Sharks

Sharks have tall task against Penguins, who are in Stanley Cup form

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USATSI

Sharks have tall task against Penguins, who are in Stanley Cup form

The Sharks witnessed firsthand the emergence of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native Nathan Mackinnon as a legitimate superstar in a loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday. Naturally, their reward is to face the NHL's first superstar from the area on Saturday. 

And of course, much like Mackinnon, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is playing some of the best hockey of his career. 

In 2018, no player has scored more points than the three-time Stanley Cup champion (15). In fact, three of the top five scorers in the new year skate in the Steel City: Evgeni Malkin is tied for third with 13 points, and Phil Kessel is right behind him in a tie for fifth with 12 points. 

The trio has powered the Penguins to a three-point lead on the Eastern Conference's final Wild Card spot. As recently as New Year's Eve, though, the Penguins were seventh place in the loaded Metropolitan Division, and three points back of the postseason. 

It was always a matter of 'when' rather than 'if' Pittsburgh would turn it on. Fatigue was always a possibility, as the back-to-back champions have played at least 13 more postseason games (49) than any other team in the league over the last two seasons, but any concerns seem firmly in the rearview mirror at the moment. 

The same cannot necessarily be said about the Sharks, whom the Penguins dispatched in six games in San Jose's first Stanley Cup Final appearance. Yes, they've won three out of four since the bye week, but haven't played all that well in the process.

Two of those wins came against the lowly Coyotes, and San Jose has barely out-possesed their opponents (50.74 five-on-five corsi-for percentage; 51.22 fenwick-for percentage, according to Corsica Hockey). They're scoring nearly a goal more per 60 minutes of five-on-five play (2.69) than before the bye (1.85), but are allowing nearly one-and-a-quarter more goals (3.58 five-on-five GA/60) than before the bye week (2.24).

The latter is, at least in part, because Martin Jones is not playing well. The Conn Smythe-like form that kept the Sharks in it against the Penguins two Junes ago has largely eluded him this season, and injury may have played a part. 

Jones is day-to-day with a minor injury, according to the Bay Area News Group's Paul Gackle, and the team recalled goaltender Troy Grosenick from the San Jose Barracuda on Friday as a result. That leaves Aaron Dell in net as the last line of defense against the Penguins. 

With Pittsburgh looking a lot like the team that celebrated a Stanley Cup win on San Jose's home ice two postseasons ago, stopping them will be a tall task. 

Why the Stanley Cup-bound Golden Knights don't deserve your ire

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AP

Why the Stanley Cup-bound Golden Knights don't deserve your ire

In case you haven’t heard, the Vegas Golden Knights are headed to the Stanley Cup Final. It is, assuredly, just like we all predicted.

Exactly two weeks after they ended the Sharks’ season in the second round, the expansion club was at it again on Sunday. Ryan Reaves tipped Luca Sbisa’s point shot for the eventual game-winning goal, adding two more unlikely heroes to a seemingly endless, and increasingly absurd, line of them as the Golden Knights eliminated the Winnipeg Jets.

San Jose is no longer the latest footnote in Vegas’ storybook season, but any remaining hesitation from Sharks fans to come to terms with the story of the season is understandable. After all, no team won more playoff games against the Golden Knights through three rounds, and the six-game, second-round series seemed like the start of a legitimate rivalry.

Just as straightforward is the fact that San Jose had a polar-opposite expansion experience. The Sharks got to pick mostly from the dregs of the then-Minnesota North Stars, and then from a much smaller pool of players in a league that had 10 fewer teams at the time. Even considering that many of the Golden Knights’ best players were acquired in trades around the Expansion Draft and/or selected under the condition Vegas didn’t select someone else, the club was in a better position than any new team in league history.

Frankly, it should sting a bit seeing an expansion team have unprecedented success a quarter-century after the Cow Palace hosted one of the worst teams in NHL history, as well as just two years after San Jose made its first-ever appearance in the Final following years of heartbreak. But any resentment can wait until next year, as Vegas doesn’t deserve your ire in its inaugural season.

The Golden Knights’ inaugural season is kind of story transcends hockey, a hyper-regional sport followed by fans who (mostly) don’t continue to watch the playoffs once their team is eliminated. Regardless of who advances out of the East, the possibility a team that existed pretty much in name exactly a year ago having a chance to engrave its name on the bleepin’ Stanley Cup is going to give the league, and the sport, some overdue national attention.

Unless you’re in the #PleaseLikeMySport crowd, this is undoubtedly a good thing. The Stanley Cup Final is going to attract plenty of viewers asking “Is this really happening?” without having watched much, if any, hockey previously. If a few of them decide to stick around? Even better.

Plus, it’s not like a parade down the Strip makes one in San Jose any less likely in the future. Far from it, in fact. The Golden Knights would be the first team from outside of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh to win a Stanley Cup since 2011, and the first first-time champion since the Kings in 2012.

Hockey fans love to trumpet the NHL’s parity, and if the league is truly one Where Any Team Can Win And Anything Can Happen, new teams are certainly welcome on the Stanley Cup. Even the league’s newest.

More than any year, it’s best to take the long view on this postseason, and to ultimately embrace the absurdity of it all. Sharks fans can be as frustrated as they want while the Golden Knights play for a championship and San Jose is in offseason mode.

Just save that until this ridiculous ride comes to an end.

Stanley on the Strip? Expansion Vegas Golden Knights headed to Cup Final

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USATSI

Stanley on the Strip? Expansion Vegas Golden Knights headed to Cup Final

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Ryan Reaves scored the winning goal, Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves and the Vegas Golden Knights pushed their remarkable expansion season into the Stanley Cup Final, beating the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 on Sunday in Game 5 of the Western Conference final.

Alex Tuch also scored for the Knights. They lost Game 1 in Winnipeg before winning four straight to become the first expansion team since the 1968 St. Louis Blues - when the six initial expansion teams were put alone in the West - to get to the final.

Vegas will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Washington Capitals in the final. Tampa Bay leads the Eastern Conference final 3-2, with Game 6 set for Monday night in Washington.

Josh Morrissey scored for the Jets, and Connor Hellebuyck made 30 saves.

Reaves, the bruising Winnipeg native acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins before to the trade deadline in February, snapped a 1-1 tie with 6:39 left in the second period when he tipped Luca Sbisa's point shot past Hellebuyck for his first goal of the playoffs.

Winnipeg got a power play early in the third, but couldn't muster much of anything. The Knights smothered much of the Jets' attack for the next 10 minutes, with Hellebuyck having to come up with big stops on William Karlsson and Eric Haula to keep his team within one.

The Jets pressed with under 4 minutes to go, with Fleury stopping captain Blake Wheeler on the doorstep, but it wasn't nearly enough as the Knights closed out their third straight series on the road.

The Jets beat the Knights 4-2 in Game 1, but Vegas snatched home ice with a 3-1 victory in Game 2 before picking up 4-2 and 3-2 wins at T-Mobile Arena.

The Knights, whose jaw-dropping inaugural 109-point campaign included a Pacific Division crown, swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, and knocked out the San Jose Sharks in six games.

The Jets had the NHL's second-best record with 114 points in the regular season. They advanced to the first conference final in city's history with a five-game victory over the Minnesota Wild in the opening round before topping the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in Game 7 on the road.

The usual raucous, white-clad crowd at Bell MTS Place - not to mention the thousands of fans outside the arena attending a street party on a sun-drenched spring afternoon - were silenced just 5:11 into Game 5 when Tuch jumped on Morrissey's turnover and fired his sixth past Hellebuyck.

The Jets were tentative to start and it got worse after the opener as Vegas dominated the next couple of shifts, forcing some good saves from Hellebuyck before Winnipeg got its feet moving.

After being outshot 7-1 in the first 7 minutes, the Jets finally pushed back and turned the tide with the next nine attempts on goal, culminating with Morrissey making amends for his early gaffe with 2:46 left in the period.

Bryan Little won a faceoff in the offensive zone straight back to second-year defenseman, who blasted his first career playoff goal past Fleury's glove.

One of Winnipeg's downfalls in the series through four games was an inability to maintain momentum. The Knights scored within 1:28 of a Jets' goal in each of the first four games - a crushing 12 seconds after Winnipeg tied Game 3, and an equally gut-wrenching 43 seconds after the Jets knotted Game 4 - but they managed to take the game to the locker rooms tied 1-1.

Both teams had chances in the second period before Reaves made it 2-1, with Jets center Mathieu Perrault just missing on a pass from Little that had too much speed.

Right after Reaves scored the second playoff goal of his career - and first since 2015 with St. Louis - Winnipeg's Nikolaj Ehlers rang a shot off the post on Fleury.

NOTES: The Jets were an NHL-best 32-7-2 at home in the regular season, but were a pedestrian 5-4 in the playoffs, including losses in four of their last five post-season outings. Winnipeg had won a combined 13 straight at home before dropping a 2-1 decision in Game 4 against Nashville. ... With his team facing elimination, Jets coach Paul Maurice inserted defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Joe Morrow in the lineup for Toby Enstrom and Ben Chiarot. Kulikov hadn't played since injuring his back on March 8, while Morrow last suited up April 20 in Game 5 of the Minnesota series.