Sharks' game vs. Golden Knights good barometer for division standings

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USATSI

Sharks' game vs. Golden Knights good barometer for division standings

Fans probably don't want to talk about it. Or just wish it never happened. But it wasn't that long ago that the Sharks opened up their 2019-20 campaign with a home-and-home against the Golden Knights, plunging the team into a 0-2-0 hole.

Fast forward to late November and San Jose, while just recently having a six-game winning streak snapped, still is trying to dig themselves out of that hole. They find themselves, once again, facing off against their rivals from Vegas. And while the Knights have run into their own share of roadblocks through the early part of the season, they're still four points ahead of the Sharks in the Pacific Division standings.

Thursday's game is a big test for San Jose. One that can expose whether the Sharks have a chance of completely crawling out of the division cellar.

Vegas is only 3-4-2 in the month of November and went on a five-game losing skid while the Sharks were stringing wins together. They haven't been very healthy either, with everyone from Cody Eakins to Marc-Andre Fleury being sidelined with injuries through the first month and a half of the season. 

That being said, the Knights have won their last two contests, having shut out the Flames 6-0 and upending the downtrodden Maple Leafs 4-2. In the process, they have wiggled their way into third place in the Pacific Division standings.

Plus -- while fans probably hate to admit this -- the Knights have a way of getting into the Sharks' heads. Through just 10 regular-season contests between the two teams, San Jose is 3-6-1 and has given up an average of 4.1 goals per game.

While the sample size is small, it's still the largest goals-against margin the Sharks have against any team in the entire league.

Facing off against a tough Vegas team isn't the only obstacle San Jose will face on Thursday night -- they will also be missing one of their top forwards. Tomas Hertl will miss Thursday's contest at T-Mobile Arena with a lower-body injury, forcing the Sharks to shuffle up their lines and add Antti Suomela -- who has yet to play an NHL this season -- into the mix.

Losing a player like Hertl, who ranks second on the team with 21 points, will put even more pressure on San Jose when it comes to scoring against a Vegas squad that has outscored them 41-23 over the course of two-plus seasons.

Needless to say, San Jose's defense has to be significantly tighter against Vegas than it was on Tuesday night against the Oilers. Edmonton's forward attack had little problem skating through the neutral zone, and if San Jose isn't careful, they could fall into the same trap against Vegas.

[RELATED: Hertl out, Dell to start in net for Sharks vs. Vegas]

Not to mention that the Oilers got production from all four of their lines and aren't a team known for having depth at the forward position. If the Sharks had trouble containing that team, what's going to happen against a Golden Knights team that regularly rolls out four lines?

This isn't to say the Sharks have no chance of defeating the Knights on Thursday night. It is a big test, however, that can show exactly where San Jose stands this season. If the first two games of the season are any indication, Thursday's game could get ugly in a hurry.

Tomas Hertl out, Aaron Dell starts in net for Sharks vs. Golden Knights

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Tomas Hertl out, Aaron Dell starts in net for Sharks vs. Golden Knights

If the Sharks plan to bounce back Thursday against the Golden Knights, they will do so without one of their most important players.

Forward Tomas Hertl will not play Thursday when the Sharks face their rivals at T-Mobile Arena, head coach Peter DeBoer told the media.

The Czech forward has been battling minor knee soreness and left the Sharks' loss to the Edmonton Oilers early Tuesday after getting tangled and falling to the ice during the third period. He left the ice with an ankle injury.

DeBoer made sure to note Hertl is not missing Thursday's game due to a knee injury.

Losing Hertl is big for the Sharks. The 26-year-old has notched 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in 22 games this season.

With Hertl out, Antti Suomela will make his season debut, centering the fourth line with Dylan Gambrell and Lukas Radil.

[RELATED: Sharks reflect on end of six-game winning streak]

Aaron Dell will get the start in net as the Sharks look to get back on the winning horse after having their winning streak snapped by the Oilers.

Why Erik Karlsson's mysterious absence from Sharks signals red alert

Why Erik Karlsson's mysterious absence from Sharks signals red alert

Editor's note: This was published before Erik Karlsson announced that his wife gave birth to a baby girl, explaining his absence from Wednesday's season opener.

Red alert.

The Sharks looked terrible in their season-opening loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday. There's no way around it. And while it's irrational to jump to conclusions based on the first of 82 regular-season games, these are not rational times.

That's because one of the major positives you could point to from the Sharks' offseason -- re-signing All-Star defenseman Erik Karlsson to an eight-year contract -- was mysteriously missing from that lackluster opening-night effort, and that mystery has yet to be cleared up as of yet.

About an hour before puck drop, it was announced that Karlsson would miss Wednesday's game due to personal reasons. On Thursday, San Jose coach Pete DeBoer couldn't and/or wouldn't provide any additional information on the defenseman's status.

Red alert.

Obviously, Karlsson's well-being is the most important thing here, and the Sharks already are doing the right thing in supporting him by allowing him to do what he needs to do and be where he needs to be -- whatever and wherever that means.

But, there's no ignoring the fact that Karlsson is arguably San Jose's best player and absolutely essential to the team's success in the season ahead. While there was nothing to suggest Karlsson absence was at all injury-related, it's also notable that he had offseason groin surgery after missing considerable portions of his first season with the Sharks.

San Jose already is without suspended winger Evander Kane, and both Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc left Wednesday's game in the third period with injuries. That said, Kane's suspension will be up after two more games, and both Meier and Labanc were back at practice Thursday, so their absences will be brief, if at all.

[RELATED: Ex-Shark Braun embracing Flyers' youth after summer trade]

Karlsson's, though, seems considerably less definite, and until more information is provided, the Sharks and their fans will be holding their collective breaths.

And they should be. He's that important.