LAS VEGAS — The list of problems was long already for the San Jose Sharks. Starts of games and periods. Goaltending. Special teams. Injuries.
And now center Joe Thornton, the NHL’s active leading scorer (1,478 points) and San Jose’s emotional leader, has been suspended one game for an illegal check to the head.
After back-to-back losses to the Vegas Golden Knights by a combined score of 11-6, the Sharks are behind 2-1 entering Game 4 of the best-of-7 Western Conference First Round at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVAS2, ATTSN-RM, NBCSCA).
“Things get a little harder now in our position, but guys need to rise to the challenge,” forward Joe Pavelski said. “I’m confident this group will do that. We’ve shown in the past that it’s a proud room in there and we like to compete. We should be better.”
They must be better from the opening face-off.
In 17 games between these teams in the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Golden Knights have scored the first goal in the first five minutes nine times. In five of the past six periods, they have scored in the first 91 seconds. In each period of Game 3, they scored in the first 36 seconds.
“Obviously we’re not ready to start the period,” center Logan Couture said. “If it happens once or twice, you can say, ‘Oh, that’s a coincidence.’ But when it’s five of six or wherever we’re at now, obviously it’s a problem and we need to resolve that.”
Take the first shift of Game 3: Defenseman Erik Karlsson missed Pavelski with a pass up the right-wing boards. The Golden Knights ended up gaining possession. Couture said he thought the Sharks were in a neutral-zone forecheck, so he went after forward Mark Stone, expecting help behind. But Karlsson and partner Brenden Dillon read the play differently and were outside the dots.
Stone took a pass, sped behind Couture, split the defense and shoveled a backhand shot past goalie Martin Jones.
Sixteen seconds in, the Sharks were behind 1-0 and chasing the game.
“It’s an issue against this team, so we have to find a way,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “We’ll talk about it some more. But it’s a mindset that you know that they’re coming. You know we have to do a better job of handling that.”
DeBoer pointed out that San Jose created chances early in periods too, but Vegas got saves from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury whereas the puck ended up in the Sharks’ net.
Jones struggled against the Golden Knights in the Sharks’ six-game, second-round loss last year (2-4, 3.13 goals-against average, .895 save percentage). He struggled against them in the regular season (2-0-0, 3.62 GAA, .893 save percentage) while struggling overall (36-19-5, 2.94 GAA, .896 save percentage).
And he’s struggling against them again in this series (1-1, 5.23 GAA, .849 save percentage). He’s drifting instead of setting his feet and losing his angle, and the Golden Knights are beating him high repeatedly.
The Sharks have allowed the Golden Knights to go 4-for-13 on the power play (30.8 percent) in this series. San Jose has gone 3-for-16 (18.8 percent) on the power play but has allowed two shorthanded goals.
Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic has not skated since being struck high by a shot early in the second period of Game 2. Forward Michael Haley left Game 3 after blocking a shot early in the second period; DeBoer said X-rays looked negative and that Vlasic and Haley were each day to day.
Karlsson said he felt great; DeBoer said it was not because of his leg. But Karlsson, who missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games with groin injuries, went from playing 29:08 in Game 2 to playing 20:54 in Game 3 even in the absence of Vlasic. He leads the Sharks in scoring with five points, all assists, but has been on the ice for nine of the past 11 Vegas goals.
Thornton’s absence will be significant. He is the heartbeat of the locker room, causes matchup problems as the third-line center and elevates the play of his wingers, and he’s on the first power play. He has three points (one goal, two assists) in the series. Without him, Pavelski could move from first-line right wing to center.
That’s a lot of negative. But find a way to win Game 4, and the Sharks will tie the series 2-2, regain home-ice advantage and change the narrative heading back for Game 5 at SAP Center on Thursday.
“We know what we are in that room,” Karlsson said. “And now we just have to bring it.”