A sixth game in any best-of-seven series means one thing. There’s one team with no room for error. They must win or their season is done. The team coming into Game 6 in this series with no room for error was the San Jose Sharks. The Vegas Golden Knights played a good series, but there was one area where Vegas was decidedly better: goaltending. Vegas netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was the best player in the series, even though the Sharks managed to put 14 goals past him in Games 2-5. In Game 6, though, Fleury would return to dominance, pitching his second shutout of the series. The game’s final score was 3-0, with Vegas finishing off the Sharks, four games to two.
Sharks and Golden Knights, Opening Period
A scoreless opening period didn’t come without some outstanding scoring chances, including a strong Sharks power play, a shot that went between Fleury’s legs but somehow went just wide, and a pair of shots that went off the crossbar.
San Jose has gotten a large portion of its scores from play behind the net, to the point I described going behind the net with the puck as their prime directive. I counted eight times in the opening period where the Sharks had the chance to go below the net and chose not to. One of the times they did, though, Hertl drew a tripping penalty against Erik Haula for San Jose’s first power play.
Vegas, with Ryan Reaves in the lineup for the first time, got a strong effort from its fourth line, which also featured Ryan Carpenter and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
Sharks and Golden Knights, Second Period
In the second period, Vegas struck first, just over six minutes into the frame. Once again, it was the top line making a defensive play, with William Karlsson forcing a Marc-Edouard Vlasic turnover in the Sharks zone. Reilly Smith picked up the loose puck and fired a pass to Jonathan Marchessault who was behind the defense. Alone in front of Sharks goalie Martin Jones, Marchessault put it through the goalie’s five-hole for the Vegas score.
Around nine minutes into the period, a series of opportunities came for both teams. Fleury stopped a Hertl breakaway and Chris Tierney stopped a Vegas shot with Jones out of his net. But aside from this bit action, San Jose wasn’t nearly as effective as they were in the opening period.
With just over four minutes left, a Vegas faceoff win in their offensive zone by David Perron was tipped to Haula (who had been removed from the faceoff circle a moment earlier) and back to Nate Schmidt. Schmidt fired from a shot from the blue line, and with the help of a good screen from James Neal, the shot beat Jones to make it 2-0. This is the way the period ended, with Vegas 20 minutes away from a series victory.
For only the second time in the series, the teams played a penalty-free period. If anyone guessed the refs put away their whistles, they were correct. The final period was penalty-free as well.
Sharks and Golden Knights, Third Period
If the Sharks were intent on making a third-period comeback, the Golden Knights were more intent on taking over the game. In the opening 10 minutes of the period, Vegas was as dominant with the puck as they’d been in any game since the series opener. Vegas was both faster and stronger, outshooting San Jose 11-3. With 10 minutes left, the end result seemed a foregone conclusion, given the disparity of play between the teams.
If the Sharks were looking for some puck luck, they were reminded one more time what their version of puck luck was this night. With six minutes left, Brent Burns fired a point shot and it beat Fleury, but not the post. It marked the third time San Jose found iron in the game. Moments later, cameras caught Fleury giving his good friend (the post) an appreciative tap.
San Jose pulled Jones with a bit over two minutes left and the Golden Knights ended the Sharks’ slim chances with an empty net score. Former Sharks center Ryan Carpenter likely could have scored himself, but instead dished out an assist on the play.
Vegas Moves On
The Sharks skated a solid series after the opening-game blowout, at least until the final period of the final game. But it’s a combination of skaters and goaltending which is paramount, and Vegas had the better goaltending. Add in a bit of puck luck and Vegas is deserving of its spot in the final four.
For the Sharks, there are many questions ahead and they’ll get explored in detail in our upcoming season review. This is a good Sharks team, but getting to the next level is going to require something they didn’t have this season.
Sharks Series Notes
• A testy head coach Peter DeBoer defended his top line (DeBoer’s words) of Evander Kane, Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi in the postgame press conference. But the questioner was correct; they struggled in the series (though Pavelski had a terrific Game 2). There are questions about the health of Donskoi (who missed a game) and Kane (who had just one point in the series and confirmed a separated shoulder), but it’s also been a misnomer to call this the top line. The Sharks’ best line this season, both in the regular season and in the playoffs, is the line featuring Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture. Hertl, in particular, had an outstanding series.
• There will be plenty of analysis of the series, but it’s safe to say Fleury’s play was the difference. And while it’s a stretch to place the outcome of an entire series on a single play, Fleury’s remarkable save off Couture in overtime of Game 3 was as pivotal a play as you’ll see in any series.
• The series statistics look lopsided because of the 7-0 Vegas win in the series opener, but the remaining games were closely contested. The Sharks scored 14 goals in the series; I counted 10 directly tied to play behind the net. Only one Sharks goal, Joonas Donskoi’s score in Game 4, wasn’t a result of a behind-the-net play or a power play.
• The Golden Knights took away several things San Jose is known for. Brent Burns was minus-4 in the final five games of the series, and while he had five points, he literally got nothing from his point shot at even strength. His lone even-strength goal came on a wraparound play. Joe Pavelski is terrific at tipping pucks for scores, but he too came up empty on this front. His lone tally in the series also came on the power play, when he put back a rebound in Game 4. Odd-man rushes played a big role in the series victory over the Anaheim Ducks, but the Sharks went 0-for-the-series on odd-man rushes against Vegas.
Some people begrudge the Golden Knights for their success, coming so far in their inaugural season. Don’t count me among them. At the start of the season, few thought Vegas had a quality roster. Sure, there’d be an occasional piece about Vegas exceeding low expectations, but that was about as optimistic as it got. Few experts gave Vegas a chance to be a playoff contender, let alone find a playoff spot. Myself included.
Not only did Vegas earn a playoff spot; they won the Pacific Division because they played hard and smart. There is a lot right with the way the Golden Knights play the game.
Vegas began the season in the shadow of an unspeakable tragedy, and as tragedy often does, it created bonds among those who survive. The team and the city embraced each other in ways few other cities embrace their sports team. The roster is filled with players rejected by other teams as either not talented enough or not cheap enough. The Vegas players earned both the chip on their collective shoulders and their relationship with their city.
Many are frustrated at how Vegas became so good, so quickly. Typical expansion teams lose. They often lose a lot. But Vegas is not a city which specializes in delayed gratification, and there is simply no reason for this group of underdogs to apologize for anything. Many of their players have paid plenty of NHL dues elsewhere. This is their chance to accomplish something big. To their credit, they embraced it. They work as hard as any team in the league. A few days from now, they enter the Western Conference Final. It’s been quite a season. One more thing I like about Vegas: they show no signs of being content with their accomplishments, which will make their next round very interesting.