The Vegas Golden Knights have reached the playoffs for the second season in a row and, with one week remaining in the regular season, are locked in for a first-round matchup against the San Jose Sharks.
Vegas, the No. 3 seed in the Pacific Division, will start the series on the road against the second-seeded Sharks. Dates and times for the games will be announced at a later date. While the matchup became official Sunday night when the Calgary Flames clinched the Pacific Division title, the seeding in the division has been relatively consistent and has pointed to a Vegas-San Jose series for quite some time. That's made managing expectations easier for both teams.
"It's looked this way for the last three weeks," said head coach Gerard Gallant. "Neither team is surprised and we're both going to be ready."
The Golden Knights and Sharks began their regular season series on Nov. 24 when Vegas picked up a 6-0 victory at T-Mobile Arena. The teams met again in Vegas on Jan. 10 as the Sharks picked up a 3-2 win. The Golden Knights ran up the score on March 18 at SAP Center in a 7-3 win against the Sharks. San Jose responded with a physical 4-3 win in overtime on March 30 as they teams sowed the seeds of competition ahead of their first-round meeting.
"I think we have a nice rivalry against them," said forward Jonathan Marchessault. "They're one of the best teams in the league so it's going to be a great challenge for us. We know how to play the right way and we will play the right way. We just have to be smart."
Sharks goaltender Martin Jones has conceded eight goals in three appearances to the Golden Knights while Aaron Dell has allowed nine goals in two appearances against Vegas.
Vegas can enter the series with a sense of confidence that they can score effectively against the Sharks, but Marchessault said that you can't count out any goalie in the NHL.
"Any goalie can get beat, but Jones is a great goalie," Marchessault said. "We have to make his job difficult and if we can do that, we should be fine."
During the regular season, Reilly Smith posted a team-high seven points (1G, 6A) against San Jose including a four-point night on March 18. William Karlsson led the team in goals with three while Marchessault, Max Pacioretty and Cody Eakin each scored twice against the Sharks.
While many are looking ahead to what's going to happen in that first round series, the focus of the players remains on the final three games of the regular season. Neglecting opportunities late in the season to improve for the playoffs can spell trouble for any team in the first round. Pacioretty said that his team will prepare for the playoffs but doing the little things well at the end of the regular season.
"There's a fine line between trying to do too much and not doing enough," Pacioretty said. "We want to play these last three games with a ton of intensity and then we'll have a little bit of a gap to rest up for playoffs."
Pacioretty added that, as he observed the Golden Knights run to the Stanley Cup Final last season from afar, many people counted them out in each series they played. Now that Vegas has proven it can play with any team in the league, the team's sights remain set on winning the Stanley Cup regardless of how far other people think the Golden Knights will go.
"This year is a bit of a different beast because the expectation has been there since day one for us to succeed, especially in the playoffs," Pacioretty said. "Managing expectations can be difficult at this time of the year but it's important that we keep the same mindset we've had and just worry about one game at a time."