In the opening playoff series last season, the San Jose Sharks played an undisciplined Anaheim Ducks team and swept them in just four games. The more poised team won every game. In the playoff opener this season against the Vegas Golden Knights, the more poised team won again.
Vegas and San Jose, Game 1
The Sharks outplayed the Golden Knights for the first 40 minutes, winning battles, getting high quality shots and finding the right balance between physical play and team discipline. By the time the second period ended, the Sharks led 4-1 and only bizarre officiating kept it from being a larger lead.
The third period was a different animal. The Sharks let their guard down and the Golden Knights did what they do so well, found ways to turn turnovers and funny bounces into odd-man rushes and quick-strike scoring opportunities. One San Jose player responded, goalie Martin Jones.
For much of the season, Jones has been under an uncomfortable microscope. In this game, he was solid at the start and strong at the finish. The Sharks allowed a pair of power play goals (one technically after the power play ended, but before the Sharks defender could join play), and neither was on Jones. Sharks defenders did a solid job of clearing loose pucks out the crease area, helping Jones when he was compromised.
The Sharks benefitted from an even-strength score at 3-on-3 and another at 4-on-4. The opening goal came on a power play. Brent Burns shot tipped off the face of Joe Pavelski (dental work required) and past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Where the Sharks Won
The less-discussed story was the Sharks’ effectiveness against the top two Vegas lines. Both lines were neutralized for the first two periods. The Sharks did this by dominating puck possession and making effective transitions to defense when possession changed.
Vegas has enormous firepower on the line of Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty. It is impossible to completely stop this group, they are too talented. But the Sharks did a good job and allowed them few good chances during even-strength play. The quick line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault was also held largely in check, though they emerged in the final period.
The Sharks’ offense came from the defense. On every goal, at least one defenseman earned a point with either the goal or primary assist. Also not surprising, the power forwards came up big. Vegas, once again, had trouble with Tomas Hertl, who posted a game-best Corsi for of 67 percent, drew a penalty, had an assist and scored an empty-net goal. Hertl is still the biggest match-up challenge for the Golden Knights among Sharks forwards. Kane was effective, as well.
The Sharks Checklist
Prior to the start of the series, I wrote a checklist and the Sharks largely accomplished it. Two items stood out, they stayed focused and stayed poised.
Other items they checked included keeping Vegas away from their odd-man rushes (at least for two periods), Jones playing well (all night), good defensive zone exits and effectiveness on the power play.
While there was less behind the net play than I’d like, it played a role in drawing penalties, including the one which turned into the game’s first goal. On a lengthy possession, the Sharks went behind the net five times before a drawing penalty (at least one blatant trip went uncalled earlier in the possession). Vegas couldn’t get the puck out from deep inside the zone, nor could they change players. The Sharks did and it led to a score.
The Sharks’ third score was set-up by a pass behind the net to Joe Thornton. He received the puck in the trapezoid and fed it out front to an on-rushing Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who shot and scored.
The Key Takeaways
The first question is simple enough, is the formula the Sharks used something they can replicate in upcoming games? The short answer is ‘most of it’. The Sharks can maintain poise, slow Vegas in the neutral zone, prevent defensive zone turnovers and the related odd-man rushes.
What they can’t expect to duplicate is the lack of poise from the Golden Knights. Nor can the Sharks expect to get goals at 4-on-4 or 3-on-3. Though Fleury didn’t allow soft goals, he’s capable of lifting his game from where it was in Game 1.
Vegas can play both harder and smarter. Last season, Vegas dominated the series opener at home, winning 7-0. The Sharks won the next game. Vegas will attempt to flip the script in Game 2.
They have plenty of reason to believe they can. For starters, they dominated the third period and if not for a very strong period from Jones, the game might have gone differently. Fleury can be better and it is too early to write Jones’ playoff redemption story.
Sometimes it is helpful to look at a game and ask, “did one team win it or did the other team lose it?” The Sharks did a lot to win the game, but Vegas also did a lot to lose it. The Sharks probably come out ahead even without Vegas’ self-inflicted wounds. But it is much closer game.
Winning a series opener is a positive, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. Vegas remains formidable and they can certainly stop their self-inflicted wounds. The Sharks should expect better from their opponent in the games ahead. Still, if the Sharks can maintain poise and keep their focus on the play instead of on the agitators, they will be formidable themselves.
• In a game filled with some ugly moments, two of the Sharks’ goals came on pretty plays. As mentioned earlier, Thornton made a beautiful feed to Vlasic on his score. The Sharks’ fourth tally came on Erik Karlsson’s shot/pass to the stick of Kane, who redirected past Fleury. It was a work of hockey art.
• I’ve called for stronger facial protection for NHL players before and the game simply provided more evidence this is needed. Two bloodied Sharks had to leave play, Pavelski after taking the puck to the face (losing teeth in the process) and Timo Meier after taking a high stick (somehow missed by the officials). Though both players returned to the ice, things easily could have been much worse. There is no reason for unnecessary injuries like these to continue. Protective gear exists. These injuries detract from the game.
• As the Sharks headed to the locker room following period two, the fans loudly cheered the team’s 4-1 lead. And as he left the bench, Kane was pumping his hand in the air, both acknowledging and encouraging the fans to cheer even louder. In this intense game, it is fair to say the players notice the fans.
• Plenty about Game 1 surprised me (especially the mediocre quality of the Golden Knights early play), but the Sharks vastly improved play did not. Many worried about the team’s late season swoon, but I never hopped on to that bandwagon. It is often said you can forget what happened in the regular season once the playoffs start. I’m a believer in that. Still, it’d be hard to find a sharper contrast than the one between the Sharks in the last month of the season and Game 1 of the playoffs.
• Four of the five playoff matchups on opening night were one-goal affairs, all decided in the final period or overtime. This was the one game which was not.