Gameday: Golden Knights open Year 3 against, of course, the Sharks

Just a few days removed from finishing the preseason in style against San Jose, this time it counts and Vegas wants revenge.

The Vegas Golden Knights open the season against the San Jose Sharks. You know, the team that kicked them out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (albeit on a horrible call) last season. The team who the Golden Knights have quickly formed an intense rivalry with; who the Golden Knights tangoed across the 100 penalty-minute mark with just three days ago.

But this time, it’s for real. It’s the first real game the Sharks and Golden Knights have played against each other since that infamous Game 7 in April. And they’ll meet each other again in a couple days at San Jose. For now, here’s what to watch for in the season opener.

Can the rookies fit in?

Jimmy Schuldt and Cody Glass impressed enough in the preseason to make the opening night roster (Alex Tuch and Cody Eakin unfortunately being hurt probably didn’t hurt the chances of the latter). They’ll both likely draw in to the starting lineup, with Schuldt paired with Deryk Engelland or Nick Holden. Glass will likely be wedged between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. Not a bad combination for your NHL debut.

Schuldt was a finalist for the Hobey Baker award in the NCAA last season and Glass was a crucial cog in the Chicago Wolves’ run to the Calder Cup Final in the AHL, so it’s not like either hasn’t had success before this stage. But now, they play on the biggest stage in hockey on opening night against the Golden Knights’ arch-nemesis. The pressure has never been greater on either, and this will be their first test to see if they can not only play with the big boys, but do so well.

Schuldt had just a 39.33 percent Corsi and 41.75 percent shot share on a 50 percent offensive zone start rate (at even strength) in the preseason and Glass had a 45.3 percent Corsi and 46.15 percent shot share on a 66.67 percent offensive zone start rate. Both will need to be better, especially against a team as good as the Sharks, and if not, questions will start to arise as to how long they’ll stay in Vegas this season.

Jon Merrill and Shea Theodore must avoid being bad

If the pairings from the previous game hold up, Merrill and Theodore will be paired up again like they were Sunday. On paper, that should be much better than the pairing Theodore found himself in through much of his first two NHL seasons, one in which his partner was Engelland. But in the preseason, they weren’t.

Theodore should never find himself near anything labeled “bad”, and yet here we are. At even strength in the preseason, the Theodore-Merrill pairing had just a 32.43 percent Corsi, 41.67 percent shot share, and 44.74 percent expected goal share. To be fair, they played just 8:40 together and it was the preseason, but it’s still scary to see two of the Golden Knights’ top four defensemen, two players who make logical sense together, not work.

Neither of them had great individual stats either. It’ll be interesting to see how Gerard Gallant uses them, if they are indeed paired together, and their numbers will need to improve if so. A “bad” label on that pairing in the preseason is one thing, but when the games start to matter, the pairing will need to prove that they more than matter and can be relied upon or be broken up.

The defensive forwards need to step up

When outsiders talk about how the Golden Knights don’t have a patented star on the blue line (which is false, by the way) and that could hold them back from the Stanley Cup, they forget one crucial thing. The Golden Knights almost never have just two defensemen on the ice.

With Stone, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, Tomas Nosek, Tuch and Eakin (when healthy) and now Glass, who proved to have a solid two-way game throughout the Calder Cup playoffs, the Golden Knights play a system that relies on having essentially three to four defensemen on ice at all times. Stone is one of the favorites to win the Selke this year and Karlsson has gotten votes the last two years. Nosek was one of the best pure defensive forwards in the league last season and Eakin was an impressive factor defensively last year.

Without Tuch and Eakin, however, the other five will need to step up, especially against a Sharks team with two of the best offensive defensemen in the league in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. Defending the point in this game will be as important as defending the crease, especially as Joe Pavelski, who was a continual threat from the high-danger area the last few seasons for San Jose, has departed. Karlsson (the blond one), Glass and Nosek will be crucial in defending a center depth that includes Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Joe Thornton.

The penalty kill is under pressure

What happened to the penalty kill in Game 7 does not need to be revisited, but it should be very easy to understand why the penalty kill remains important. After an offseason that saw penalty killers like Colin Miller, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan Carpenter depart for other pastures, the Golden Knights’ new-look penalty kill will have an incredibly tough first test, especially without Eakin and Tuch.

It remains to be seen what the Golden Knights’ shorthanded pairings will look like (will we finally see Theodore on the PK?), but the preseason probably holds clues. Merrill, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, and Engelland were four of the time on ice leaders on the penalty kill, which means they’re likely the defensemen who will see the heaviest amount of minutes while shorthanded (although Theodore was impressive in his three minutes).

Stone and Smith both played more than five-and-a-half minutes in the preseason, and could either be a unit or be crucial pieces of the two units this season. Karlsson should be the main center on the penalty kill, at least with Eakin gone, and Nosek should get some minutes as well. William Carrier also played four and a half minutes on the PK in the preseason and could offer something, with his speed and tenacity, different to the team while shorthanded as well.

How to watch

Time: 7:30 p.m. PT


Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM