SAN JOSE — The verdict is in: the Vegas Golden Knights are good.
When the Sharks last faced the Golden Knights on Nov. 24, no one knew what to expect from the expansion team that put itself into a playoff spot at Thanksgiving. Would the Golden Knights regress to the mean over an 82-game schedule or did general manager George McPhee build a true contender by finding a collection of the NHL’s fastest second and third liners in the expansion draft?
The Golden Knights (36-14-4) entered Thursday’s game at SAP Center holding a 10-point lead atop the Pacific Division standings and they showed why, erasing a third period deficit against the Sharks.
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Here’s what we learned as the Sharks (28-18-8) dropped a 5-3 decision to the most-successful expansion team in the history of American pro sports.
1. The Sharks waste another dominant first period.
Someone forgot to tell the Sharks that Groundhog Day was last week.
Two days after the Sharks failed to capitalize on a dominant first period in Colorado, they let another ice-tilting opening frame go to waste against the Vegas Golden Knights, triggering memories of the movie Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray lives the same day over and over and over again.
The Sharks went into the first intermission in a scoreless tie Tuesday after outshooting the Colorado Avalanche 14-3. On Thursday, they held a 16-3 shot edge after 20 minutes, but found themselves in a 1-1 tie after the Golden Knights scored on their second shot at the 14-minute mark.
After the Sharks kept the Golden Knights off the shot clock for 15:58, David Perron recorded his team’s first shot before Erik Haula put in the second off a rebound just two seconds later.
The goal negated Joe Pavelski’s 11th of the season, which came off a redirection of a Brent Burns shot at 4:40 of the first.
“Same story as last game in Colorado,” head coach Pete DeBoer said.
“If you play like that in the first period, you should come out up, and we don’t. That hurts. There’s no doubt about that. Is that the story of the game? No. But it hurts.”
The story of the game, according to Logan Couture, was the Sharks inability to close it out after Pavelski gave them a 3-2 lead at 7:45 of the third.
“You’re up 3-2 with (11) minutes left. You don’t need anymore goals,” the Sharks alternate captain said.
2. DeBoer defends Burns.
The Golden Knights came back in the third by capitalizing on a pair of defensive miscues.
Brayden McNabb tied the game at 9:36 by fooling Burns with a fake slapshot before driving to the net to beat goalie Martin Jones on the near side.
Then, Burns got lost on a give-and-go play between James Neal and David Perron at 15:10, allowing the Golden Knights to jump ahead 4-3.
DeBoer defended Burns’ two-way play after the game.
“He’s our most dynamic guy,” the Sharks coach said. “We ask him to do a lot at both ends of the rink. There’s some nights where he’s on the right end of those decisions, and he makes an unbelievable play to give us a lead in the third.
“I know where you’re going with the question. You write whatever you want, but a lot of nights he’s our best player. When you ask a guy to do as much as we ask him to do you’re going to make mistakes, and I’m not going to point out every one of them.”
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DeBoer, who isn’t shy about criticizing his younger players in the press, gives Burns a hall pass for a couple of reasons: he’s the team’s offensive engine and he’s hypersensitive.
In November, former-Sharks assistant coach Bob Boughner said that Burns puts a lot of pressure on himself because he hates letting his teammates down. After mistakes, Burns has been known to “let it bother him for the next 10 minutes.”
Burns’ former-defensive partner, Paul Martin, said the entire bench tries to pick Burns up after a mistake because he takes it so hard.
That said, DeBoer knows who needs a pat on the back and which players require a smack on the butt. Burns is definitely the former.
Here’s how sensitive he got after taking a question about the go-ahead goal Thursday:
“What happened on that play between you and (Justin) Braun, that little mix up there?”
“The last goal, the game-winning goal, the fourth goal?”
“The empty net?”
“By James Neal?”
“The last goal?
“The empty net?”
“Not the empty net, the fourth goal?”
“What happened on it?”
Burns eventually ended the Abbott and Costello routine by saying: “I just fell.”
Truthfully, DeBoer will swallow Burns’ defensive miscues because he’s one of the league’s most-creative defensemen and the Sharks desperately need his offense.
Burns is the centerpiece of the Sharks attack; the entire offense feeds off his shot, his passing vision from the point and his ability to move the puck in transition.
He set up the Pavelski’s first goal by getting the puck through traffic with his quick release. The blue liner also got Pavelski an easy goal on the power play in the third by skating down the right wing and hitting him with a seam pass through the crease.
Burns’ shot also opened the door to Timo Meier 13th goal at 11:47 of the second.
If DeBoer could replace Burns with a Marc-Edouard Vlasic clone, you can bet that he wouldn’t make the trade because he needs the reigning-Norris Trophy winner’s production, especially with Joe Thornton sidelined by a right-knee injury.
The Sharks are still struggling to score five-on-five goals (27th) and Burns is the catalyst of their fourth-ranked power play.
“I don’t know what we’d create if we didn’t have him out here,” DeBoer said.
3. DeBoer holds his tongue on questionable hits.
DeBoer let the referees know exactly what he thought of Nate Schmidt’s hit on Ward in the second.
Ward left the game with an apparent right-shoulder injury at 8:40 after the Golden Knights defenseman drove him into the boards head first as he was making a play on the puck. DeBoer could be seen barking at the referees from the bench.
The Sharks coach also let the referees have it when Couture got hit in the teeth by Reilly Smith as he was skating through the neutral zone. Couture left the game and came back.
DeBoer could be seen telling the referees, “that should be five (minutes).”
“I’m speechless on some of the stuff that went on on that end tonight,” the Sharks coach said.