Defense and special teams will carry Sharks over Knights

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 25, 2018

How they got here. The Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks have had a ridiculous amount of time to catch their breath, heal up and dwell on their second-round Western Conference playoff showdown. The Knights finished off their sweep of the Los Angeles Kings on April 17. The Sharks ended their sweep of the Anaheim Ducks on April 18.

The Knights (51-24-7, 109 points) were the best story of the regular season, smashing records for an expansion franchise on almost a weekly basis. The question was whether that success could carry over to the postseason, and the answer was a resounding "yes" in the first round. They rolled four lines, outskating the Kings. They relied on stellar goaltending. There were no playoff jitters. They appear to still be playing with house money.

The Sharks (45-27-10, 100 points) bade farewell to Patrick Marleau in the offseason, said hello to Evander Kane at the trade deadline and were generally a collection of veteran players in their prime ready to make another run at the Cup.

The Knights were 3-0-1 against the Sharks in the regular season, outscoring them 14-11.

Who emerges from the Pacific Division? Glad you asked ...

First line. It's a little stunning that the Knights' top line of Jonathan Marchessault (27 goals, 48 assists, 75 points in the regular season), Reilly Smith (22-38-60) and William Karlsson (43-35-78) generated only two even-strength goals in four games when one considers how present they were: a plus-25 in shot attempts, and a plus-12.54 percent Corsi percentage relative to their teammates. They've been Vegas' engine all season and one of the top lines in the NHL. Evander Kane (9-5-14 in 17 games with Sharks), Joe Pavelski (22-44-66) and Joonas Donskoi (14-18-32), meanwhile, were a minus-25 in shot attempts against the Ducks. But they've shown great chemistry, with seven goals together in the regular season. Advantage: Golden Knights.

Depth.The Knights' second line (Alex Tuch, Erik Haula and James Neal) brings some offensive pop and much more physicality than their top unit. Ryan Carpenter, your "guy tossed aside by the Sharks who's back for expansion team revenge" player of the series, has played well with Cody Eakin and David Perron. (Trade deadline prize Tomas Tatar, meanwhile, has disappointed.) The energy line players like Tomas Nosek, William Carrier and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare throw their bodies around but can be a liability at 5-on-5. The Sharks' second line is anchored by Logan Couture (34 goals to lead the Sharks), who is typically flanked byMikkel Boedkerand Tomas Hertl. That might be the line that sees the Marchessault group the most. Chris Tierney, Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier were an effective energy line, as are Eric Fehr with Marcus Sorensen and Melker Karlsson. The Sharks are good. But they're not 11.49 even-strength shooting percentage good. Advantage: Even.

Defense.Brent Burns (12-55-67) has nine points in his past 10 games while skating 24:19 per game and is paired up with Paul Martin--because if the playoffs are going on, Paul Martin is in them (119 career games). But the most intriguing pairing in this series is Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, who might see copious amounts of the Marchessault line. Dylan DeMelo and Brenden Dillon are the Sharks' third pairing. Nate Schmidt led the Knights in ice time (27:56), although he and Brayden McNabb were a minus-9 in shot attempts vs. the Kings. Deryk Engelland and Shea Theodore (plus-19) fared better. Colin Miller and Jon Merrill were the third pairing against L.A. Advantage: Sharks.

Goaltending. A battle of the two best goalies in the postseason thus far. Marc-Andre Fleury was spectacular in Vegas' sweep of the Kings, with 127 saves on 130 shots. Martin Jones has become the wallpaper for the Sharks; he's always there, but if you notice him, it's because someone tore through him. Jones was sturdy in Round 1, with 128 saves on 132 shots. His career save percentage is now .931 in the playoffs. Advantage: Even.

Special teams.The Sharks had a middling power play in the regular season (20.6 percent) but were hitting the bull's-eye against the Ducks (30.0 percent). It was the opposite story for the Golden Knights, who were 11th in the league at 21.4 percent in the regular season but just 1-for-12 against the Kings, the NHL's best penalty kill. Bad news: The Sharks were second best on the PK in the regular season, at 84.8 percent. Vegas was 12th on the kill (81.4). Advantage: Sharks.

Coaching.Both coaches did some heavy lifting in the regular season. Peter DeBoer oversaw a transition year for the Sharks and continues to have a deft understanding of the team's psychology, keeping the Sharks relaxed but not, like, country club relaxed. All Gerard Gallant did was take a disparate collection of players acquired in an expansion draft and help them mesh into a 109-point division winner. Advantage: Even.

Health.The X factor: Sharks star Joe Thornton, still on the mend from an injury to his right medial collateral ligament, is already ruled out for Game 1. The Golden Knights could get a boost from the return of defenseman Luca Sbisa, who hasn't dressed for a game since Feb. 27 due to a hand injury. Advantage: Golden Knights.

Series pick: Sharks in six.