The Vegas Golden Knights had likely expected their first round series with the San Jose Sharks to be over by now. After they throttled the Sharks in Game 4 at T-Mobile Arena they were up 3-1 with Game 5 in San Jose and Game 6 back in Las Vegas. The Knights had dominated San Jose on home ice–prior to Game 6 Vegas held a 7-2-0 lifetime edge in head to head play at the T-Mobile Arena having outscored San Jose by 27 goals in those games. San Jose won Game 5 easily at home and took a double overtime decision in Vegas to even the series at 3-3 and set up tonight’s Game 7 on the Sharks’ home ice.
Although it was Tomas Hertl who scored the game winning goal midway through the second overtime–the first shorthanded game winner in a second overtime in NHL history–Sharks’ goaltender Martin Jones gave him the opportunity. Jones had a stellar night limiting Vegas to one goal despite facing 59 shots in just over 90 minutes of hockey. To employ an overused sports metaphor Jones ‘carried his team on his back’ as the statistics underscore the fact that Vegas completely outplayed the Sharks despite the loss. Vegas limited the Sharks to 29 shots on goal making it a +30 shot advantage for the game. The Knights won 57 faceoffs to 44 for San Jose. Most lopsided of all was the ‘hots’ stat which went in favor of the Golden Knights 80-39. Of course, outplaying your opponent or ‘winning the statistical battle’ means very little if the other team wins the game.
It’s interesting to note that despite Vegas’ unprecedented run to the Stanley Cup Finals last season this will be the first playoff Game 7 in franchise history. Advantage San Jose, right? Not so fast. The Sharks are now feeling all of the pressure and having forced a decisive game at the SAP Center they’re now in a position where they’re ‘supposed to win’. That’s what teams do when they get a Game 7 on home ice, right? For a team that for a long time was synonymous with choking in the playoffs the Sharks have a decent record in Game 7. They’re 6-4 overall and 3-1 on home ice. Statistically, however, the home advantage in Game 7 isn’t as pronounced as you might think with a record of 96-71 for 57.5%.
While this will be the Golden Knights’ first ever Game 7 they have a significant edge in ‘big game experience’ at arguably the most crucial position on the ice. Martin Jones is a first rate goalie to be sure, but his postseason experience is extremely limited. He was part of the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup winning team in 2014 but saw little action during the postseason. His job then was to back up Jonathan Quick. That was essentially why he left Los Angeles–he was too good to be a backup goalie. Quick saw action in only 2 games of the 2014 playoffs and none in the finals.
He’s been involved in several postseason runs with the Sharks since arriving in San Jose with the most significant being a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season with the team. He did win a Game 7 during that run but significant to note that it’s the only decisive game start of his career. Jones has appeared in 40 playoff games as a member of the Sharks but since the finals appearance San Jose hasn’t made it past the second round.
On the other end of the ice, the Vegas Golden Knights will start Marc-Andre Fleury and he has a very impressive ‘big game’ resume at all levels of hockey. He’s appeared in 124 postseason NHL games, most as a starter. He won three Stanley Cups as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He spent most of the 2016 Cup run as a backup to Matt Murray but started 58 of 82 regular season games. He was a key component of the other two championships–he started 34 of 82 regular season games in 2016-2017 and 15 of 25 playoff games. In the Penguins 2009 Stanley Cup win he was huge starting 61 regular season games and all 24 playoff games. He won two Game 7s on the road that season–the Eastern Semifinals against the Washington Capitals and the Finals against the Detroit Red Wings. Outside of the NHL, he’s got an Olympic Gold Medal with Canada and two very strong performances in the 2003 and 2004 World Junior Championships. In 2003, he was named the ‘top goalie’ and ‘MVP’ for the tournament despite Canada having to settle for a silver medal.
In what appears to be a closely matched game the extensive big game experience of Fleury could be a difference maker. Vegas didn’t get the bounces in Game 6 despite outplaying the Sharks but we’ll wager they’ll get some here.