As I continue my deep dive into the potential first round matchups for team that have already punched their tickets to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I would like to focus on an inevitable bout between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights.
As was the case before, we will look at all three positional groups and see which team is favored in each.
San Jose boasts a really good balance of wiley veterans and talented youth. They are led by Tomas Hertl, who is in the midst of a career year, and Logan Coture, who continues to impress. Hertl leads all Sharks forwards with 33 goals and 32 assists. Joe Pavelski remains dangerous with the puck on his stick, netting 37 goals. If anyone was wondering whether Jumbo Joe Thornton would have any value, after his injury troubles last season, you need not worry, as he has potted 16 goals and 30 assists in a diminished role. His steadying influence and hockey sense from a 3rd line Center is immeasurable. Centering a line with Kevin Lebanc and Marcus Sorensen has produced one of the most lethal third lines in hockey. In his first full season with the team, Evander Kane is on pace to break his career high in points, set in 2011-12 with the Winnipeg Jets. The San Jose Sharks are one of the few teams in the league that is willing to roll all four lines, regardless of the situation.
The Vegas Golden Knights’ clocks must be broken, because it has not yet struck midnight on this Cinderella story. Despite the departures of key veterans, James Neal and David Perron, they are still finding ways to win games and raise the bar for all future expansion teams. Led again by their three superstars, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jon Marchessault, Vegas remains credible as a Cup contender. Factor in the new additions Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny, and Mark Stone, and depth will not be called into question. The Knights also have the grit and toughness to play close and meaningful games in the playoffs, with guys like William Carrier and Ryan Reaves on the fourth line.
Advantage: San Jose, slightly
What do you do if you have one of the most gifted offensive defenseman in the league? Obviously, you add the single most offensively gifted defenseman of his generation (objective opinion). Having Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson manning your top 4 is probably cheating on an EA game, but it has been quite successful for the San Jose Sharks this season. Add in some Vlasic Dill Pickles (Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brenden Dillon), and you got a defensive sandwich with the crust still on (what adult takes the crust off anyway). Beyond their defensive abilities, San Jose gets a lot of offensive production from their blue liners, as they are led by Brent Burns with 13 goals and 64 assists. The aggression of the defense has not come without drawbacks, as the Sharks have given up 237 goals, the 12th most in the league.
Vegas relies a bit less on the offensive prowess of their defensemen. They are not immune to scoring, with Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt both eclipsing the 30 point total. Their defensemen, in conjunction with their goaltending, have only allowed 211 goals. The disciplined structure that Gerard Gallant has instilled in his club only allows 29.1 shots against per game. That is good for fourth best in the league. If the Knights can keep the daunting San Jose powered play off the ice, it would go a long way toward taking the series.
If you look up inconsistent goaltending in the dictionary, you will find Martin Jones‘ smiling face staring back at you. In 58 appearances, Jones has just a .431 Quality Start % (QS%). And things get much worse with Aaron Dell manning the cage, as he has just .278 QS%. The two have combined for 18 Really Bad Starts. If Jones cannot find his 2016 form, this could be a very short series.
Standing in the opposite crease, you will find Marc-Andre Fleury. While his stats may not match up to his career year of a year ago, his workload has increased significantly. In 59 appearances, Fleury has a .914 SV% and 2.46 GAA with 8 shutouts. As was evident throughout the playoffs last season, Fleury can carry this team to the promised land.
Both teams have had bouts of inconsistency throughout the season, but in a seven game series between two evenly matched teams, I am always betting on the Goalie that I can trust.
Vegas in 6
stats provided by hockey-reference.com and nhl.com
featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals
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