Thursday night’s matchup between the Golden Knights and the San Jose Sharks lived up to its billing. A division rivalry game, between two teams separated by just one point in the standings, is sure to bring out the best effort from both teams. The game was a back-and-forth affair, with both teams going through prolonged stretches of sustained offensive zone pressure. Eventually the Sharks came away with a 3-2 victory, catapulting them into second place in the Pacific Division and pushing Vegas down to third.
Vegas landed the first blow 1:34 into the game when a well-placed Ryan Reaves shot, rebounded perfectly to a streaking Tomas Nosek on the opposite wing. Nosek sent the rebound past a recovering Martin Jones. San Jose started the game off strong with a good first period. Although the Sharks were outshot 13-10 in the opening period, their Corsi For of 55.8% shows an edge in play driving and general shot generation. The Sharks pushed hard to even up the game, but the first period ended with Vegas holding a 1-0 lead.
Tomas Hertl (USA Today Sports)
San Jose went on to tie the game in the middle frame. Tomas Hertl scored on a dazzling wrist shot at 14:05 of the second period. Hertl took the puck into the zone and whipped his shot past Marc-Andre Fleury, high blocker-side. Hertl’s opportunity came from Nate Schmidt’s attempt to chip the puck out of the Vegas zone, due to the forecheck of Evander Kane. Schmidt cleared the zone, but right to Hertl. Kane hustled to get out of the zone as Hertl took the puck back in, and then tied the game at 1-1. The Golden Knights generally outplayed San Jose in the second, but the only goal was scored by the Sharks.
Just as the first two periods, the third brought a decent number of scoring chances for both teams. Vegas was the first team to strike in the third, breaking the 1-1 tie, courtesy of a Jon Merrill wrist shot, 2:16 into the final period. The goal was Merrill’s first of the season, a well-deserved goal for Merrill, who has been filling in admirably for the injured Colin Miller. Merrill went through some initial growing pains with the Golden Knights and found himself as the target of a majority of fans’ ire, but he has been an integral part of the team of late, playing extremely well in Miller’s absence.
Brandon Pirri (USA Today Sports)
Picking up the primary assist on Merrill’s goal was Vegas’ newfound celebrity, Brandon Pirri. Pirri has been electric since his call up from the AHL, initially due to Max Pacioretty’s status on the Injured Reserve. Pirri came into the game with 10 points (7g, 3a) in eight games. Despite his point production, the Golden Knights have shown more of a desire to keep his waiver-exempt status intact, than leave him in the lineup permanently. Pirri was sent back to Chicago (AHL) upon Pacioretty’s from the IR, although he was the leading scorer for Vegas at the time of the decision (9 points in 7 games). Pirri was called back into action when William Carrier came out of the lineup due to an illness. With the assist, Pirri is now on his second four-game point streak of the season, with his sole point-less game in Los Angeles on December 29th nestled in between. If Pirri remains in the lineup for Saturday’s game versus the Chicago Blackhawks, he will need to pass through waivers if sent back to the AHL, something the Golden Knights have been looking to avoid. This will be something interesting to monitor as the team remains without Reilly Smith and Carrier. Center Cody Eakin was also held out of the Sharks game, with Valentin Zykov getting his first game as a Golden Knight. If Vegas chooses to reassign Pirri to the AHL, Zykov will most likely be the player who steps into his role.
Vegas’ lead would be short-lived, as San Jose erased their advantage five minutes after the Merrill goal. Melker Karlsson (not Erik), tied the game at two goals apiece, when he buried a Brent Burns rebound, into the wide-open net behind Fleury, past a diving Nick Holden. Like Nosek’s opening goal for Vegas, the Sharks capitalized with attentive net front play. Less than a minute later, the Sharks took the lead, and for good. Joonas Donstoi’s game-winning goal may be the easiest he has ever scored in his career. The Sharks were threatening at the net front, with Evander Kane, Hertl, and Donstoi in the area. Hertl jumped the loose puck, drifter across the slot, and sent a wrist shot off Donstoi and into the net. Good net front pressure led to both San Jose goals in the third. This lead change may be a good teaching point for Gallant’s crew, as the Golden Knights are a team that tends to rely on outside, perimeter play a bit too often.
Vegas would go on to have a few high danger chances, attempting to tie the game, but Martin Jones was able to hold off the attack. One chance stood out more than the others, as Brandon Pirri rang a shot of the goal post, on a 2-on-1 with Paul Stastny. His shot beat Jones, with plenty of space between the goaltender and the post, but it caught iron. Fortunately for Jones, the timing worked out perfectly, so that the puck shooting off the post barely missed hitting him in the back which would have sent it into the net. In their final push, Gerard Gallant pulled Fleury for the extra attacker while on the power play. In a version of next-level aggressiveness, Gallant sent out six forwards with the net empty, looking to even up the score. The six forwards were Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Alex Tuch, Brandon Pirri, and Paul Stastny. With the top guys used up, Vegas sent out Ryan Reaves, Oscar Lindberg, and Ryan Carpenter still down a goal, with a minute left to play. None of those men are known as offensive dynamos and San Jose held on to win the game.
In a game featuring two high-level teams, fans were treated to everything you would expect. Both teams had great chances and the game held a solid, consistent pace. Fans in the T-Mobile Arena were on the edge of their seats and the arena had the feeling of a playoff game. San Jose and Vegas will meet again on March 18th in San Jose, in a game that will have more immediate playoff implications. For now, the Sharks find themselves ahead of Vegas in the standings and it will be a wild ride to the next matchup. In the interim, it will be interesting to see how the Golden Knights approach the Brandon Pirri dilemma. Do they send down one of their most efficient forwards to keep him waiver-exempt, or do they continue to utilize him, trying to win as many points as possible.
Forward Alex Tuch extended his current point streak to eight games with a secondary assist on the Merrill goal. Erik Karlsson’s 14-game point streak ended in Vegas, as he was held off the score sheet. Karlsson racked up 24 points (1g, 23a) over his previous 14 games. San Jose was held without a power play goal, a true accomplishment, coming into the game operating at 25%. Neither team converted on a power play opportunity. Vegas outshot San Jose by a 38-27 margin, a common occurrence for the Golden Knights. With the loss, the Golden Knights’ seven-game win streak was snapped.
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