Neither Vegas or the San Jose Sharks came into this series with much momentum on their side. The Sharks finished the regular season with a 3-6-1 record in their last 10 and Vegas wasn’t much better, finishing with a 3-5-2 record in that same span. One would think both clubs would come into Game 1 hungry to get the early advantage, but only one of those teams appeared to be playing with much urgency.
Unfortunately, that team was not the Golden Knights.
The same issues that plagued Vegas in the last few weeks of the regular season seemed to bleed into Game 1 of the series, and it wound up costing them as they fell to San Jose 5-2 in SAP Center.
Yet another slow first period
Of all the issues the Golden Knights had at the end of the regular season, the one major flaw that needed to be addressed before Game 1 was their play in the first period. Unfortunately, Vegas failed to come out ready to play in the series-opener.
The Knights were held to just five shots in the first period (they failed to record a shot on goal for the final nine minutes of the opening period) and only managed 10 shots through 40 minutes. During the first intermission, defenseman Nate Schmidt admitted that Vegas needed to come out with more intensity in the middle third.
“A little bit more energy,” said Schmidt. “I thought we did a good job staying away from the crap, but, you know, sometimes maybe it gets us fired up. They came a lot harder than we did that period.”
To his credit, the Knights did finally end up getting on the board in the second period. But so did the Sharks — three times.
Vegas has been playing from behind far too often as of late. And if that problem isn’t fixed quickly, this could end up being a long series (in a bad way).
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
With the number of potentially game-breaking players in San Jose’s lineup — Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture, to name a few — carelessness with the puck can be the kiss of death for visiting teams in SAP Center, and that was exhibited Wednesday night.
The Golden Knights gave the puck away 12 times in Game 1, and several of those turnovers resulted in quality scoring chances for the Sharks — two of which wound up in the back of the net.
Like last season’s Knights team, the Sharks are very dangerous in transition. If they are given an opportunity to generate a rush the other way, they have the speed and talent to make opposing teams pay.
“There were a little bit too many,” said forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of the turnovers after the loss. “Obviously it’s the playoffs, maybe a little bit of nerves, I don’t know. But you can’t win the game when you have a lot of turnovers and you have barely any shots on the net.”
Vegas must keep games at 5-on-5
San Jose netted five goals Wednesday night, and only one of those goals came at 5-on-5 (Evander Kane’s goal late in the second period). San Jose’s first tally came on the power play (courtesy of Pavelski’s face), the second at 3-on-3, the third at 4-on-4 and the fifth at 6-on-5 with Marc-Andre Fleury on the bench for the extra attacker. The Sharks were handed five opportunities on the man advantage, and it’s a bit of a shock that they didn’t win by a larger margin.
After the game, Knights head coach Gerard Gallant was not shy about his team’s lackluster play both at even-strength and on special teams, saying that his team was outplayed “in every facet of the game.”
The Golden Knights’ penalty kill is solid in its own right, but awarding the Sharks’ sixth-ranked power play numerous opportunities will not bode well for Vegas. The Knights flourish at 5-on-5, and they’ll need to avoid taking five penalties per game for this to be much of a series.
The one silver lining to the 5-2 loss was the play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Despite giving up four goals, the 34-year-old netminder looked sharp in Game 1, making a couple big-time saves in the process.
Fleury finished the night with 28 saves on 32 shots. Eleven (11!) of those shots came while Vegas was shorthanded.
For Vegas to win this series, Fleury will need to be at his best, and Wednesday night was a good sign. So long as Vegas can limit penalties and keep the game at 5-on-5, Fleury should be able to give the Knights an obvious advantage.
“I think we didn’t play our game,” said Fleury after practice on Thursday. “Staying out of the box would be a big thing too. If we do those things right, the way we want to, I think we’ll be in good shape.”
It’s just one game
While Game 1 certainly wasn’t a promising start to the series, the Golden Knights are still very much in this race. As you may remember, the Knights lost Game 1 of last year’s Western Conference Final to the Winnipeg Jets, which may have been an even worse start to a series than what we saw Wednesday night. Against Winnipeg, Vegas was outshot 26-21, allowed a pair of power-play goals and turned the puck over 11 times in the 4-2 defeat.
It’s too early to count the Knights out. Vegas is a much better team than what they showed in Game 1, and one would have to believe the Knights will be ready to play Friday night.