Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Golden Knights vs Sharks

With the Calgary Flames having clinched the Pacific Division, that means the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds within the division are locked as well. The San Jose Sharks will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round, the second straight year the two teams will battle it out in the postseason.

The Golden Knights took out the Sharks in six games last spring, with two games going into overtime. Both clubs came into that second-round series with a ton of momentum, sweeping their respective first-round opponents.

That will be different this season, as the Sharks do not have a ton of swagger heading into April. The organization went 7-7-1 in the month of March while the Golden Knights went 8-4-2. Vegas took the season series between the two clubs, going 2-1-1.

Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt
Golden Knights Nate Schmidt and San Jose Sharks Logan Couture (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

Both teams have been hit by the injury bug as of late. Marc-Andre Fleury has missed the Vegas’ last nine games and center Erik Haula has only played in 15 games this season because of a knee injury. Haula likely won’t be back unless they make another deep run, but Fleury is considered day-to-day and should be back for the start of playoffs.

The Sharks have two major injuries, Captain Joe Pavelski and defenseman Erik Karlsson. Both players have been skating here and there on their own, but not enough to get back on the ice with their teammates. If the playoffs started today, they would be good to go. But since their first-round matchup is already determined, management feels rest is the best option for their two stars.

The Goalies – Fleury vs Jones

Vegas Golden Knights Marc-Andre Fleury
Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (AP Photo/David Becker)

Any successful team needs a strong goalie to anchor them. Marc-Andre Fleury has been to the Stanley Cup Final four times, coming away with three rings. He is the ultimate competitor and takes his game to another level during the NHL postseason, posting a 2.58 goals against average (GAA), and a .911 save percentage with 14 shutouts.

Martin Jones has not been his normal self this season, posting a 2.95 GAA and a pitiful .896 save percentage, which is second-worst in the league among qualifying goaltenders. The Sharks will hope he can round into playoff form, as he holds a 2.07 GAA and a .926 save percentage with six shutouts in 42 playoff games.

The Defense

The Golden Knights will have the same core of defensemen in their lineup this postseason as they had last spring. The team does not boast a superstar on the backend, but they have some rising young talent. Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb are their two shutdown, defensive defensemen while Shea Theodore and Colin Miller are their offensive threats.

McNabb is very physical (he has 197 hits through 78 games this season) and uses his body to take the puck away from opponents while Schmidt uses his stick to strip the puck off his opponents’ tape, his skating abilities to get out of trouble, and quickly moves the puck to his forwards to get the puck out of the zone.

Theodore and Miller are their offensive weapons on the backend. Both players can skate the puck out of the zone, posses a hard outlet pass, and can quarterback a power play. Miller has a booming shot, setting the record at the AHL All-Star skills competition. Theodore is more of a finesse defender, skating with the puck and controlling traffic on the ice, as demonstrated by his game-winner below.

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The Sharks biggest offseason addition was trading for two-time Norris Trophy winner, Erik Karlsson. Having him and Brent Burns on defense could be the best duo of the modern era. Throw in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and the team has a three-headed monster.

Unfortunately, Karlsson has had a major groin problem this season – he’s only played 52 games and hasn’t been on the ice since the end of February. With the Western Conference being so bad this season, San Jose was able to rest their superstar and allow him to rest for when the games really matter.

The Forwards

The Golden Knights have their top line from last season still intact, but have added another potential top line to their organization since last year’s postseason. The additions of Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and Mark Stone have given the Golden Knights another big offensive threat.

Stastny is a pure playmaker with great on-ice vision and is one of the league’s best in the face-off circle. Pacioretty has a heavy and accurate shot and does not shy away from the physical side of the game. Stone is regarded as one of the smartest players in the game, with an incredible stick to break up plays and transition them into scoring chances.

The addition of those three forwards helps the depth of the Golden Knights as all three can kill penalties, play shutdown roles, or be relied upon to score. Adding them helps the likes of Alex Tuch, Cody Eakin, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as well, because they don’t have to be pressured into a scoring role and can play their game.

Vegas Golden Knights Reilly Smith Paul Stastny
Vegas Golden Knights Reilly Smith celebrates with Paul Stastny (AP Photo/John Locher)

The Sharks have three scoring lines with three players over the 30-goal mark in Joe Pavelski (37), Tomas Hertl (35), and Timo Meier (30). There’s also the potential to have two more in Evander Kane (29) and Logan Couture (27). When one line is not going, the others pick up the slack and that is a big reason for their success this season.

Every good goalscorer needs his playmaker, and the Sharks have a couple of those as well. Joe Thornton and Kevin LeBanc are two of the best passers in the game and relieve a lot of pressure from their top-six group.

The Golden Knights and Sharks are easily turning into one of the league’s best rivalries, and having to go to war again this postseason will only add to that and make this series even more fun to watch.