Since losing Marc-Edouard Vlasic to an undisclosed injury in Game 2 of their first-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights, the Sharks haven't been the same in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Vlasic left the ice with 18:54 remaining in the second period that night, and did not return after Shea Theodore's shot hit the Sharks defenseman up high. Mark Stone scored Vegas' game-winning goal 25 seconds later, and it's been all Vegas since.
In Vlasic's absence, the Sharks have been out-scored 13-3 over the last eight periods of this best-of-seven series, including a 5-0 loss to the Golden Knights in Game 4 on Tuesday. Before Vlasic's injury, they held a 6-5 edge (excluding an empty-net goal) in the first four periods. In 5-on-5 situations, the Knights have generated 25 high-danger chances to the Sharks' 17 since Vlasic went down.
"There are times when you have to fight through it, and you've heard the clichés [like] 'next man up,'" said Curtis Brown, an NBC Sports California analyst and former Sharks winger (2004; 2006-08). "But, in all honesty, that's very difficult when you're talking about world-class players. You only have the ability to have so many, and the next player up typically is somebody that doesn't have the same experience, most times the same ability, right? So, you're playing somewhat short-handed."
It'd be too simple to chalk up the Sharks facing elimination in Game 5 on Friday to Vlasic's absence. Starting goaltender Martin Jones has been pulled in two of his last three games, and has an .838 save percentage on the series. Plus, Joakim Ryan -- pressed into a larger role -- and Tim Heed -- pressed into the lineup -- have been solid in the last two games.
But Vlasic's absence has put additional strain on the Sharks' other top defensemen, and they have struggled. Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson were individually beaten on Vegas' second and fourth goals on Tuesday, respectively.
Karlsson, who missed 27 of San Jose's last 33 games of the regular season due to injury, has not looked like himself since a strong start in Game 1. With him on the ice at full strength the last three games, the Sharks have allowed 12 high-danger chances and generated eight. Burns, who was Vlasic's primary defensive partner in the series at 5-on-5 before the injury, has been on the ice for 14 high-danger chances at 5-on-5 compared to 11 for when he's skated without Vlasic this series.
With Karlsson not looking 100 percent, the job of a defense corps that's already missing Vlasic and top-six blue-liner Radim Simek (recovering from March knee surgery) becomes even harder, according to Brown.
"I can only recall what it meant to me when [I was] playing, and you want to have -- if at all possible -- your best chips," Brown said. "And ultimately right now, they don't have that."
Vlasic did not practice prior to Games 3 and 4, and it remains to be seen if he will practice when the Sharks return to San Jose on Wednesday, let alone be available when they face elimination in Game 5 on Thursday night. The Sharks could certainly use him then, even as they'll have their hands full fixing their game in other areas.