Game 1 in San Jose tonight, 9:30
Game 2 in San Jose Friday, 9:30
Game 3 in Vegas Sunday, 9pm
Game 4 in Vegas Tuesday, 9:30
I suppose I should stand my ground, as I’ve believed in the Sharks all season, until their late-season pants-filling without Erik Karlsson. The fact that they finished where they did and their metrics are where they are despite having the worst goaltending in the league is a testament to how good they actually are. All they need really is league-average goaltending and not only would they come out of the West, they’d probably amble or mosey out of it. And yet the universe seems intent on shoving the Knights down our throats even though it took their GM less than two seasons to completely bork a blank cap situation and no one cares. Mark Stone showed up, everyone lost their mud, and he scored at a 22-goal, 50-point pace, which is fine, except it’s not fine for the $9.5 MILLION DOLLARS HE’S GOING TO GET PER SEASON WHY AM I THE ONLY ONE FLABBERGASTED I MUST BE ON THE WRONG DRUGS!!!
But Stone’s contract doesn’t have much bearing on this series. His play does. And boy does this seem a nightmare for the Sharks, and could potentially swing the direction of the entire organization.
Goalies: Before we get to the disaster that is the Sharks’ net, Marc-Andre Fleury is reasons 1-4 the Knights made it to the Final last year. While some want to attribute it to magic dust or a genius front office or a secret style of playing or Ryan Fucking Reaves, just about any thrown-together bunch of fuckwits can win a series or three when their goalie is going .945, as Fleury did in the first three rounds. When he stopped doing that, you’ll notice the Caps dispatched them tout suite.
Fleury was a tick above league average, with spotty health all season. He was marvelous in five March starts, and bad in three April starts, so current form is hard to diagnose. Fleury’s playoff pedigree is also hard to figure, as there’s just as much buffoonery as there has been brilliance. If anyone thinks he’s a sure bet just because of the last two seasons, you’re not paying much attention. It would not be a shock if he’s terrible. He was just a short time ago February.
That still makes him a better bet than Martin Jones, who was just woeful this year. The Sharks had the worst goaltending at evens this year, and in fact were the only team lower than .900. You can’t roll into the playoffs with that and expect to do much. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that Jones’s playoff pedigree is rather strong. In three tries with the Sharks he’s at .926 over 42 games. At 29, he really shouldn’t be in a career abyss. Maybe the fresh start of the playoffs lets him reset everything mentally. That’s the only thing the Sharks can be counting on right now.
Defense: You’ll never get me to buy into the Vegas defense. But I’ll also readily admit they basically take them out of the equation, by just asking them to get the puck up to the forwards as quickly as possible and not much else. They don’t get a ton of scoring from there but they don’t have to. And the forwards have the puck so much that they don’t have to do that much defending. But the Sharks have the puck a ton, too. And the more you’re asking Colin Miller and Brayden McNabb and Deryk Goddamn Engelland to do in their own end, the more likely it is they’ll turn back into the players we’re fairly sure they still are. Because I have to believe eventually things return to as they are, no matter how much of a fantasy land Vegas is of dreams and money and tits.
If Erik Karlsson is healthy, then the Sharks’ blue line is way better. He appeared for the last game and says he’s ready to go, but premature returns from a groin injury have sent him back to the darkness twice already this season. With him, the Sharks boast three pairs the Hawks would honestly kill for. Maybe Vlasic and Braun are a touch slow to deal with the speed of the Knights over a long series, but they know how to take the dungeon shifts. If they can keep the roof from leaking, Karlsson and Burns can get up in it. And they do the scoring the Vegas’s back end doesn’t. Yes, the Knights have four lines, but the Sharks are the rare team with three pairings. If anyone’s equipped…
Forwards: I still may be in denial or not “get it,” but there’s a reason the Knights are here again. They just have a lot of speed and depth. Wild Bill may have crashed back down to Earth, but it’s a real boon to have a second line of Stastny, Pacioretty, and Stone. The Ginger Ninja lurks on the third line with Alex Tuch, and somehow Bellemare and Reaves and whatever other jackass they punt out there come up with big goals. And there’s never a break in pace. It’s so much to deal with when it’s on song.
But again, if you sift through the mishegas, the Sharks have the same depth, but better. The Sharks boast six forwards with 55 points or more. The Knights have two. There are four 30-goal scorers in teal. The Knights don’t have one. They can annoy the piss out of you too with Meier and Sorensen. They could even match center depth by moving Pavelski back to the middle if they so choose. Nyquist performed at the same pace Stone did in Vegas and yet I didn’t see anyone erecting statues of him in their publications like they did with McPhee and Stone. Starting to get the impression the Sharks have better skaters?
Prediction: Last year’s series, after the 7-0 Game 1 in Vegas for the Knights, was pretty even. Fleury made a huge difference. The Knights are maybe better than they were last year, though without William Karlsson and Smith doing what they did maybe not? The Sharks definitely are. Jones could undo it all and they could be done in four. But the possibility of Fleury having a gasoline fight with him are higher than most think. But honestly, I’m tired of the Vegas story and I think the Sharks have just been twiddling their thumbs waiting for this. And once they snap into gear, everyone in the West should be awfully worried.
Sharks in six.