Is it a rivalry?
“You’ve got to think so,” said Nate Schmidt. “It’s two teams that over a year and a half, two years now, you play each other in the playoffs. Playoff battles always steam and boil, I always feel.”
The Golden Knights defeated the Sharks in six games during their Western Conference second round series last season. They’ll throw down again Wednesday for Game 1, this time at SAP Center.
For the Sharks, it’s a matter of redemption. Despite the series going six games, San Jose was dominated for the most part against Vegas last season. The Golden Knights moved on to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, while the Sharks retooled and revamped the following summer. Vegas did the same.
The Golden Knights won’t be shocking the sports world this year. The reigning Western Conference champions aren’t the hunter this go-around. Trying to replicate the magic will not be as easy of a task in Year 2.
“As a group, that’s our goal,” said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. “We play to win the game. We’re not looking for anything less. That being said, though, it’s easy to say and it’s not always easy to do. I think we have to bear down and do this. Just think about the next shift, the next shot.”
Let’s talk about this series, shall we?
The Golden Knights and Sharks entered the season making two of the biggest moves of the summer; San Jose trading for all-world defenseman Erik Karlsson, essentially responding to Vegas’ move of trading for Max Pacioretty four days prior. Cue up “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
The widespread expectation was Vegas and San Jose would finish 1-2 in the Pacific Division once again. Vegas and San Jose didn’t just add two generational talents to fill dire needs (as if San Jose’s was dire). The Sharks, in order to keep pace with the Golden Knights, had to make the move of bringing Karlsson to Northern California and place on a defense rotation that included fellow Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns, and lockdown defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
Vegas’ acquisition of Pacioretty was general manager George McPhee’s continued revamp of a second line that saw two-thirds leave in free agency. McPhee turned James Neal and David Perron into Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. It wasn’t that it needed to be done, but it was Vegas’ way of trying to restock a cupboard that was nowhere bare.
The first meeting came Nov. 24 — one day after Vegas blanked the eventual-division champion Flames 2-0 on home ice. The Golden Knights sent Marc-Andre Fleury the following night, and Vegas held court emphatically. Fleury made 33 saves in a 6-0 drubbing of San Jose. Pacioretty scored twice in the first period to round out a four-goal first period for Vegas. Karlsson was a minus-2 in 19:39.
They wouldn’t meet again until Jan. 10, back at T-Mobile Arena, but the Sharks broke through and earned a 3-2 victory at Vegas. The Golden Knights held serve through two-plus periods but two goals in 39 seconds from Melker Karlsson and Joonas Donskoi ended the night.
The last two games were weird. It was the midst of Malcolm Subban’s extended start tour. He gives up a goal 30 seconds in, allows a terrible Joe Thornton goal later in the first, but plays superb the rest of the way in a 7-3 thrashing via Vegas. Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith score four points each, and Martin Jones got pulled for the fifth time in 13 all-time matchups against the Golden Knights.
In the series finale on March 30 at SAP Center San Jose won 4-3 in overtime. Fights were had. Names were called. Hair was probably pulled. It was likely a sign of things to come. This series won’t go five minutes without a fight.
Timo Meier — Logan Couture — Joe Pavelski
Evander Kane — Tomas Hertl — Gustav Nyquist
Marcus Sorensen — Joe Thornton — Kevin Labanc
Michael Haley — Barclay Goodrow — Melker Karlsson
Marc-Edouard Vlasic — Brent Burns
Brenden Dillon — Erik Karlsson
Joakim Ryan — Justin Braun
Scratched: Joonas Donskoi, Tim Heed, Lukas Radil
The Sharks are loaded at all four lines. Their defense, when healthy, is elite. The key word is ‘healthy,’ and eyes will be on San Jose in that regard for at least Game 1.
Pavelski, the Sharks captain, missed two weeks with a lower-body injury at the tail end of the season. He played the final three games, scoring his 38th goal in the process. The guess is he’s fully healthy for the playoffs if that didn’t happen. Pavelski will be one to watch in the early goings of Game 1.
There’s also Erik Karlsson. He’ll be healthy heading into Wednesday. It’s the fact he hasn’t been healthy almost all season; his 53 games played were the lowest of his NHL career not counting the 17 played during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. The luxury of adding Karlsson into the lineup, at this rate, is just that. San Jose has been able to get by without Karlsson. But will it be the same Karlsson? Does it even matter?
San Jose’s most important player this series might not even be Pavelski or Karlsson. Timo Meier, the 22-year-old forward, scored a career-high 30 goals this season. He injured his wrist April 4 against Edmonton, but is expected to be ready for Game 1. Tomas Hertl, the 25-year-old forward who scored 35 goals this season, had five points in the six-game series last season.
That’s without having to deal with Logan Couture or Evander Kane.
So yes, the roster is stacked in San Jose. History dictates that’s not all it takes.
How the Golden Knights match up
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith
Max Pacioretty — Paul Stastny — Mark Stone
Ryan Carpenter — Cody Eakin — Alex Tuch
William Carrier — Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — Ryan Reaves
Nate Schmidt — Deryk Engelland
Brayden McNabb — Shea Theodore
Jon Merrill — Colin Miller
Scratched: Brandon Pirri, Tomas Nosek, Valentin Zykov, Jimmy Schuldt, Nick Holden
Injured: Erik Haula (leg)
For the past two seasons, including the playoffs, the Golden Knights are 9-3-2 against the Sharks.
William Karlsson has found the most success against the Sharks. Between-the-legs goal aside, Vegas’ top center has 18 points in 14 games against San Jose with the Golden Knights. The Golden Knights are 8-1-1 when Karlsson scores a point against the Sharks. He’s the most important forward for Vegas in this series.
“Going into the playoffs, motivation is always going to be there,” Karlsson said. “It’s not hard for me [to get motivated] at least. There’s been some heated games there lately. It’s for sure going to be tough.”
The second most important skater is Mark Stone, and it’s not even close. The Golden Knights traded for Stone, then signed him to a long-term contract to make him the future superstar of the franchise. This is the time of year Vegas got him for. Stone finished with 11 points in 18 games with Vegas. If the Golden Knights are to get through this series, it will rest on how well Stone plays at both ends; the task of the Stastny line shutting down any of San Jose’s top six will be just as vital as the 67-26-61 line generating offense.
Much like Erik Karlsson, his former teammate in Ottawa, this is Stone’s first playoff appearance since being one goal away from making the Stanley Cup Final three seasons ago.
“It’s what I wanted,” Stone said. “It’s part of the reason why I’m here. I wanted to play for a competitive team and a team that had a chance to win right now. I want to be playing meaningful hockey games.”
Vegas’ top six will be tasked with as much defensively as it will offensively, whether it be the Couture or Hertl line. Stone and Karlsson are the only two teammates in the League to have 20 goals, 50 blocked shots and 70 takeaways this season. Vegas will need that 200-foot grind-it-out effort from both of their top centers.
This will be the case this series, as for any other series the Golden Knights play in should they advance.
They go as far as Marc-Andre Fleury goes.
If the Golden Knights are to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, it will rest on the shoulders of Fleury. He nearly pulled it off last season. Who’s to say he can’t do it again?
When the smoke clears, the reason why the Golden Knights have the edge in getting back to, at least, the Western Conference Final, is because a healthy 29 is in net. Just as a refresher how he played before Game 2 of the Cup Final: 13-3, a .942 save percentage and four shutouts. He can carry Vegas to two series’ wins, at the most.
“It’s the most fun,” Fleury said. “I love even watching games like I’m a fan. It’s great hockey, it’s intense, it’s physical. It’s fun to be a part of it and be out there with the crowd that’s going crazy bananas. You get real butterflies. It’s fun.”
On the other end, the Sharks have Martin Jones.
2019 was far and away the worst statistical season of Jones’ NHL career. His .896 save percentage and 2.94 goals-against average highlight the weak link of San Jose’s gameplan. It helps the Sharks that he won 36 games. It shows how explosive the Sharks can be.
The Golden Knights aren’t prone to letting teams jump on them. In last year’s six-game second rounder, Vegas won Game 1 7-0, a 5-3 winner in Game 5 that should not have ended in that result, and a 3-0 shutout in Game 6. Vegas can score on San Jose. If it comes to a battle of goaltenders, it’s not even close.
The Golden Knights’ run to the Cup Final last year was predicated on goaltending and this year will be no different.
With the exception of Erik Haula, Vegas is fully healthy. The acquisition of Stone has reinvigorated the locker room and made them a complete team.
But at the end of the day, this series will be decided on how Fleury plays. If he’s even half of what he was last postseason, Vegas will win. Knowing that, along with how much Jones has struggled against Vegas in the past two years, that’s going to determine this series quickly.
I will give it a split the first two, Vegas comes back home to win Games 3 and 4, and I’m trying to find some reason to believe Vegas won’t come back to SAP Center and close in five. Even in the playoffs, there hasn’t been an instance that shows Vegas struggles against San Jose. Until there is such a case, the arrow points to Vegas.
I think San Jose can win Game 5 and extend it further. Back at T-Mobile Arena, though, Vegas in six.