The San Jose Sharks are almost certain to play the Vegas Golden Knights in the opening round of the playoffs. This is unfortunate, as these might be the two best teams in the Western Conference, at least when both teams are mostly healthy. But it is the hand being dealt, so the Sharks must play it wisely. Playing it wisely begins now.
The Sharks v. Golden Knights History
I’ll touch lightly on the history. The teams have played 13 times, and Vegas has dominated. The Sharks have won just twice in regulation. Last season’s playoff series went to Vegas in six games. The Golden Knights won two of three in Vegas and two of three in San Jose.
This season, the Golden Knights have won two of three, outscoring the Sharks 15-6 in the process. Vegas is 1-0 against San Jose since the trade deadline. The Golden Knights acquired Mark Stone, who may be their best forward and the best trade deadline acquisition by any team this season.
The teams will meet one more time in the regular season and it is possible the game will impact home ice for the series.
The Sharks’ track record against the Golden Knights is bleak, but it does not mean the Sharks can’t succeed in a playoff series. It does mean approaching Vegas with a business as usual mindset is not going to cut it.
So how do the Sharks adapt and give themselves a better shot at winning a series? They can start by getting ready for the series now, two weeks before the series begins.
For the rest of the regular season, the Sharks should play as if they were playing the Golden Knights. They should employ the schemes they’ll use against Vegas, including the power play, penalty kill, and defensive zone breakouts. The schemes they don’t intend to use against the Golden Knights, the Sharks can stop using now.
For the Sharks to have success against the Golden Knights, they need to do things differently. Not radically differently, but differently. Vegas is a quick-strike team. They use turnovers to create offense. So the Sharks’ first important adjustment comes in defensive zone breakouts.
The Golden Knights will typically send multiple forecheckers to harass the opponent’s defensemen, hoping to force a turnover and getting what amounts to an instant odd-man rush. They’re really good at it. The Sharks need to break out of their own zone quickly. This means giving up, on occasion, the attempt for a structured exit. Ice the puck or throw it into a contested area instead of giving up a turnover. It also means keeping a forward back close to the defensive zone in case a turnover occurs, so any quick-strike attempt can be squashed.
As the saying goes, “live to fight another day.” When Vegas creates a bad situation for the Sharks, and they will, the Sharks mustn’t make it worse.
Because the Golden Knights keep more forecheckers up the ice, they have less defenders in the neutral zone, meaning it can be easier to make passes, including stretch passes. I don’t expect stretch passes to work often against Vegas, but it is an important piece. If the Golden Knights have to defend these long passes, it opens up more space in the neutral zone giving the Sharks better chances to exit their own zone. The Sharks should attempt these passing plays in upcoming games.
The Sharks can render the Golden Knights’ turnover-based quick-strike offense ineffective by playing smart and taking the least-worst option for exiting the zone. And perhaps a few stretch passes might help put Vegas on their heels. It might not be pretty at times, but if they can keep Vegas from scoring off of failed defensive-zone clears, they’ll have won a key part of the battle.
Sharks Behind the Net
On offense, the Sharks have had success against the Golden Knights in one particular area. From behind the net. In last season’s playoff series, the Sharks’ offensive success came almost exclusively from there. It was the source of their only real even-strength success, generating both goals and power plays. One player in particular, Tomas Hertl, gave Vegas fits.
The Sharks must go behind the net. And stay there, not just glide through. They can be more effective this season than last. Timo Meier is better and more capable, Evander Kane is healthier and Hertl himself is better. Even nominal fourth liners such as Barclay Goodrow and Lukas Radil can play big boy hockey behind the net.
Head coach Peter DeBoer should construct his forward lines so each line has a primary ‘go behind the net’ player on it. The list includes Goodrow, Radil, Hertl, Meier and Kane. Each line should include at least one of these power forwards.
Here’s a hard truth. In last season’s playoff series, the Sharks had just one even-strength goal against the Golden Knights which didn’t involve a behind the net play (a fluke goal at that). The were no odd-man rush goals or set play goals or quick strike goals. Essentially all the stuff the Sharks did which didn’t involve behind the net play, didn’t work.
On the series-changing play from last season’s playoffs, the Sharks went behind the net and gave themselves an outstanding scoring chance. A mind-boggling save by Marc-Andre Fleury saved the Golden Knights that night, but if the Sharks can get this sort of scoring opportunity on a regular basis, they’ll come out on top far more often than not.
DeBoer needs to set an edict, every shift in the offensive zone must involve an attempt to take the puck behind the net. Going back there occasionally is not enough. The Sharks must live there.
Keep a High Forward
Vegas has tremendous speed and they use it well in open ice. They are very good at scoring on breaks, even if they do not carry a numbers advantage. The Sharks need to avoid giving up odd-man rushes, because the Golden Knights are lethal when they have the numbers; they’re trouble even when they don’t.
The best way to avoid odd-man rushes against is to keep two defenders and one forward high (near the blue line) in the offensive zone. It is tough to generate much offense this way, so I can’t say the Sharks must do this at all times, but it has to be this way often.
In the playoffs last season, the overtime winner by William Karlsson in Game 3 came on a breakout which could have been prevented by a high forward. On the play, all three Sharks forwards were stuck down low, giving the talented Vegas players time and space on their breakout. The Golden Knights had a two-on-two, and with great speed in open ice, made the most of it.
Over the next two weeks, the Sharks need to get accustomed to having the third player in a more defensive posture while in the offensive zone.
Rest Martin Jones
Starting goalie Martin Jones has proven he can’t play himself out of his season-long funk, though DeBoer has pushed this button repeatedly. Perhaps he can ‘rest’ himself out of it. Jones best play this season came in early February, coming off the All-Star break. He wasn’t stellar, but it was his best half-dozen game stretch of the season. The Sharks will need Jones to be good consistently, perhaps very good, to compete in the series. One thing which is certain, the Jones Sharks fans have seen for most of the regular season won’t cut it.
Jones probably isn’t the only player who can be helped by rest. The sick, injured and worn down should get plenty of time to recover. Among those playing now, I’ll suggest Logan Couture and Brent Burns head the list.
Vegas is not a small team, but they don’t beat others with their size. They win with an aggressive forecheck, speed in open ice and quick-strike scores with talented finishers. The Sharks can use size to their advantage by controlling play and not allowing Vegas to get the easy scores.
The Sharks’ bigger players need to control the puck. It is not a heavy-hitting game, but it is a strong game. The Sharks can have long possessions and force battles in the corners and along the walls. This all works towards their advantage.
Setting Defensive Pairings and Forward Lines Now
Come the playoffs, the Sharks need to use their most effective player groupings. The Sharks should lock these together now to maximum practice and ice time together. Joe Pavelski and Erik Karlsson are absent, meaning the Sharks cannot lock in all three defensive pairs and all four forward lines. But they can lock in three of the four forward lines, with perhaps Dylan Gambrell acting as the placeholder for Pavelski. And they can lock in two of the three defensive pairs.
As indicated above, I’d like to see a ‘go behind the net’ forward on each line. That is not the case right now. Here is an example of how this can be done in the playoffs:
As for defensive pairs, DeBoer appears to have them set correctly at the moment, though he winds up with mismatched pairings far too often during a game. During the playoffs, I’d like to see:
Sharks Playoff Preparation Begins Now?
I’d hope the playoff preparation has begun, though I’m not seeing the evidence on the ice. DeBoer continues to juggle both lines and defensive pairings, as if the individual game is more critical than the growth between partners and linemates.
I don’t see any effort to keep players fresher. Couture continues to play, though a quick listen to a raspy-voiced Couture on Monday tells you he’s sick. He was sick and missed the game last Thursday, then played Friday and Monday. How has he fared during the losing streak? He’s minus-8 and winning just 39 percent of his faceoffs. A sick Couture isn’t helping either himself or the team.
Burns continues to play enormous minutes, averaging 27:33 per game during the six-game losing streak (no player this season is averaging over 27). And he’s minus-5 in the process. And yeah, Jones continues to get just about every start.
I’d like to see the dedication to behind the net play, but right now, behind the net play seems like an afterthought. I’d like to see at least one of the big players who can go behind the net on each line, but DeBoer started the game against the Detroit Red Wings with three of his power forwards, Radil, Hertl and Kane, all on the same line.
I’d like to see dedication to defensive structure even in the offensive zone and smarter, more conservative zone breakouts for the defensive zone. But against the Red Wings, the Sharks gave up multiple breakaway opportunities (each defenseman was on the ice for at least one).
The Sharks can prepare for the Golden Knights now, but will they?
The Sharks Opportunity
It is rare a team knows their opening round opponent this early, but it is happening this season for the Sharks and the Golden Knights. Both teams are wise to take advantage and prepare a lot earlier than they might otherwise. The Sharks, who’ve had precious little success against Vegas, have every reason to start implementing Vegas-specific adjustments almost two full weeks ahead of the series start.
The Sharks can start practicing and playing the style that will give the Golden Knights the most trouble right now. There’s no point in waiting to implement these adjustments. Truth is, the Sharks can do all of these things, it is mostly a matter of shifting emphasis and practicing it until it becomes their predominant playing style. They have enough time to do this. But no time to waste.