Here we go again. Just like last year the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks will square off against one another in the postseason with a chance to get one step closer to Lord Stanley.
It was a bit of a weird season for the Golden Knights that saw them get off to a slow start and then rip off a hot streak that propelled them back into the playoff picture. Many expected some regression for the Golden Knights this year, which did happen, but to the chagrin of their detractors, it wasn’t enough of a regression to keep Vegas out of the playoffs.
So now here we are. Back in the playoffs for the second consecutive year. And although this team might not be the favorite to win the West this year, they are still a very dangerous group who could easily repeat as Western Conference champions if they play to the level they are capable of.
First, it all starts with the San Jose Sharks in round one and potentially trying to “steal” a game on the road. With that being said, here’s what to watch for in Game 1.
Will the real Golden Knights please stand up?
After going on a nice run from late February to mid-March that saw the Golden Knights post a 10-1 record, they hit a wall down the stretch and struggled mightily, losing seven of their final eight games.
While most teams would be concerned about this stretch of poor play entering the playoffs, the Golden Knights don’t seem too worried since they were missing key players like Marc-Andre Fleury, Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Shea Theodore during this period.
It’s a fair reason to not be worried, but it does also mean Vegas will have to “turn on” that extra gear again and rediscover their dominant form, which is something that definitely sounds easier said than done. However, when you consider the Sharks closed the regular season out with a 3-8-1 record, it’s pretty clear that both teams have some rust to shake off in Game 1.
The time for Mark Stone to truly shine is here
Playoff series’ like this one against the Sharks is exactly why general manager George McPhee acquired Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline. The 26-year-old winger is a flat-out difference maker on both ends of the ice, as Vegas fans have quickly seen.
But in a series like this one where the Sharks’ top nine is loaded with talent, a player like Stone can matchup against anyone and immediately make an impact for the Golden Knights. He also allows Gerard Gallant more flexibility when it comes to line matching because he can now deploy the line of Pacioretty, Stastny and Stone against any line giving the Golden Knights trouble and they should be able to hold their own, which also in turn frees up the first line.
Things like swagger are nearly impossible to quantify when evaluating a team, but I think anyone would agree Vegas has had a different swagger to them since Stone joined the roster. That little extra boost of confidence has gone a long ways with this squad and now I fully expect we will see Stone show just how great of a player he really is.
How does Vegas’ bottom pairing manage the Sharks’ attack?
For the majority of this season Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb’s pairings have taken on the tough assignments for Vegas, matching up against the opposition’s top lines. While that is likely the way Vegas would like things to go during this series, too, it is not realistic when you consider how the Sharks roll three solid lines.
So unless Gallant decides to double up on one of his top two pairings, the third pairing of either Colin Miller, Nick Holden or Jon Merrill will have to play meaningful minutes against a dangerous opponent.
This pairing has obviously played against some top lines this season, but it’s a little different when teams are trying to pick on you in the postseason by matching specific lines against you because they feel they have a matchup advantage. It’s the kind of thing that can wear you down over a seven game series and something I’m very curious to see how they handle in Game 1.
How to watch
7:30 p.m. PT
TV: NBCSN, AT&T SportsNet
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM