SAN JOSE -- There was plenty of worry when the Sharks had trouble winning games at the end of their regular season campaign. Even once they had a playoff spot clinched, reoccurring mistakes and concerns over the team’s health loomed. Not to mention knowledge their first-round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights, had knocked them out of the playoffs the previous year.
But San Jose ended their 2018-19 campaign on a high note, and now, practice for the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs are officially underway. Critics across the league may still be picking Vegas, but the Sharks are every bit capable of knocking last year’s Western Conference champion out of the postseason.
First and foremost, the Sharks are finally healthy. Erik Karlsson not only looked strong after rejoining San Jose for the regular-season finale, but he clocked a whopping 22:01 minutes of ice time to boot. Joe Thornton, who missed last year’s playoffs due to a knee injury, is successfully leading the third offensive line at an astounding pace. Even Timo Meier, who missed the regular-season finale against the Avalanche with a suspected wrist injury, is expected to be game-ready for Game 1 at SAP Center on Wednesday evening. As the Sharks have shown during the regular season, they are a dangerous and deep group on the ice when their best players are in their best shape.
The depth a healthy Sharks’ roster brings to the ice is what they need to have success against Marc-Andre Fleury. The netminder missed time late in the regular season and lost his last two starts of his campaign, but San Jose knows he can play to another level once the playoffs start. During the Knights’ unprecedented playoff run last year, he made 453 saves on 490 shots-against. Over two starts against San Jose during the regular season, he registered a .950 save percentage.
“When he plays against us, he seems to be on top of his game,” Justin Braun said of Fleury. “Every chance you get, you’ve got to make count against these guys. I think [the Sharks] know that and they’ll be dialed in.”
Getting dialed in doesn’t just take place on the offensive side of the puck. San Jose’s defense has to buckle down and be darn near flawless against Vegas' potent attack, whether it’s the skilled William Karlsson-led top line or a heavy bottom-six with big players like Alex Tuch and Ryan Reaves. The Sharks already know they have to be on another level defensively, especially after being outscored by Vegas in last year’s playoffs 22-14.
“We scored enough to win, we just gave up too much,” Logan Couture said, recalling last year’s second round matchup with Vegas. “Going into this series, we have to be pretty tight defensively if we want to win it.”
Perhaps one of the most important things the Sharks have going for them is knowing they can’t let Vegas get a rise out of them. The Knights are masters at agitating their opponents -- something the Sharks know quite well from four hard-hitting regular season contests. Committing early on to being disciplined works in San Jose’s favor.
“There are enough guys who have played enough playoff games in here to realize what it takes to win, and sometimes you’ve got to take some hits to make plays and not retaliate,” Logan Couture said. “I believe that’s something we’re capable of doing in here.”
Braun agreed. “You don’t want to be taking penalties or running around doing stupid things just to hit guys,” he summarized. “They’ll take advantage of that. Play hard, but play smart.”
If San Jose can stick to that gameplan and stay healthy, the Sharks should be in very good shape.