If you needed any more proof that speed and skill is burying big-body hockey, the sweeps by Vegas and San Jose in Round 1 was the nail in the coffin.
Both of these teams faced opening-round opponents that had more standings points than them in the final five weeks of the regular season, but when everything was on the line it was clear who the advantage was with. The Golden Knights have been a tremendous story all season long, and even after their red-hot home record cooled in the second half, their improved road record made for an even more balanced team.
San Jose didn’t always look as good as they do now, starting the first few months as the lowest scoring team at even strength. But, especially after the trade deadline and the acquisition of Evander Kane, the Sharks offence took off and they had the third-most goals at evens after Feb. 26.
This series may come down to which goalie can stay hottest the longest, though. Both Vegas’s Marc-Andre Fleury and San Jose’s Martin Jones were stellar in Round 1, finishing with the top two save percentages. Jones has always been great in the playoffs and Fleury has three Stanley Cup rings, so this again figures to be a battle of titans.
When it comes to star power, the edge goes to San Jose, though when Vegas was faced with this similar “disadvantage” in the opening round, it didn’t matter. Again the Golden Knights will face a team with the best forward (Joe Pavelski) and best defenceman (Brent Burns) in the series, but until someone proves this matters against the incomparable team from Vegas, we won’t worry too much about it.
5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Vegas: 50.96 CF% (12th), 52.78 GF% (9th), .922 SP% (17th), 8.38 SH% (6th), 100.57 PDO (10th)
San Jose: 50.8 CF% (13th), 48.75 GF% (18th), .916 SP% (27th), 7.5 SH% (20th), 99.13 PDO (24th)
Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.
|TEAM||OFFENCE (rank)||DEFENCE (rank)||POWER NUMBER (rank)|
|Vegas||5.21 (16th)||5.61 (11th)||5.41 (12th)|
|San Jose||6.84 (7th)||3.58 (21st)||5.21 (14th)|
Vegas: 21.4 PP% (11th), 81.4 PK% (12th), 268 GF (5th), 225 GA (8th)
San Jose: 20.6 PP% (16th), 84.8 PK% (2nd), 247 GF (13th), 226 GA (9th)
San Jose: 1-2-1
Round 1 Strengths for Vegas: As they have all the way through their surprising season, the Knights owned the Kings with their quick transition game and, when challenged physically by Los Angeles, proved capable of playing with an edge as well — through four games, Los Angeles and Vegas were 1-2 in hits league-wide. When they did go shorthanded, Vegas’s PK unit shut down the Kings 92.3 per cent of the time, which could continue against a Sharks power play that has been below league average this season. No one player dominated on offence for Vegas, though Jonathan Marchessault did get 17 shots, but its main strength outside of the crease is quickness and a quality of depth no one predicted.
Round 1 Strengths for San Jose: The Sharks, like the Golden Knights, are another team that proved in Round 1 how easily speed trumps heavy hockey these days. Despite the Ducks coming in hotter, the Sharks dismissed them in four games without much of a test, outscoring them 16-4. The Sharks actually allowed an average of 33 shots per game, the fourth-highest mark in the first round, but Jones laid an early base for Conn Smythe Trophy consideration with a .970 save percentage that was second to only Fleury in the opening round. San Jose’s offence, which started the season slow, but was one of the top five in the league over the past two months, continued clicking against the Ducks with an average of four goals per game.
Golden Knights’ X-Factor: Vegas is here because of the contributions it has gotten everywhere in the lineup, but if there’s one thing all recent Stanley Cup champions have in common, it’s star power. If that trend continues, Vegas will at some point need a game-breaker to bust out on offence and join Fleury in Conn Smythe talk. No Vegas player scored more than once in Round 1 and only one player, Reilly Smith, had more than two points. The top line of Smith with Marchessault and William Karlsson is where this player will probably have to come from, but as they’ll likely draw the toughest defensive matchups, one of Alex Tuch, James Neal or Erik Haula might need to do it from Line 2. Maybe Vegas can buck this trend, as they’re wont to do, but recent history suggests at least one scorer will eventually need to stand out for them.
Sharks’ X-Factor: The Sharks look to have the depth to match up well against Vegas, but if they don’t cut down on the number of shots against, Jones will again be challenged with a heavy workload. The 28-year-old has never had a subpar playoff season and is out of the gate hot again in 2018. Through four games, the 22 high danger shots Jones faced were second to only Tuukka Rask, and Jones’ .955 high danger save percentage was far higher than any goalie who faced at least 10 of these types of shots.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS (G-A-PTS)
Vegas: Reilly Smith (0-3-3), Alex Tuch (1-1-2), James Neal (1-1-2)
San Jose: Logan Couture (2-3-5), Joe Pavelski (1-4-5), Tomas Hertl (3-1-4)