Sharks

NHL playoffs: Sharks likely want to avoid Golden Knights in first round

NHL playoffs: Sharks likely want to avoid Golden Knights in first round

SAN JOSE -- With 10 games remaining on their regular season schedule, it still isn’t completely clear who the Sharks’ opponent will be in the first round of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. It is clear, however, which team makes for the least appealing matchup: The Vegas Golden Knights.

San Jose is well aware of what it’s like facing the Pacific Division’s newest team, having fallen to Vegas in the second round of last year’s playoffs. And while this season’s Vegas squad isn’t as threatening, this is a matchup they likely want to avoid.

Said matchup looks a little more unappealing as of late because of how each team is playing as they gear up to face each other on Monday evening at SAP Center. Vegas has won seven of their last eight contests ahead of a Sunday night contest against the Edmonton Oilers, while the Sharks have dropped their last two games, both on home ice. This isn’t to say that the Sharks can’t turn it around when Vegas pays them a visit. But after two games where the Sharks didn’t have as much energy and some of their best chances weren’t finding the back of the net -- all while still trying to punch their playoff ticket, no less -- the prospect of facing Vegas for more than one game becomes more daunting.

Then, there’s Vegas’ goaltending. Perhaps the most obvious reason San Jose would like to avoid a first-round matchup with the Golden Knights is that they would be going up against a league-best netminder in Marc-Andre Fleury, who leads all NHL goaltenders with 35 wins and eight shutouts. He has won six of his last seven starts, posting a 1.43 goals-against average and .953 save percentage.

Now, the Sharks won’t face Fleury when they host Vegas on March 18, as he has been classified as day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean Fleury wouldn’t be healthy enough to lead the Golden Knights into another playoff series. While Vegas’ offense has plenty of firepower, it’s Fleury’s dominance that makes the team a more terrifying playoff opponent.

What likely weighs on the Sharks more than anything is both the physical and emotional toll a first-round series against the Golden Knights will likely entail. San Jose has faced Vegas twice this season -- both times at T-Mobile Center -- and the results have been mixed. Vegas shut the Sharks out 6-0 on November 24 in the first of what would be a season-high four straight losses for San Jose. In their second meeting on January 10, the Sharks pulled out a very hard-fought 3-2 victory after scoring two third-period goals within less than a minute of each other.

Both games carried some emotional weight; the first game because it was a blowout at a time of the season where the Sharks were still trying to find their identity, and the second because it was a redemption run. This isn’t to say San Jose can’t successfully overtake a more emotional series -- hello, 2016 against the Kings -- but facing Vegas in the first round can certainly be exhausting. 

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Again, the Sharks have every bit of depth and firepower to defeat the Golden Knights in a playoff series, and when the Vegas comes to town on Monday, for that matter. But it’s easy to see why this is a first-round matchup San Jose likely would prefer to avoid.

Sharks-Vegas Game 7: Why Kerry Fraser thinks game-changing penalty wrong call

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AP

Sharks-Vegas Game 7: Why Kerry Fraser thinks game-changing penalty wrong call

Game 7 of the Sharks' Stanley Cup playoff first-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights will be remembered for a call and a comeback, and Kerry Fraser can empathize.

In the third period Tuesday, Vegas Golden Knights forward Cody Eakin was given a five-minute major for cross-checking and a game misconduct. On a face-off in the Vegas end, Eakin shoved Sharks captain Joe Pavelski in the path of Eakin's teammate Paul Stastny, and Pavelski's collision with Stastny caused the San Jose forward to hit his head on the ice. Pavelski bled from his head, and needed assistance off of the ice. The Sharks scored four goals on the ensuing non-releasable penalty, and ultimately extended their postseason while ending the Golden Knights' with a 5-4 win.

The longtime NHL referee tweeted Wednesday he thought the penalty was too harsh.

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant and forward Jonathan Marchessault told reporters they felt badly Pavelski was hurt, but laid into referees Eric Furlatt and Dan O'Halloran after the Sharks' win. Gallant said the referees told him Eakin hit Pavelski in the face, but replay indicated his cross-check caught his San Jose counterpart closer to the chest.

Fraser faced similar criticism after failing to call Wayne Gretzky -- then with the Los Angeles Kings -- for a high-sticking penalty against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs.

“I’m sure they’re gonna feel like I am, sick in the pit of my stomach. We’ve all been there,” Fraser told The Athletic. “I have the same feeling I had that night on the ice.”

Fraser's call, much like Tuesday's, marked a turning point. Gretzky's stick hit Maple Leafs forward Doug Gilmour in the face, drawing blood while the Kings had a power play in overtime. The Leafs led the series 3-2 at the time, and could have clinched a trip to the Stanley Cup Final with a win. But the Kings tied it 3-3 thanks to a Game 6-winning goal from -- you guessed it -- Gretzky.

Toronto ultimately lost Game 7, and the Leafs haven't gotten as close to a Stanley Cup in the interceding 26 years. Vegas doesn't have the Original-Six pedigree, but Golden Knights fans got a great taste of Leafs fans' gripes over the last quarter-century in their second season following the team.

Vegas' complaints are warranted, just as Toronto's were at the time. However, both teams still had chances to make up for it.

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The Golden Knights failed to score on a power play of their own following the five-minute major, and could not score in overtime after Marchessault tied the game with 47 minutes remaining in regulation. Vegas also lost two previous close-out games -- one in San Jose, and one in the friendly confines of T-Mobile Arena.

Similarly, Toronto still had a home game of its own and a chance to advance in Game 7. The Leafs and Kings were tied with fewer than five minutes remaining, before Los Angeles scored two goals in a 37-second span.

Both calls will live in playoff infamy, but they didn't have to.

Kevin Labanc makes history in Sharks' crazy Game 7 comeback vs. Vegas

Kevin Labanc makes history in Sharks' crazy Game 7 comeback vs. Vegas

SAN JOSE -- Kevin Labanc made Stanley Cup playoffs history Tuesday night at SAP Center.

Labanc powered the Sharks' wild third-period comeback during their 5-4 overtime win over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 of the first-round series. The winger assisted or scored on all four of San Jose's goals after Cody Eakin's controversial cross-checking major, becoming the first player in the history of the NHL's postseason to score four points in a single period of a Game 7.

With four points in 4:01, Labanc's playoff heroics will be remembered as a driving force behind the most memorable game in Sharks history and as the answer to a trivia question.

"I don't even know," Labanc said when a reporter brought the record to his attention after the Sharks' win Tuesday. "I'm still kind of awe-struck right now. But yeah, that power play was on point and really came in clutch for us."

Labanc is not a household name, but he has grown into a proven power-play contributor over the last two seasons. Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture were the only Sharks to play more minutes per game on the power play than Labanc. In the last two regular seasons, Labanc's 37 points ranked fourth among Sharks skaters and his 31 assists are second only to Brent Burns. 

He also has been among the most productive players on the power play across the league. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, skaters have played 150 minutes in 5-on-4 situations. Of that group, Labanc ranks in 10th in assist rate (5.06 per hour), 14th in primary-assist rate (2.87 per hour) and 22nd in points per hour (5.91), according to Natural Stat Trick.

"He help us a lot," Sharks forward Tomas Hertl said Tuesday of Labanc's power-play contributions this season " ... A lot of plays he can make. He's really smart, he's patient and he for sure help us [in Game 7] because we were a little bit struggling early -- and kind of all playoff with power play. But, he come back in big moments and you need a guy like this."

Before Eakin's penalty, the Sharks were 0-for-4 on the man advantage in Game 7, and just 4-for-29 through the entirety of the season. But in the absence of injured captain Joe Pavelski, who drew the penalty after his head hit the ice following a collision with Vegas forward Paul Stastny from Eakin's shove off the face-off, Labanc and the Sharks' power play got to work quickly.

Labanc set up Logan Couture's first power-play goal with a Sharks staple, dishing a cross-ice pass through the seam of the Vegas penalty kill that got goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury moving laterally. Labanc's second and third points -- both secondary assists -- played out in similar fashion to one another, with the forward quickly working loose pucks up to defenseman Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, respectively. Hertl deflected Karlsson's shot past Fleury, and Burns one-touched a pass that Couture stepped into with a slap shot.

For his record-setting fourth point, Labanc handled the goal-scoring duties. Gathering the puck just in front of the Vegas blue line, Labanc saw he had time, skated straight to the right face-off dot and fired the Sharks' go-ahead goal past Fleury.

"I just kind of saw a little opening," Labanc said. "They kind of just gave me [the] shot, and they've been giving me shot all series. So, I just kind of saw the far side and went for it, and it was also a good screen by Timo [Meier] kind of getting in Fleury's eyes. He's been great all series, so we got in his eyes and went in."

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The Sharks held onto the lead given by Labanc's goal until Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault scored his fourth goal in as many games to tie Game 7 with 47 seconds remaining.  Barclay Goodrow's goal with 1:41 remaining in overtime eventually completed San Jose's comeback, and the Sharks advanced to the second round. The Colorado Avalanche await, fresh off dispatching the top-seeded Calgary Flames in a five-game, first-round series.

But the win that got them there? One that Labanc played an instrumental role in? That will be hard to top.

"Game 7, down 3-0 in the third period with 10 minutes to go?" Labanc rhetorically asked. "I'd say that's a cherry on top for sure, but it's still not over yet. We've still got three more rounds to go. It's a good win. It's a great feeling, and we've just gotta take care of our body and get ready for the next series."