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Golden Knights at Sharks Preview: Vegas closes out regular season in San Jose with division title still within reach

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The Knights don’t control their own destiny but could still be best in the West.

NHL: FEB 13 Golden Knights at Sharks Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Vegas Golden Knights will take on the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center tonight in the final game of the 2020-21 regular season.

The Golden Knights have clinched their fourth playoff berth in franchise history and will finish no lower than second place in the West Division and NHL standings.

But the goal is to finish first, as winning the division and thus the Presidents’ Trophy would be advantageous.

For one thing, Vegas would face St. Louis in the first round rather than Minnesota; while both are difficult opponents, Vegas has struggled more against the Wild both this season and historically. More importantly, though, winning the division would ensure home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

But the Knights are no longer in control of their own destiny after Monday’s crushing 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado currently trails Vegas in the West by two points but has a game in hand and owns the tiebreaker (regulation wins), so Vegas has to finish at least one point higher than the Avalanche in the standings to win the division and Presidents’ Trophy.

There are several different scenarios that could result in that outcome, the most likely of which is that should the Knights win tonight’s game (in any fashion), they would also need the Avalanche to secure three or fewer points out of a possible four in their two remaining games, both against Los Angeles. In other words, assuming Vegas takes care of business and wins tonight in San Jose, Colorado would need to lose one of its two games (in any fashion) for Vegas to win the West.

Working in Colorado’s favor is the fact that the Kings have lost three games in a row, two of which were against the Avalanche, and both meetings will be in Colorado, but anything can happen. Since the Avalanche technically could still fall to third place in the standings, though, they will be eager to win out.

Therefore, all the Knights can do is focus on coming away from tonight’s matchup with two points and entering the postseason on a high note either way.

They will have to do so against a Sharks team that would love to play spoiler against their bitter rival and finish a disappointing campaign in the win column.

The Sharks are currently in seventh place in the division with 49 points. They have gone 1-2-2 in May and are 3-5-2 in their last 10. A win tonight would put them at .500 on home ice (12-12-4).

San Jose is expected to start either Josef Korenar or Alexei Melnichuk in net. Melnichuk gave up five goals in his only start of the season, an overtime loss to Arizona on May 8. Korenar is 3-5-0 with a 3.17 goals-against average and .899 save percentage in seven starts.

Assuming Pete DeBoer sticks with the rotation, Marc-Andre Fleury will man the crease for Vegas with his 36th start of the season; he has won eight straight.

Fleury is 5-0-0 with a 1.60 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in five games against the Sharks this season; Robin Lehner and Oscar Dansk each have one win against San Jose this year as well.

Not surprisingly, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty lead the Golden Knights in points in the season series with 10, though Jonathan Marchessault and Shea Theodore each have eight. For the Sharks, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane and Erik Karlsson all have four. Vegas fan favorite Kane leads the Sharks in goals (22), assists (27) and points (49).

On Monday, the Knights were without Pacioretty, Tomas Nosek, Peyton Krebs, Ryan Reaves and Alec Martinez, though it’s unclear if any will be available tonight.

Vegas announced yesterday that the team recalled forward Dylan Sikura and defenseman Brayden Pachal from the Henderson Silver Knights. The 25-year-old Sikura has played five games with Vegas this season; Pachal, who has yet to make his NHL debut, has one goal and five points along with a plus-five rating in 22 games with Henderson this year.

What to watch for

  • Even against a team without Logan Couture and with an inexperienced goalie in net, the Knights will have to work for the two points tonight, which means a 60-minute effort. That did not happen Monday night, as the Knights ran out of gas in the second half of the third period. However, the Knights were playing with 15 skaters and had played a fantastic game up until that point, so it’s difficult to be critical. If not for Avalanche netminder Philipp Grubauer’s outstanding play, the Knights would have taken care of that game in the first and second periods. That being said, if the Knights are shorthanded once again tonight, they may need to pace themselves when possible, especially in order to make sure to take advantage of the third period, which has been their best all year. The Sharks are not the Avalanche, and this game will not have the same playoff feel, which should help. Plus, Vegas has won all seven meetings thus far, outscoring San Jose 26-14 while averaging 3.71 goals per game and 2.00 goals against per game.
  • Similarly, while it will depend on how the game unfolds, it will be interesting to see if DeBoer allocates ice time more evenly. Monday was a must-win situation, but DeBoer still played Keegan Kolesar for just 8:46. That was comparable to or less time than he has gotten in his last six games. Kolesar is not Stone, and he was on the ice for Andre Burakovsky’s goal, but 8:46 in a game in which you’re playing with 10 forwards seems low. Meanwhile, Theodore saw a game-high 29:34 (the second-highest total for him this season), while Alex Pietrangelo played 29:08. The Knights gave it everything they had, but they clearly ran out of steam, and rolling six forwards and two defensemen is not sustainable at any time of the year.
  • The Knights have struggled on the power play all year, but the man advantage has been at its best against the Sharks, operating at 33.3 percent with nine goals on 27 attempts. It would be great timing for Vegas for this trend to continue, since power-play success often comes down to confidence. The Knights have gotten more opportunities against the Sharks in seven games than they have against any other team in eight, so they’ll get their chances. But while it’s positive to have power plays and build momentum heading into the playoffs, the Knights need to be careful to not let this game get out of hand, regardless of the score. It’s a heated rivalry, the last game of the year and a chance for players in the Sharks organization to leave one last impression before the offseason. The Knights can’t afford any more injuries, so avoiding retaliatory situations with players looking to stir things up and also limiting unnecessary scrums between whistles could go a long way. Obviously, these teams don’t like each other, but while the two points for the division are very important, so is not losing anyone else long-term.

How to watch

Time: 6 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet, NHL.TV, ESPN+

Radio: Fox Sports 98.7 FM/1340 AM