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.
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.