It took one trip to Las Vegas early in the season for the San Jose Sharks to realize that the fast start to the season for the expansion Golden Knights was no fluke.
So it should come as little surprise to the Sharks that they have to get past Vegas in the second round of the playoffs starting Thursday night to reach the Western Conference final for the fourth time in the past nine seasons.
“I remember playing them in November and walking in and going, ‘This isn’t a mirage. These guys are for real,'” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. “Their game was real, the way they came at you, the tenacity they played with, the depth they have. That opinion for me hasn’t changed in any of the games we played them, and it went back as far as November when we played them early. Great test for us.”
The Golden Knights brought relentless speed to a Pacific Division that had been known in recent years for heavy teams that thrived on wearing down opponents with physical play.
The group of castoffs raced past the rest of the division for 109 points in the regular season and then swept a Los Angeles Kings team that always seemed to be a step behind in the first round of the playoffs.
“We played them a couple of times early and you figured out this team is for real and will be tough for years to come,” Sharks defenseman Justin Braun said. “They have great speed and the coach has them going hard. We’re going to have to match that every shift.”
The Sharks have embraced the league’s transition to a faster game in recent years, making it a priority following a loss in the Stanley Cup Final to Pittsburgh two years ago.
The transformation really took hold this season after top-line center Joe Thornton went out with a knee injury in January and the Sharks acquired Evander Kane and Eric Fehr the following month, adding both speed and depth to the forward group that should test the unproven Golden Knights.
“I would assume it’ll be a bit more fast-paced a bit, maybe a little more open hockey,” Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “I think LA was a team that played well defensively, but they don’t create as much offensively. With these guys we’re going to have to do a little more up and down.”
Here are some other things to watch in this series:
The series features a matchup of two of the NHL’s hottest goalies. Fleury allowed just three goals in a first-round sweep, leading the league with a .977 save percentage and 0.65 goals against average. San Jose’s Martin Jones was nearly as stingy, allowing four goals against Anaheim for a .970 save percentage and 1.0 GAA. Jones’ career .931 save percentage is third best ever among goalies with at least 20 playoff games.
One of the few things Vegas didn’t do well in the first round was capitalize on power plays, scoring on just 1 of 12 chances after converting on 21.4 percent in the regular season. The Sharks were among the best penalty killers all season, ranking second at 84.8 percent. San Jose’s power play has been a bit of a roller coaster this season, struggling early and late but thriving for a stretch in the middle of the year. The Sharks were 6 for 20 in the opening round.
“It does become more important as the playoffs go on that you win the special teams battle,” DeBoer said. “Both teams take a lot of pride in those areas so it should be a good test.”
The Sharks rely heavily on defenseman Brent Burns’ big shot to generate offense. He had nine shots and a goal in Game 1 of the last round before the Ducks seemed to put extra emphasis on shutting him down. Vegas figures to do the same.
“When he’s on the ice, you got to pay special attention to him,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “The wingers can’t fall asleep up high and let him go down the backdoor and give him a lot of shots to the net. That’s what they do, they focus on getting pucks to the net.”
Both teams figure to be well-rested for this series after sweeping the first round. San Jose will have seven full days since beating Anaheim, while Vegas has had eight days off since finishing off Los Angeles. This marks just the second time in the past 22 years that teams will meet in the playoffs after sweeping the previous round.
The Sharks will once again start the series without star center Thornton, who has been out since Jan. 23 with a knee injury. DeBoer ruled Thornton out for at least Game 1 and there is no timeline for when he will be ready to return.
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press.