Now that the dust has settled on what was the most mind boggling first-round series and absolutely inconceivable Game 7 between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights, it is time to look forward to round two.
But first, let’s look back briefly on that epic series between San Jose and Vegas.
First Round Keys
It was obvious going into the series that goaltending was going to play a key factor and that certainly came to fruition. Martin Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury were both likewise amazing and awful at different points in the series. Fortunately for Sharks fans, Jones saved his best for last as he was the backbone of the Sharks winning the final three games of the series.
After being as bad as can be between the pipes in Games 2 through 4, Jones shocked the hockey world by flipping the script and channeling his inner Patrick Roy. In Games 5 and 6 he stopped 88 out of 91 shots, for a save percentage of .967. While Jones would let up four goals in Game 7, he held the Knights to just two goals through the first two periods, including one which many thought was deflected in illegally with a high stick.
While Jones’ stunning resurgence and Tomas Hertl’s goal-scoring heroics in Games 5 and 6 dominated the headlines (and rightfully so), neither player was truly the most valuable in the series.
The most valuable player in this series was Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Injured in the middle of the Game 2 loss, Vlasic missed Games 3 and 4 before returning for Game 5. In other words, in games that Vlasic played in the series, the Sharks went 4-1. In games that he remained healthy start to finish they went 4-0.
This isn’t to take anything away from Jones, but his impressive franchise record setting 58-save performance was also the best defensive performance the Sharks had in the series. San Jose’s offense/puck possession game obviously struggled in Game 6, but the defense was impeccable. All those chances off the rush, particularly of the odd-man variety that the Sharks were giving up with regularity in the first five games, were few and far between in Game 6.
Again, not taking anything away from Jones making 58 saves in Game 6, but the biggest save he made in the series was the two-on-one stop on Reilly Smith in Game 5. That would have tied the game late in the third period just moments after Vegas had cut the lead to 3-2 with a power-play goal. Vegas would have then had all the momentum with the Sharks on the verge of losing the series 4-1.
San Jose didn’t turn into a defensive dynamo overnight, but a healthy Vlasic makes all the difference in the world. Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are offensive juggernauts, but they have their lapses in judgment and often take risks that don’t pan out. The Sharks need Vlasic, he is unlike almost any other defenseman in the world. While he had a down year this season, Vlasic improved in the second half. After falling as low as a minus-16 in late December, Vlasic finished the season plus-10 the rest of the way to finish overall at minus-6.
Despite all the scoring the Knights did in this series, in the games that Vlasic started and finished, he combined for a plus-2 rating. While not quite what he was a few years ago when the Sharks went to the Stanley Cup final, Vlasic is still the same type of guy who was able to shut down the likes of Anze Kopitar, Tyler Toffoli, Filip Forsberg, Vladimir Tarasenko and Sidney Crosby in the 2016 playoffs. Recall the Penguins’ third line, the “HBK line” of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel is the group that torched the Sharks in that series. Vlasic finished the series plus-1. Sidney Crosby had no goals and just two assists through the first five games of that series. Vlasic had a lot to do with that.
Round 2 Outlook:
For now, as the Sharks move forward in the playoffs, Vlasic will likely maintain his role as MVP. The most skilled forward that will take the ice in the second round series between the Sharks and the Colorado Avalanche is the Avs’ Nathan MacKinnon. The sixth-year forward finished the regular season with 99 points, a second-straight career high. A year ago he finished with 97 points. He was injured for the All Star Game and therefore did not compete in the fastest skater competition. MacKinnon is the only player in the league who could potentially knock off Connor McDavid as the fastest in the league.
Just like it was key for the Sharks not to feed the Vegas Knights’ transition, it will be imperative they likewise don’t feed the Avalanche transition. MacKinnon is most dangerous when he can use that blazing speed off the rush. It will be up to Vlasic to shut him down. Fortunately for the Sharks, Vlasic is quite capable. When most hockey fans think of strong defensive defensemen, skating speed isn’t what comes to mind. Skating however is one of Vlasic’s strengths. That’s what makes him so special is he can back skate and keep up with a guy like MacKinnon off the rush and on stops and starts in the corners.