Kevin Labanc

Peter DeBoer's patience pays off in Sharks' critical series split with Golden Knights

Peter DeBoer's patience pays off in Sharks' critical series split with Golden Knights

The Sharks were not facing elimination in Game 2 against the Vegas Golden Knights Saturday night, but they might as well have been. 

A loss would have created a near-insurmountable 2-0 hole. In NHL history, home teams taking a 2-0 lead have closed out the series 89.5 percent of the time, according to Hockey Reference, and the Sharks are 0-11 in series where they've lost the first two games. 

Logan Couture's double-overtime winner ensured they'd avoid the dreaded deficit, handed the Golden Knights their first postseason loss, and taught Vegas' wide-eyed fanbase a lesson in playoff heartbreak. For the first 20 minutes and change, it looked like none of that would happen, as San Jose gave up the first two goals for the second straight game. 

But the Sharks whittled away at the lead, took it themselves, gave it back, and eventually took it back thanks in part to head coach Peter DeBoer's patience. 

Brent Burns was not at his best in Game 1, nor did he start strong in Game 2. The defending Norris Trophy winner made a costly turnover in his own zone in the lead-up to Golden Knights winger William Karlsson's first goal on Saturday, and San Jose was outscored, outshot, and out-possessed with the defenseman on the ice in Game 1. 

But Burns cut the Vegas lead in half with a power-play goal in the first period, and gave his team their first lead of the series with a wraparound effort in the second. As he has all season, DeBoer took the good with the bad from Burns and continued to trust him. Burns' 36:48 in time on ice (TOI) on Saturday only trailed Marc-Edouard Vlasic (37:26). 

Kevin Labanc also struggled in Game 1 and parts of Game 2. Labanc's ice time dipped a bit in the first two overtime periods on Saturday, when DeBoer basically shortened the bench to three lines and rotated Labanc and Mikkel Boedker on Couture's wing. 

Yet, DeBoer kept Labanc on the top power play unit both times San Jose had a man advantage in the second overtime. The second-year forward, one of the league's best power play passers this season, assisted on the game-winner with a slip pass across the slot. 

Burns and Labanc rewarded DeBoer's patience, ensuring a series split before the teams renew pleasantries at SAP Center on Monday. The second round is far from over, and much farther than if the Sharks had returned home in a two-game hole. 

Examining the roles of five potential playoff debuts for Sharks

Examining the roles of five potential playoff debuts for Sharks

If the lines at the last two practices were any indication, three Sharks will make their Stanley Cup playoff debuts in Game 1 of the first round against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday. A fourth and fifth are waiting in the wings, setting San Jose up to potentially have the most players play in their first playoff game since 2011, when four players debuted. 

Let’s examine the roles all five will play for the Sharks during the playoffs, starting with the player who waited the longest to get there. 

Evander Kane

Kane will have played 574 regular season games across nine seasons before making his playoff debut on Thursday. That will be the second-longest active streak until Thursday, only five games shorter than Jeff Skinner’s 579-game drought. 

He missed two of the final three games with an undisclosed injury, and his return not only gives the Sharks a dominant top line, but better depth down the lineup as well. The top line should also draw most of the attention from the Ducks’ top pairing of Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson, leaving San Jose’s depth forwards an opportunity to capitalize on Anaheim’s depleted defense corps. 

Kevin Labanc

Labanc will be one of those depth forwards. A year after not suiting up and getting sent down to the AHL in the middle of a playoff series, the 22-year-old figures to be something of an ‘x-factor.’

He’s one of the league’s best passers on the power play, but is part of a third line, with Timo Meier and Chris Tierney, that will need to be more productive. Since Kane was acquired, the trio has been out-possessed, outshot, out-chanced, and outscored five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick, and the Sharks can ill afford that to continue against the Ducks. 

Dylan DeMelo

The third time’s finally the charm for DeMelo, who will draw into the playoff lineup after being a healthy scratch each of the last two postseasons. He’s arguably playing better than he has at any point in his Sharks career, as he and his partner, Brenden Dillon, formed a surprisingly offensive-minded third pairing over the final month of the season.

Continued offensive production would be a bonus, but San Jose will need DeMelo to limit opportunities against Anaheim’s bottom-six forwards. He’s spent most of his five-on-five time against third and fourth lines, and will have his hands full against the Ducks’ third line of Nick Ritchie, Adam Henrique, and Ondrej Kase, which has outscored opponents 17-5 in 364 five-on-five minutes together. Kase, in particular, will need to be contained, as no Anaheim forward scored five-on-five goals at a higher rate (1.36 per 60 minutes). 

Joakim Ryan

For much of the season, Ryan looked to be Alden Ehrenreich, the actor playing the young Han Solo, alongside Brent Burns’ Chewbacca. Instead, Harrison Ford Paul Martin staged a late-season comeback, and played the final 11 games of the year with his Wookiee co-pilot. 

Martin, much like Ford in The Force Awakens, slid pretty effortlessly back into his old role, as the pair has outpossessed, outshot, outchanced, and outscored opponents since reuniting on March 17. That left Ryan to deputize as the seventh defenseman, a role he’s arguably overqualified for, since his 56.14 percent expected goals-for percentage is best among Sharks defensemen that played at least 500 minutes. In other words, Sharks (and Star Wars) fans can rest easy about their new Han Solo when the time comes. 

Dylan Gambrell

Gambrell’s the longest shot to make his playoff debut, as he didn’t skate on any of the Sharks’ five lines at either of their playoff practices, according to reporters, nor did he debut until after San Jose clinched a playoff spot. With Eric Fehr set to return to the lineup after not playing since March 24, and Barclay Goodrow also skating, the fourth-line center position now seems set. 

But, the injury bug is always moments away from biting, and the rookie will need to be ready. He appeared a bit overmatched in his first three games, registering just one shot on goal and posting a 46.88 corsi-for percentage, but does have plenty of big-game experience after winning an NCAA title in 2017.

Surprising Sharks trio continues productive season in win vs Avalanche

Surprising Sharks trio continues productive season in win vs Avalanche

The Sharks owed the end of their four-game losing streak, tied for the longest this season, largely to the offensive contributions of a somewhat unexpected trio. 

Yes, Logan Couture, San Jose’s leading scorer and arguable MVP, gave his team a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. But, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc, and Justin Braun continued their surprisingly productive seasons with involvement on each of the Sharks’ three goals in Thursday night’s win against the Colorado Avalanche. 

Donskoi, arguably the least-unlikely of the bunch, scored what ended up being the game-winning goal. It was his 14th of the season, extending his in-progress career-high. Rather, we should say his NHL-high, but this year is still just the third time in his professional career he’s found the back of the net 14 (or more) times in a single season, and the first since his last season in Finland’s SM-liiga (19 goals in 2014-15). 

We’ve written at length about Donskoi’s importance this season, so we’ll sum it up with this: Among the forwards that have played 300-plus minutes five-on-five, only Logan Couture has scored primary points (goals and primary assists) at a higher rate per hour (1.65) than Donskoi (1.62), according to Natural Stat Trick, 

Labanc, meanwhile, assisted on Couture’s power-play goal prior to Donskoi’s. The second-year winger’s continued success on the power play shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, considering he racked up 102 of his 308 regular season and playoff points in junior on the man advantage. 

His continued opportunity, on the other hand, certainly is. Remember, Labanc was in the AHL as recently as November (albeit for a two-game stint) and was sent down to the Barracuda in the middle of the Sharks’ first-round series with the Oilers a year ago. San Jose banked on the 22-year-old taking a step forward in his second season, but surely didn’t expect him to become one of the league’s best setup men on the power play.

Labanc’s primary assiste rate (3.23 per hour) on the man advantage is 11th-best among skaters that have played at least 150 power play minutes this season and ahead of names like Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, John Tavares, and Steven Stamkos, among others. If you expected Labanc to keep that kind of company this season, would you mind pointing us in the direction of some lottery numbers? 

But of all the players who got on the scoresheet Thursday, Justin Braun’s undoubtedly been the biggest surprise this year. He opened the scoring with a deflected shot from the blueline, and set a new career-high with his fifth goal of the season. 

Braun added to his career-high in points, too, as the goal was his 33rd point of the season. That’s 10 points better than his previous best, which he reached twice in his only prior 20-point campaigns.

All of those points have come at even strength, too. While Braun’s undoubtedly benefited from a career-high in five-on-five ice time per game (17:23) as well the best five-on-five shooting percentage (4.63) of his career, he draws the same difficult defensive assignments as partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic and not nearly as much power play time. 

The blueliner’s five-on-five goal, assist, primary assist, and point rates are unsurprisingly all the best of his career, but his underlying numbers are solid, too. He is generating five-on-five shot attempts (10.39 per hour) and shots on goal (4.66 per hour) at a higher rate than all but his first two NHL seasons, while also attempting shots that result in rebounds (0.7 per hour) at a higher rate than all but two Sharks defenseman: Brent Burns and Dylan DeMelo. 

Braun’s been a key component of a surprisingly offensive defense corps. The Sharks are tied for second in the league with three defensemen that have scored 30-plus points. It’s only the second time San Jose’s had that many in franchise history, and the first time in nearly a decade (2008-09; four). 

Braun, as well as Donskoi and Labanc, played key roles offensively in Thursday’s pivotal win. That couldn’t have necessarily been expected at the start of the season, but has simply become the norm by now.