The Golden Knights’ 7-0 demolition of the San Jose Sharks in the opener of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series was a clinic on how to succeed in today’s NHL.
Using their speed to befuddle the Sharks’ defense and taking advantage of the remarkable balance they’ve cultivated in their short existence, the disciplined Golden Knights ran their postseason record to 5-0 with a powerful start against the Sharks, who looked nothing like the cohesive group that swept the slow, stodgy Ducks out of the first round.
“It was unexpected, for sure,” said forward Erik Haula, the second of Vegas’ seven goal scorers.
The Sharks became the Ducks and not in a good way: Sharks forward Evander Kane took a foolish cross-checking major penalty and got a game misconduct for striking Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in the face in the third period, and the NHL might add a suspension to that. San Jose gave Vegas 10 power plays and paid dearly for it, helping the Golden Knights score as many goals in one game as they totaled in sweeping the Kings out of the first round.
San Jose coach Peter DeBoer, noting this was the first adversity faced by his team this spring, said he wasn’t discouraged by the huge margin of defeat, which matched a club playoff record. “I don’t think the gap is what the scoreboard said tonight,” he said. “You don’t get extra points for winning by a touchdown.”
That early success got the fans at T-Mobile Arena into the game quickly and at full voice, making them another big obstacle the Sharks couldn’t overcome. “I can’t even describe how loud it was. It was chilling. It was nuts,” Vegas forward Alex Tuch said.
It was Golden Knights hockey: fast and furious and supported by a strong effort by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 33 shots to record his second straight playoff shutout. By the third period he was relaxed enough to join in when sections of fans behind him did the wave. “I may have done it once,” he said, smiling. “Kind of, yeah. I’ve always been a big fan of the wave.”
The Golden Knights did another kind of wave, coming at the Sharks with speed and purpose from their first shift. Both teams had enjoyed a week off after the first round but the Golden Knights were by far sharper.
The rout began when Cody Eakin displayed good hand-eye coordination to redirect a shot by former King defenseman Brayden
McNabb past Jones for Vegas’ first goal, at 4:31. Merely 26 seconds later, Tuch carried the puck up the right side and dropped it for Haula, who flicked the puck inside the far post for a 2-0 lead. At 6:02, Jonathan Marchessault capitalized on a turnover by San Jose in the neutral zone to make it 3-0, set up nicely by Reilly Smith in the first of Smith’s three assists.
And still the Golden Nights kept coming, with Tuch splitting the defense to score a power-play goal at 11:43. Jones’ night ended, mercifully for him, after former Duck Shea Theodore finished off a slick passing play by lifting a backhander over Jones’ left arm at 3:28 of the second period. Jones, who was replaced by Aaron Dell, had given up only four goals to the Ducks in San Jose’s first-round sweep.
Maybe the Kings should feel better about having fallen only one goal short in each of their first-round losses to the first-year Knights, who are playing like a proven playoff performer and — gasp — legitimate Cup contender.
“We talked about having a good first shift and I thought every guy did that tonight. I thought we went to the net well. We did good things,” Vegas forward James Neal said.
A lot of good things. And they said the right things too. This might be their first playoff run together, but the Golden Knights are well-versed in the etiquette of playoff hockey. Asked if Thursday’s result might be indicative of how the series will go, Haula shook his head. “I wouldn’t say that. Tonight was tonight,” he said. “They’re going to be a lot better the next game, we know that and we’re going to have to be better as well.”
Neal, who reached the Cup Final last spring with Nashville, said the same thing. “They’re going to be a hungry team, they’re going to be a lot better so they’re going to put that one behind them quick and looking to be a better hockey team. So we’ve got to be ready,” he said.
They were more than ready Thursday, and it was an impressive sight.