This series is a rematch from last year’s playoffs and features two teams that have both (unsuccessfully) represented the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup final within the past three years.
There is a core of San Jose Sharks still in search of their first ring, the one they failed to get when they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016. The Vegas Golden Knights, meanwhile, are trying to replicate their expansion magic from 12 months ago.
Both squads finished the year with a lot of L’s, though San Jose’s troubles reach further back than Vegas’s. One year ago, Mark Stone and Erik Karlsson were Ottawa Senators with uncertain futures. Now they’ll meet in a first-round series with UFA-to-be Karlsson perhaps entering the final phase of his Sharks career, while Stone is gearing up for what figures to be the first of many post-season experiences with the Golden Knights.
5-on-5, via Natural Stat Trick (with league rank)
Vegas: CF% 54.36 (3rd), GF% 51.64 (13th), SV% 91.54 (24th), SH% 7.75 (19th), PDO .993 (22nd)
San Jose: CF% 54.87 (1st), GF% 50.93 (14th), SV% 89.68 (31st), SH% 9.03 (5th), PDO .987 (27th)
Vegas: PP% 16.8 (25th), PK% 80.9 (14th), GF 246 (14th), GA 228 (10th)
San Jose: PP% 23.6 (6th), PK% 80.8 (15th), GF 289 (2nd), GA 258 (21st)
San Jose: 2-2-0
The Skinny: These teams have history, which is saying something given this is only Vegas’s second season in the league.
The last time you could reasonably cling to any doubts about the Cinderella 2018 Golden Knights may have been before Game 1 of their second-round series with the Sharks. On the heels of sweeping the Los Angeles Kings, Vegas came out on home ice and blitzed San Jose 7-0 in the opener. If you didn’t believe there was something special going on with the team at that point, it was probably just impossible to convince you. (After splitting overtime affairs in Games 2 and 3, Vegas won the series in six games.)
The Sharks are probably kicking themselves over the fact they have to see Vegas so soon this spring. San Jose was one point up on the Calgary Flames for first place in the Pacific Division (and entire Western Conference) with one month remaining in the season. Then, the Sharks went 3-8-1 down the stretch. Now, instead of drawing the Colorado Avalanche — the lowest-seed in the West draw — they’re staring down a team that seemed to find itself during the stretch run.
Vegas is 11-6-2 since Feb. 26, the day after the trade deadline that saw them acquire Stone from Ottawa. Though they finished the year 1-5-2, Marc-Andre Fleury was on the shelf with a lower-body injury for most of that. The top line of William Karlsson between Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault came alive in the final quarter of the season, re-discovering the form that made them so dangerous in the Knights’ debut season.
Vegas Golden Knights X-Factor: If you’re comparing this iteration of the Knights to the one that made the final last year, here’s the math: Subtract James Neal, add Stone, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. On the surface, that’s an equation that Vegas should be thrilled about. Those three newcomers form the squad’s second line and if they could ever get locked in, look out.
Pacioretty, in particular is interesting. The former Habs captain has had a rough go in his first desert season, including spending some time on the shelf. He scored just twice in his first 16 outings with the team, then buried eight in seven. Pacioretty again went cold to finish the year, finding the net twice in his final 15 contests. If big No. 67 can get dialled in, it will provide a whole other dimension for this club.
Fleury’s health has to be at least a slight concern, too, given he missed a couple of weeks before coming back and allowing four goals in each of Vegas’s final two games.
San Jose Sharks X-Factor: Calling it an ‘X-Factor’ might actually cast San Jose’s goaltending in too much of a positive light because the term implies things could go either way. The way it’s been, we should incorporate a “Kryptonite” category for the Sharks crease.
Since March 1, Martin Jones’s even-strength save percentage is .897, ranking him 52nd of 58 goalies who played at least three games over that stretch. Aaron Dell, the backup, is at .879, good for 58th.
That is some kind of stinky. (For what it’s worth, Jones’s career post-season save percentage in 40 games is .926)
The true X-Factor could be Karlsson. (By the way, if this was a Karlsson competition, San Jose wins 2-1 — Erik and Melker to William.) The roving blue-liner was basically hampered by a groin injury most of the second half, finally sitting out from late February until the final game of the season, when — by his own account — he didn’t really push things while playing 22 minutes. If he can return to his comet-like self, it brings an entire other dimension to San Jose’s attack.
Erik Haula, lower-body (out)
Timo Meier, undisclosed (day-to-day)