NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Sharks vs. Golden Knights

The Golden Knights embarked on one of the most improbable and incredible runs last year in their first season in the league, winning the Pacific Division crown and rolling right through the Western Conference to make the Stanley Cup Finals. This year, they look to not only repeat as Western Conference champions but take that final step and bring the Stanley Cup to Vegas.

Standing in their way are the Sharks, perhaps the team they have built the strongest rivalry within their young history. A perennial contender, the Sharks have had great regular season success, and have made playoffs all but six years throughout their entire 28-year existence (they’ve only missed twice since 1998). However, all this success has not translated well to the postseason, with only one appearance in the Cup Finals and three in the conference finals in this span. The Sharks are looking to put an end to this playoff futility and finally win the Cup.

Last year, these two planted the seeds for a rivalry in their second-round tilt, a spirited affair that the Golden Knights ended up winning in six games. This year, as the rivalry grows stronger, will the Sharks get revenge? Or will the Knights again prevail and defend their crown?

OFFENSE

The Sharks boast one of the most potent offenses in the league, tied with Calgary for 2nd at 3.52 goals per game. Their leading scorer, interestingly, is defenseman Brent Burns at 83 points, but still boast a formidable group up front with the likes of Thomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Joe Pavelski, and more up front. Their defense is also a major driving force behind their success, with guys like Burns and Erik Karlsson being formidable offensive threats in their own right.

Meanwhile, the Knights have struggled to find consistency scoring. The first line of Johnathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Rielly Smith slowed down from their insane production last season, with none of them cracking 60 points. However, the addition of Mark Stone after the trade deadline has provided a major jolt in their productivity, and these top guys have started producing at a good clip again. Scoring behind these top guys is also pretty balanced, leading to a 3.00 goals per game (13th)  average despite struggling to score at times. However, I think the Sharks still get the slight edge due to more consistent production.

Advantage: Sharks

DEFENSE

On paper, the Sharks have one of the best defenses in the league, with the top pair of Burns and Karlsson being one of the best in hockey. However, Karlsson was injured for much of the second half of the season and is a big wild card coming back for the playoffs. Meanwhile, the defense has not been pretty, allowing 3.15 goals per game (21st in the league). If they can play to their potential, and Karlsson comes back and plays like he did for all those years in Ottawa, then they have the advantage.

However, the Knights defense, while less talented, has played much better, only allowing 2.78 goals per game (10th). Anchored by Nate Schmidt, the blue line boasts depth in Shea Theodore, Deryk Engelland, and Nick Holden, all of whom are capable of shutting the opposition down. The edge here goes to the more consistent and better-playing defense of Vegas.

Advantage: Golden Knights

GOALTENDING

The Sharks goaltending tandem has been a massive liability this year. Starter Martin Jones was not very good for most of the year despite posting a 36-19-5 record, ending the season with a 2.94 goals against average and a .896 save percentage. Aaron Dell was even worse with a 3.17 GAA and a .886 save percentage. Jones is capable of playing very well and winning some series, but that is a massive if based on this year’s stats.

Meanwhile, the Golden Knights’ goaltending revolves around Marc Andre Fleury and his health. He played well in games he was healthy for, posting a 2.51 GAA and a .913 save percentage. However, he just returned from injury, and whether he is back to 100% is still up in the air. If Fleury is all set and plays lights-out, the clear advantage goes to the Knights in goal. If not, it becomes much more of a toss-up.

Advantage: Golden Knights

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Sharks boast a 23.6% power play, 6th best in the league. However, their penalty kill is (predictably) more average, at 80.8% (16th in the league). That makes their special teams total 104.4%, above the benchmark average of 100%.

The Knights have a very similar PK at 80.9%, 15th in the league. However, their offensive struggles are manifested in their lackluster PP, coming in at only 16.8%, 25th in the league. Their total is only 97.7%, giving a decisive edge to the Sharks.

Advantage: Sharks

COACHING

Peter DeBoer, coach of the Sharks, will be coaching in the playoffs for the fifth time, including the fourth straight appearance for the Sharks. He has made two Cup Finals, including one with San Jose in 2016, and has won seven playoff series in his five appearances. He has amassed a 36-28 playoff record overall and a 22-18 tally in his time in San Jose. Only once has his team faced first-round playoff elimination.

Meanwhile, the Knights are coached by Gerard Gallant, who has only coached for eight NHL seasons. His teams have only made the playoffs three times including this year, with three series wins (all occurring last season). He made the Cup Finals last year with Vegas in their first year of existence. He is 15-11 overall in his two appearances. While DeBoer might have an advantage experience-wise, I’m going to give the nod to Gallant based on how impressive his job in Vegas has been in getting that group to buy in and outwork their competition en route to winning the Western Conference against all odds, and then getting them back there this year.

Advantage: Golden Knights

SEASON SERIES

Nov 24-Golden Knights 6, Sharks 0 in Vegas

Jan 10-Sharks 3, Golden Knights 2 in Vegas

Mar 18-Golden Knights 7, Sharks 3 in San Jose

Mar 30-Sharks 4, Golden Knights 3 (OT) in San Jose

Sharks: 2-2 in season series, 1-1 at home, 1-1 at Vegas

Golden Knights: 2-1-1 in season series, 1-1 at home, 1-0-1 at San Jose (the extra point gives them the slight edge in the season series)

Advantage: Golden Knights

COMING INTO THE PLAYOFFS…

The Sharks lost 9 of their last 12, including 8 in regulation, but won 3 of their last 5 including their last 2.

The Golden Knights, meanwhile, dropped 7 of their last 8, including 5 in regulation, but only started Fleury in the final two games of the year (both losses).

Advantage: Sharks, if you can call it an advantage

OTHER FACTORS

Whenever these two teams get into a high-scoring affair, dating back even to last year’s playoffs, it favors Vegas (despite San Jose seemingly being better at those type of games). However, tighter games seem to favor San Jose. Vegas won last year’s playoff series in six games, however this time it is San Jose with home-ice advantage.

PREDICTION

Another incredibly difficult series to predict. Preseason, I pegged the Sharks as my Stanley Cup champions, but with the inconsistencies that plague the defense and goaltending, I don’t know if they can win all four rounds should they advance that far. However, I think Erik Karlsson’s return will provide a huge lift to the Sharks, and in response, everyone elevates their play around him. The defense and goaltending do enough, and the offense powers them through a tough series against a newfound rival.

Prediction: Sharks in 7

GAME ONE: Wed, 10:30pm, NBCSN (nat’l), NBCSCA (Sharks), ATTSN-VEG (Knights)

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