Vegas Golden Knights (3) at San Jose Sharks (2)
Welcome to the newest rivalry brewing in the Western Conference- the Vegas Golden Knights versus the San Jose Sharks matches the second and third seeds in the Pacific Division. The teams split the four game head-to-head series this year and each won a game on the road. Vegas stacked up goals in its two victories- scoring 6 goals in an early season clash and 7 just a few weeks ago. The series between these foes promises to be hard hitting and entertaining due to their propensity to put pucks in the net.
The Vegas Golden Knights were a massive surprise in their initial season last year. The NHL set up a favorable expansion draft for the new franchise and Vegas drafted solid hockey players. Vegas started last season with a win against the Dallas Stars and continued winning until meeting Washington in the Stanley Cup finals. The Knights sit third in the Pacific Division, but are talented enough to repeat as Western Conference champions. The Vegas attack is balanced at the Center position with Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Cody Eakin each scoring 20 plus goals. Vegas’ offense received a major scoring upgrade when acquiring Mark Stone from Ottawa in a trade deadline coup. Stone, consistently listed among the most underrated players in the league, provides the offensive punch to drive the team back to the Cup finals.
The Sharks are not lacking in offensive firepower entering the series against Vegas. San Jose possesses the third most potent attack in the NHL in Goals For, narrowly trailing the Calgary Flames. Their front-line sports one of the most recognized beards, I mean players in hockey, Joe Thornton. While Joe may not play many minutes anymore, he scored double digit goals and provides an experienced presence. Joe Pavelski does not lower the average age of the Sharks offense, but remains an effective goal scorer. Leading the Sharks with 38 goals, he can quickly change a game with his scoring prowess. Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier each lit the lamp over 30 times this season and provide a challenge for Vegas to slow down.
Vegas has a solid backline with Brayden McNabb providing a physical presence against opponent’s goal scorers. Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt both can contribute to goals with their passing, each obtaining over 20 assists on the season. The Sharks front line is going to have an advantage when they are in the offensive zone against the Vegas defenders.
The one constant this season on the Sharks backline is the ability to pack an offensive punch. Brent Burns checks in with 14 goals scored and a whopping 65 total assists for a defenseman. However, the Sharks have been without a key cog in Erik Karlsson. The two time Norris Trophy winner injured his groin in the middle of January and has not played since. He promised to be ready for the playoff series against Vegas, but will have to shake off plenty of rust for his impact to be felt on ice. No different than when San Jose has the puck, Vegas should be able to cut through the Sharks defense.
The ageless Marc Andre Fleury must have another good run through the playoffs because he does not have solid support behind him. The aging goaltender was heavily used in the net until finally wearing down in March. Fleury sat out with a nagging injury to his lower body. Fleury returned to the Vegas lineup on April 4th, but allowed 4 goals against Arizona. The veteran netminder produced a solid season, but can be scored against up close. He has a -7.01 GSAA on high danger shots and gave up some cheap goals from distance proved out by his -2.82 GSAA from low danger shots. Fleury must be hot in goal because Malcolm Subban has not proved to be effective in the net while filling in during Fleury’s absence.
Martin Jones and Aaron Dell form the weakest goaltending tandems of the contenders. Jones is the starter, but ranks as one of the worst goalies in the league. Jones’ -31.04 GSAA is compounded by his -13.05 GSAA against high danger shots. The issue with Jones, is that not only does he allow goals up close, but he shows a -10.78 GSAA on low danger shots. Aaron Dell is not an upgrade when Jones is rested. Overall, Dell’s GSAA is in the bottom 10 in the league at -8.26. If Vegas gets through the Sharks defense, they will have little trouble scoring on the porous defense provided by the San Jose backstops.
Goals, goals and more goals. This should prove to be an exciting, fast paced matchup between two teams that do not like each other. The addition of Stone gives the Vegas an edge up front when going against the Sharks backline. As mentioned above, the key to this matchup is the health of Mark Andre Fleury. I would keep your powder dry until certain Fleury is healthy and ready to play. The two games he played in at the end of the year do not show he is fully back as he allowed 8 goals on 72 shots. He is that important to the Knights winning the series. Sharks backers have the same dilemma with Karlsson’s health as the playoffs start. A healthy Karlsson can push the Sharks past Vegas into the next round.
The Sharks have been slumping since mid-April and Fleury is a battle hardened veteran. I am going with Vegas in 7.
Typically- I do not bet Totals, but if the O/U is 6.5- this might be the best play between these two.
Current Line as of 4/6:
San Jose -110