NHL

All eyes on the goaltenders ahead of Sharks-Golden Knights series

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USATSI

All eyes on the goaltenders ahead of Sharks-Golden Knights series

Don't expect a lot of goals in the second-round playoff series between the Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights. The goaltending matchup, featuring red-hot shot-stoppers Martin Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury, is arguably one of the best in postseason history. 

Since the NHL changed up its playoff format in 2014, no two opposing starting goalies have entered a round with a higher combined save percentage than  Jones and Fleury (.973). Among goalies that played at least 175 minutes in a playoff round (or, about three games) all-time, Fleury and Jones' first-round performances rank 8th and 20th, respectively, in single-series save percentage. No other goaltenders in the top-20 played another in the following round. 

It shouldn't surprise you, then, that Fleury and Jones sit atop the league leaderboard in save percentage and goals-against average during the Stanley Cup playoffs this year. It's also shouldn't surprise you that both goaltenders stopped pretty much every shot they faced, no matter the type, in the first round. 

In five-on-five situations, where they've played the vast majority of their minutes, neither Jones nor Fleury allowed a goal off of a low-danger shot, according to Corsica Hockey. They each allowed one medium-danger goal, and Jones allowed the only high-danger tally.

Their save percentage against each type of five-on-five shot represented an improvement over the regular season, but some of their biggest improvements were arguably a result of improved play in front of them.

During the regular season, Jones ranked 46th out of 51 goaltenders that played a minimum of 1000 five-on-five minutes in medium-danger save percentage (.900), while facing the 11th-highest percentage of medium-danger shots. In the postseason, Jones has faced the lowest percentage of medium danger shots (25.53), and has the fourth-best save percentage (.958), per Corsica. 

Fleury, meanwhile, cleaned up on high-danger shots in the first round while his teammates limited those opportunities. In the regular season, Fleury's five-on-five high-danger save percentage (.768) ranked 44th out of 51 goalies (minimum 1000 minutes), according to Corsica. While he faced the 10th-lowest percentage of high-danger shots (16.91), he faced an even lower one (9.28) against the Los Angeles Kings. 

If the first round was any indication, though, the improvements of both goaltenders will be tested in the second. In four games against the Golden Knights, 42.71 percent of the five-on-five shots Kings netminder Jonathan Quick faced were of the medium-danger variety, the third-highest percentage of the 18 goalies that played at least 100 five-on-five minutes in the playoffs entering Monday. Against the Sharks, nearly a fifth of the five-on-five shots Ducks goaltender John Gibson saw were high-danger, the fifth-highest percentage (19.51 percent) among those aforementioned goalies, per Corsica. 

Some regression should be expected, but just how much is anyone's guess. Jones has plenty of playoff pedigree, and although Fleury doesn't (.912 career playoff save percentage entering this postseason), he's in the middle of what is easily the best season of his career. Plus, an additional four-to-seven games may not be enough of a representative sample size to expect any meaningful returns to normalcy. 

In other words, if you like to see pucks cross the goal line, there's a good chance this series will disappoint you. 

Speedy Sharks and Golden Knights ready to fly on the ice in second round

Speedy Sharks and Golden Knights ready to fly on the ice in second round

Speed kills, and it claimed another two victims in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. The "heavy" playing style that powered three combined championships in Southern California since 2007 was left in the dust by a pair of speedier division rivals, the Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights, en route to the only sweeps so far this postseason. 

San Jose learned this lesson firsthand. In a six-game series loss during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, the Sharks could not keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins' team speed.

Pittsburgh deployed three, mobile defensive pairings and sprinkled speed on all four forward lines. San Jose, meanwhile, had a few fast forwards in the lineup and strong skaters among its top-four defensemen, but its speed was only a relative strength against teams in the Western Conference.

Following the loss in the Final, the Sharks have infused their lineup with speed and skating ability. Mikkel Boedker was signed the following summer, and Evander Kane was acquired at this year's trade deadline. Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and Marcus Sorensen debuted last season. Dylan DeMelo, Tim Heed, and Joakim Ryan played extended NHL minutes this season, and there's nary a Roman Polak in sight. 

Take it all together, and San Jose played at a high pace this season. Using team-level shot-attempt rates as a proxy for pace of play, as Sean Tierney of HockeyGraphs and The Athletic did with the graph shown below, the Sharks played at the league's third-highest pace this season. 

The Ducks were pretty far behind the Sharks on the season, at a rate of about five fewer shot attempts per hour. Keep in mind that data includes 67 games of Cam Fowler, one of Anaheim's best skaters on the blueline who missed the entirety of the first round with a shoulder injury. The Golden Knights don't rank as highly as one might expect, but still played at a faster pace than the Kings.

Vegas didn't have the same inciting incident as San Jose to fill its roster with strong skaters, considering the expansion team didn't play its first game until October. Instead, the Golden Knights saw the writing on the wall, and placed a premium on skating ability in the expansion draft, and in adding to their team afterward. 

"That was our basis for who we chose," Vegas pro scout Kelly Kisio told NBC Sports California in a February interview. "Guys that had hockey sense, and guys that could skate. If you have those guys, they will somehow make it happen."

43-goal scorer William Karlsson is a burner, and they acquired another one, Tomas Tatar, at the trade deadline. Blue-chip blueliners Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore were prized for their mobility well before landing in Sin City. Even bottom-six forwards like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and depth defensemen like Jon Merrill are good skaters. 

The disparity was clear in Vegas' first-round series with Los Angeles. Five-on-five, only three teams in the first round have accounted for a higher percentage of expected goals entering Friday (Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals) than the Golden Knights, according to Corsica Hockey. 

Neither Vegas nor San jose will enjoy gap in skating ability against one another, however, setting up a what should be a standout second-round matchup. The games will be fast, but the length of the first-ever playoff series between the two should be anything but. 

DeBoer: Now healthy, series-clincher Hertl can reach 'another level' in playoffs

DeBoer: Now healthy, series-clincher Hertl can reach 'another level' in playoffs

SAN JOSE -- Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer thought Tomas Hertl’s series-clinching goal on Wednesday, in the midst of the best season of his five-year NHL career, was a long time coming.

“He would’ve gotten to this level earlier than this year if he had been healthy,” DeBoer said after San Jose swept the Anaheim Ducks out of the first round with a 2-1 win in Game 4. “He’s had some really bad luck with some really bad injuries. He’s healthy and he’s playing at another level, and I still think he’s got another level he can get to, too.”

Hertl deflected Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s point shot through Ducks goaltender John Gibson’s legs for the game-winner with 10:51 remaining in regulation, and just over a minute after Anaheim tied the game. As NBC Sports California statistician Darin Stephens noted, it was the Czech forward’s second career game-winning goal in the postseason.

Since entering the league in 2013-14, Hertl’s tied for 37th with 22 game-winning goals in the regular season and playoffs, according to STATS. Only Joe Pavelski (32) and Logan Couture (23) have more during that time, and Hertl’s played 85 fewer games than Pavelski, and 26 than Couture.

Were it not for recurring right knee issues that caused him to miss 45 games his rookie season, cut short his Stanley Cup Final in 2016, and forced him to miss another 33 last year, he’d almost certainly be higher on the list.

Five-on-five, only 11 players that played a minimum of 500 minutes have generated expected goals (xG), or shot attempts that account for quality, at a higher rate than Hertl (0.95 xG/60, according to Corsica Hockey) since he entered the league. If you include the postseason, he jumps into the top 10.

DeBoer’s right to think Hertl can reach another level, too. The 25-year-old’s 21 non-empty-net goals matched a career-high, no player underperformed their expected goals total across all situations more than Hertl, as Sean Tierney of HockeyGraphs and The Athletic pointed out.

With health back on Hertl’s side, DeBoer doesn’t see this as the young forward finally maximizing his potential. Instead, the head coach thinks Hertl is just beginning to reach it.

“This wasn’t about anyone pushing him…[He’s] been healthy and he’s starting to find the level that he’s capable of being at, I think, for a long career.”