All of the remaining teams have a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup. Not a chance as in, “they made it, so they technically have a chance.” No, every team has a real shot to win the whole thing.
Making the playoffs is the hard part. A long season of 82 hard-fought, grueling games has come and gone. We are now left with the final 16 teams, competing for Lord Stanley’s Cup. How sweet it is!
With many compelling and competitive matchups, the first round of this year’s playoffs will be a treat. No pairing is more intriguing than the Pacific Division battle between the San Jose Sharks (2nd Pacific) and the Vegas Golden Knights (3rd Pacific). Both teams have headlining talent, deep lineups, and a hatred for one another that is sure to make this series must-see TV. In such an evenly matched rivalry, the following men are the key players heading into postseason play.
Sharks Defenseman, Erik Karlsson
Before returning for the final game of the regular season, Karlsson had been out of the lineup since late February with a groin injury. Not surprisingly, the Sharks’ big fish of the off-season is ready to go, just in time for the playoffs. In his first game back, let’s call it his warm-up game, Karlsson logged 22:01 of ice time and a plus-3 rating.
Known for his elite power play ability, the playmaking Swede gives the Sharks a weapon few teams can replicate or defend. With Karlsson back and at full strength, the Golden Knights will need to stay out of the box and their penalty kill will need to be on their toes.
Golden Knights Forward, Mark Stone
On the topic of big acquisitions, none was bigger than George McPhee acquiring Mark Stone at this year’s trade deadline. Upon his arrival, the Golden Knights broke out of their slump and went on a tear, to the tune of a 10-1-0 record in Stone’s first 11 games.
His 200-foot game is well documented and his scoring touch is integral to the Golden Knights’ chances of advancing. He leads the league with 122 takeaways, as a forward, which gives his team a unique weapon in the neutral and defensive zones. Without his line, with Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, producing at such a high level, who knows where the team may have finished the season. Gerard Gallant’s club will need a big playoff from Stone, who is heading into his fifth postseason at the ripe age of 26.
Sharks Forward, Evander Kane
With multiple weapons up front, no other player is more important for the Sharks than Kane. Playing with Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Timo Meier, Kane registered his second 30-goal season this year. Although his talent can be transcendent, there are games when he disappears completely. In other games, his motor runs a bit too high, resulting in the dreaded “bad penalty” or two.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson knew the player he was getting when he traded for and re-signed Kane to a seven-year, $49 million deal. His talent is limitless and gives the team another elite top-six option. As one of the eight Sharks players to eclipse 50 points this season, Kane is not required to carry the load, as he was in his younger years. His performance is not vital per say, but the good version of Kane is a key to the Sharks winning this series.
Golden Knights Defensman, Colin Miller
It has been an up-and-down ride for Miller in Vegas. In their inaugural season, Miller was a bright spot for the team, with his booming slap shot on the power play and his all-around defensive play. This season has not gone as smoothly. While Nate Schmidt was serving his 20-game suspension to start the season, Miller filled the role of number one d-man and did an admirable job, drawing praise from Gallant, despite the team’s rough start.
Since then, he has seemed uncomfortable on the ice, falling short of the potential he flashed early on. His role on the team has been muddied even further by his sporadic status as a healthy scratch over the past month. An effective and motivated Colin Miller is key for the Knights.
Sharks Goaltender, Martin Jones
Jones is not putting up starting goaltender numbers this season. There is simply no way of sugarcoating that. His 2.94 goals against average (GAA) and .896 save percentage (SV%) rank 50th and 68th among goalies this season. Compare those numbers with the 2.51 GAA and .913 SV% of Marc-Andre Fleury and it’s clear which team has the advantage in net. Many question the Sharks’ trust and reliance on Jones despite his less-than-stellar track record.
His backup has not been much better, as Aaron Dell has managed an even worse stat line. It’s inevitable that Jones will have to elevate his game or else the Sharks will find themselves in a familiar spot, exiting the playoffs far earlier than expected.
Golden Knights Forward, Alex Tuch
Tuch, who signed a seven-year contract extension this season, was hands down the Golden Knights’ best player in the first half of the season. If it weren’t for Fleury, Tuch surely would have been the team’s All-Star Game representative.
The 22-year-old smooth-skating, power forward scored 20 goals this season, his second in the NHL. His uncanny blend of size and speed present big problems for the opposition. Although they have big defensemen, the Sharks’ elite defenders are known more for their work with the puck than their shutdown ability.
A player in Tuch’s mold is hard to deal with, even for the slick-skating Sharks defense corps. With just seven goals since New Year’s Day, Tuch will be looking to chip in on the third line, highlighting the forward depth of the Golden Knights.
Who Takes the Series?
Both teams are fun to watch and highly skilled, making this series a can’t-miss event. A short, hour-long plane ride is all that separates these two enthusiastic fan bases and each game will have that playoff look and feel that we all love.
It’s too soon to tell who the true favorite of this series is, but the Golden Knights should be confident heading in with their 5-1-2 career head-to-head record. The action starts Wednesday, Apr. 10 in San Jose, in a series that could run seven games.
Just a simple man who loves the game of hockey. I grew up playing the game, now I write about guys who are way better at it than me.