Five players to watch in Sharks-Golden Knights series
Let there be hockey
The long, national nightmare is over, and the Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights are finally set to face off in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Of course, San Jose and Vegas still have to wait a bit, and won’t be the first series to start Thursday night, despite advancing from the first round approximately a decade ago.
Since it’s been awhile since either team played, here are five players (three Sharks and two Golden Knights) to keep an eye on over the next four-to-seven games.
Donskoi scored three points in a Game 3 shellacking against the Anaheim Ducks, but had a somewhat quiet series otherwise. One of San Jose’s best possession players during the regular season, Donskoi finished the first round with a team-worst 38.84 percent five-on-five corsi-for percentage against Anaheim, according to Corsica Hockey.
He’s likely to be matched up against the Golden Knights’ dynamic top line, and the Sharks will rely on him, as well as his linemates, to drive play in a positive direction. Controlling play and neutralizing that line will go a long way towards the Sharks advancing.
Miller made the most of his opportunity in Las Vegas this season, and scored more points this season (41) than his first two combined (29). Only two defensemen have posted better five-on-five possession numbers relative to their teammates over the last three years, and his production finally caught up to his underlying numbers this season.
Vegas uses him a lot like San Jose uses Brent Burns, with a healthy amount of offensive zone starts (0.61 ZSR in the regular season, per Corsica) and plenty of power play time. He’s only scored two points in his last 14 games dating back to the regular season, but is still a dangerous defender the Sharks will need to keep their eyes on.
Martin continued his solid play alongside Burns in his return to the NHL. He posted the second-best possession numbers among Sharks defensemen (50.76 percent corsi-for percentage) in the first round, according to Corsica.
On paper, the speedier Golden Knights may seem like a bad matchup for the 37-year-old, but the Sharks attempted 61.4 percent of the shots with him on the ice in those games, according to Natural Stat Trick. With Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun likely to match up against Vegas’ top line, San Jose will need Martin to make the most of his minutes.
Since Neal returned to the Western Conference in 2014, no player has scored more goals against the Sharks in the regular season and playoffs than him (10). Only three players have more points against San Jose during that time.
He scored the overtime winner in Game 2 against the Los Angeles Kings, but his 16 other shots were stopped. That’s not necessarily new, as Neal's career playoff shooting percentage (8.6 percent) is nearly three percentage points lower than his regular season mark (12.1 percent), but there are likely few teams he’d rather face in order to break out than the Sharks.
Now, for the woolly mammoth in the room. There are concerns about the future Hall-of-Famer reintegrating into a now-speedy Sharks lineup after spraining his right MCL, and those are warranted, given his playing style. When you look at team-level, five-on-five shot-attempt rates (for and against) as a proxy for pace, San Jose’s played at a higher pace with Thornton out of the lineup (121.28) than with him in it (118.59).
However, San Jose actually played at a higher pace with Thornton on the ice (122.28) in the games he did play than either of those splits. At least during five-on-five situations, the Sharks aren’t playing much higher-event hockey with Thornton out of the lineup.
Perhaps more surprisingly, San Jose is better on the power play without the noted man-advantage scorer, generating shot attempts, shots, and expected goals at a higher rate five-on-four in his absence. He won’t play in Game 1, but Thornton’s possible return presents a definite dilemma to head coach Peter DeBoer.