start, the goaltending tandem could keep the team in more games than they’ll deserve.

Adin Hill is expected to be in net for Vegas and has been about league-average in two games so far. The Sharks dominated him in the last preseason game, scoring seven goals against their former teammate, highlighted by a hat trick from Daniil Gushchin. If anyone knows how to get to Hill, it’s the Sharks.

Has Erik Karlsson found a partner?

Through eight games, Erik Karlsson has played extended minutes with Mario Ferraro (44 minutes), Jaycob Megna (54 minutes) and Scott Harrington (25 minutes). He also currently leads the team in goals (3) and points (6). With Megna, Karlsson posted an expected goals percentage of 57.4 over five games.

Karlsson is going to need to continue to play at this level for the Sharks to have any success. If Megna is letting him play his best hockey for now, then the coaches need to ride with it. The question now is for how long, and will someone like Nick Cicek get a chance to have a Jacob Middleton-esque impact and truly unlock superstar Karlsson.

Bold Prediction: The Sharks start strong with a goal from Timo Meier in the first (YES, I’M GOING TO KEEP PICKING TIMO MEIER TO SCORE A GOAL). Then Vegas finds their footing and take over. Golden Knights win 3-1.