Thursday, April 26, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The Golden Knights, who swept the LA Kings in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, weren’t the only team to advance unscathed. The San Jose Sharks, the Golden Knights’ Western Conference semifinal opponent, also needed just four games to dispatch the Anaheim Ducks.
The pair are the only two NHL teams still perfect in the playoffs, and they’re also familiar with each other after facing off four times in the regular season. It should make for a tightly contested series. Here are five keys for the Golden Knights to secure victory.
Continue the great goaltending
Vegas goalie Marc-André Fleury had a series for the ages in the first round, allowing just three goals in 275 minutes against the Kings. Fleury stopped 127 of the 130 shots he faced. The three-time Stanley Cup champion might be playing the best hockey of his career, and if that continues, the Golden Knights will be very tough to beat.
On the other side of the ice, Sharks netminder Martin Jones nearly matched Fleury in the first round. Jones stopped 128 of 132 shots, posting a 25-save shutout in the Sharks’ Game 1 win against the Ducks.
In all four of the Golden Knights’ victories over the Kings, Fleury gave up one fewer goal than Jonathan Quick. The team that gets the better goaltending in the second round is likely to emerge as the winner.
Contain Brent Burns
Burns led the Sharks with 67 points during the regular season, second-most among all NHL defensemen. The five-time all-star has gotten better lately, with 12 points in the last 10 regular-season games and a goal and an assist in the first round of the playoffs.
“Burns has been a very good weapon for them, especially in the offensive zone,” says Golden Knights forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. “They have been relying on him a lot. He’s a tough defenseman to play against.”
The 6-foot-5 bearded behemoth is physical on the defensive end, and always dangerous moving the puck out of his own zone. “You have to pay special attention to him,” coach Gerard Gallant says. “He’s big, he’s strong and he shoots a lot of pucks at the net. He runs their power play from the back end [and] has a big shot, so he’s going to be a dangerous player for them.”
Protect the blue line
Given how active the Sharks’ defensemen are on the offensive end, standing strong at the blue line and not allowing San Jose to gain the zone will be crucial for Vegas in this series.
“If we can pick plays up at the blue line and squash the play before they come in, that will be really important,” defenseman Nate Schmidt says. “They have guys that like to jump up into the play, so you have to be ready for that type of attack.”
If the Sharks are able to get the puck into Vegas’ zone and keep it there, it allows them to set up their offense and throw pucks at the net. San Jose’s most dangerous weapon has been creating traffic in front of Fleury, which might make the next key the most important of all.
Clear the front of the net
The Sharks led the NHL this season in both goals off a deflection (19) and shots on goal off a deflection (98). San Jose’s best strategy will be to put as many bodies as possible in front of Fleury to distort his view, then blast shots from the point while players try to change the trajectory of the puck as it approaches.
“They’re good at it, and a lot of times there’s not a lot you can do about it,” Gallant says. “Every team that pre-scouts San Jose knows they look for a high tip and run those plays, but you have to focus on your game and do the right things.”
Sharks center Joe Pavelski is tied with the Golden Knights’ Erik Haula for the league lead with six goals off deflections. “You have to be a little bit closer to their defenseman sometimes when you have guys that can find the net easily,” Bellemare says. “You have to make sure you don’t give them those lanes. If the puck goes through, it’s because somebody didn’t block it.”
Prepare for the possible return of Joe Thornton
The Sharks’ longtime leader hasn’t played since January 23, when he underwent surgery on his right knee, but he’s expected to return at some point in the Golden Knights series.
The 38-year-old had 13 goals and 23 assists in his 47 games this season, and would be a big addition to San Jose. He has 27 goals and 96 assists in 160 career playoff games.
“He’s a great player,” Gallant says. “He’s going to be a Hall of Fame hockey player, and if he comes back, it’s definitely going to help their club.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.