In the biggest story in sports since Leicester City captured soccer’s English Premier League in 2016, the Vegas Golden Knights take Step 3 in their run to the Stanley Cup championship when they meet the San Jose Sharks in the Pacific Division Final.
The Golden Knights (55-24-7, including playoffs) won the season series, 3-1, including a victory in the teams’ last meeting on March 31. It was Vegas’ final home game, with the opportunity to clinch the division title (Step 1) at home (they did, 3-2), while the Sharks lost an opportunity to claim a postseason berth.
Obviously, San Jose (49-27-10 inc. SCP) gained a playoff slot shortly thereafter, then scored a surprising sweep of the Anaheim Ducks, while Vegas used the broom on the Los Angeles Kings (Step 2).
However, the Sharks’ record in big games is historically poor, including this season. There was the above-mentioned game with Vegas, then blowing a chance to clinch second place in the division on the final weekend of the regular season.
So who will win in the Battle of Steel vs. Teal?
Goalies: Vegas’ first-round pairing with L.A. featured two goalies with five combined Stanley Cups, including three by the Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury. This time, it’s a combined four.
Technically, San Jose’s Martin Jones also has his name engraved as a Cup champion. As a Kings backup in 2014, Jones only played 56 minutes without allowing a goal, then back-stopped the Sharks to the Cup Final before falling to Fleury and Pittsburgh two years later.
In Round 1, Fleury allowed a mere three goals (0.65 GAA), while Jones yielded four (1.00). Both own save percentages of 97 percent, so goals figure to come at a premium.
Forwards: Why have the Golden Knights become a co-favorite to hoist the Cup? Four lines, which head coach Gerard Gallant continues to roll – almost no matter what an opponent runs onto the ice.
One of the lines features William “Wild Bill” Karlsson, who was recently nominated among the three finalists for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. The others are Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers and Ryan O’Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres.
A concern for Vegas: forwards scored a mere five goals against L.A., who are arguably the best defensive team in hockey. San Jose saw scoring from the centers on all four lines vs. Anaheim, including three by Tomas Hertl, while Logan Couture led with five points. Also scoring three times were LWs Evander Kane and Marcus Sorensen.
Blue Line: Vegas youngster Shea Theodore has been a breakthrough performer over the past two months.
Still, the Knights take too many penalties, even though they often get bailed out by Fleury. San Jose is aging on defense, committing too many turnovers in the neutral zone.
I love the Sharks’ Brent Burns, a multiple all-star in his stellar career, but his retirement should’ve come after last season.
Coaching: VGK skipper Gerard Gallant should be NHL Coach of the Year. Period. The Sharks’ Peter DeBoer has taken two clubs to the Finals (New Jersey ‘12, San Jose ‘16), yet both occurred in his first season in town. Did he inherit talented teams or did he provide the magic to get over the top?
Both bench bosses also once headed the Florida Panthers for three seasons; DeBoer went 103-107-36; Gallant, 96-64-25 before getting fired – with a winning record! – in Year 3.
Experience: Vegas: none – until sweeping L.A. last week. San Jose: one of NHL’s biggest playoff busts in history until finally reaching the SC Final two seasons ago before falling to the Penguins.
Prediction: Vegas in 6 games.