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August 22, 2019

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Analysis: Settle in for a long series with two Cup contenders in Vegas, San Jose

Gearing up for the show between the Pacific Division rivals to start

0110VGKSharks

Steve Marcus

Vegas Golden Knights center Jonathan Marchessault (81) falls while covering San Jose Sharks right wing Timo Meier (28) during a game at T-Mobile Arena Thursday, Jan 10, 2019.

Goals flowed; potential bloomed; the Sharks swam in success.

A month ago, San Jose appeared to have morphed into the monster the rest of the NHL feared from the beginning of the season. The Sharks moved into first place in the Pacific Division with the Western Conference’s best record — and second-best in the whole league — during a six-game win streak and longer six-week stretch where they went 15-3-1.

The Vegas Golden Knights and their fans should put as much, if not more stock into that tear than the sinking the Sharks endured in the standings to end the regular season going into the teams’ playoff series, which begins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night in San Jose. This is a highly dangerous opponent.

Welcome to one of the most compelling series of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Get settled because it’s not going to be a breeze in either direction.

On paper, Vegas versus San Jose has a strong chance to become the first seven-game series in franchise history. It’s a straight pick’em in local sports books — at least presumably until more Vegas fans start their typical, faithful marches to show support at the betting window.

That’s already happened in the futures market, which is why the series is also the only first-round matchup with two teams 10-to-1 or less to win the Stanley Cup. At the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, Vegas is 8-to-1 with San Jose at 10-to-1.

Those are high expectations for a pair of teams that won four of their combined final 16 games over the last two weeks of the regular season.

“It will be nice to just put these in the rear-view mirror,” Max Pacioretty said after the Golden Knights’ regular-season-ending 5-2 loss to the Kings. “Now it’s time to get down to work and play the real hockey. Whether it’s a good feeling or bad feeling for individuals this time of year, it’s over now. Now the show starts.”

It could be easy to look at Vegas’ history against San Jose and assume it’s only going to be a limited engagement. The Golden Knights have treated the Sharks more like shrimp, regularly reeling them in and feasting.

They’ve only ever suffered one regulation loss to their rivals in eight all-time regular-season meetings. Even last year’s second-round series felt less competitive than its six-game length may indicate considering San Jose’s first win was a controversial double-overtime coup and Vegas had a plus-8 goal differential for the series.

Overall, the Golden Knights have outscored the Sharks by 19 goals in 14 games over the last two seasons. But that probably matters less than Golden Knights’ fans want to believe.

Sharks’ fans would argue the most telling game fell in their favor. San Jose was at its healthiest against Vegas this season on Jan. 10 when it came to T-Mobile Arena and wrested a 3-2 win away from the Golden Knights in the third period.

Star defenseman Erik Karlsson, who missed the March surge, was even in the lineup. He’s back now, having returned for a tune-up in a 5-2 victory over the Avalanche on Sunday.

And so is everyone else for the Sharks as scorers such as Evander Kane and Timo Meier who missed time down the stretch are also expected to play against the Golden Knights.

“It’s been a tough last month with the injuries and adversity we’ve had,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said after the Avalanche win.

“I think we’re close now.”

Of course, Vegas could say all the same things.

The Golden Knights had their own early-to-mid March hot streak that resulted in Stanley Cup buzz when they won 11 of 12 games after acquiring Mark Stone at the trade deadline. That included a 7-3 win in San Jose behind backup goalie Malcolm Subban with the team playing on back-to-back nights and their third game in four days.

Coach Gerard Gallant said the Golden Knights were, “definitely the healthiest we’ve been all year,” on Saturday, with the injury report barren save for Erik Haula, who’s even started skating after being on injured reserve since November.

If the objective of the NHL season is to assemble the best possible team while keeping it intact and positioned for a postseason run, then both the Sharks and Golden Knights succeeded. It all should make for an edge-of-your-seat type of series.

One of the must-see shows of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is happening right here.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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