- Since the league switched its opening round to a best-of-seven format in 1986-87, San Jose-Vegas marks the only instance when both second-round opponents are directly coming off sweeps.
It has been exactly seven days since the Vegas Golden Knights’ last playoff game, an interminable hiatus that defenseman Nate Schmidt has filled with important tasks. First he finished some long-awaited backyard renovations, setting up patio furniture, installing the spa-adjacent television, overseeing the last bit of landscaping. And on this afternoon? “Just cleaning out the pool,” he says. “It’s 90 degrees. I’m going to be laying on my floatie watching Entourage.”
Five hundred miles away, San Jose coach Pete DeBoer is getting pretty Pete DeBored. (He enjoys binging sitcoms as much as anyone, just not during the postseason.) Like their new divisional rivals in the desert, the Sharks clinched their first-round series in four games last week and have been waiting around ever since. The two teams will meet next, a trip to the Western Conference finals at stake. DeBoer wishes they could just do the damn thing already. “We’re pretty much all pre-scouted out.,” he says. “You love the prep time. You always say you never have enough. But I think two or three days is usually enough and you’re ready to go.”
In a way, this is uncharted ice for everyone. Since the league switched its opening round to a best-of-seven format in 1986-87, San Jose-Vegas marks the only instance when both second-round opponents are directly coming off sweeps. Now in his 10th NHL season, DeBoer had never presided over a brooming until the Sharks beat Anaheim, meaning that he never knew how to handle this kind of break either. “You’re winging it a little bit,” he says. “I don't know if there is a right way.”
Housed in the shadows of Silicon Valley, his team is tapping into technology for an advantage. Many clubs track heart rates at practice using wearable monitors, but the Sharks are asking players to dial it up a notch during this layoff and mimic “game-like workloads” in lieu of the real thing. “We’ve been in the rhythm of playing every other day, so we set our practice schedule to mirror that,” DeBoer says. “The data we got back confirmed what we were trying to do.”
Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant took a slightly different approach, scheduling two days off after beating Los Angeles. Owner Bill Foley hosted a family barbecue. Bellemare played travel agent, arranging flights for relatives in Europe. The players recently held a golf event and occasionally gathered for dinners at Schmidt’s souped-up pad, lounging on that golden goose floatie. Practices were intense once they resumed, but didn’t last noticeably longer than during the regular season; video meetings are also short and sweet. Punch in, punch out, hit the pool.
“That’s the tough part about it,” Schmidt says. “It’s been so long, right? It’s almost like an extra bye week. At least us and San Jose are doing it together.”
Not that anyone on either side has griped on about receiving more rest. The Golden Knights’ massage therapist has been booked solid for days, Schmidt says, as players seek preventative treatments. The longer San Jose waits, meanwhile, the closer center Joe Thornton comes to recovering from an MCL injury. (“He sees the finish line on the horizon,” DeBoer says. “He wants to be around and be involved.”) Whichever team emerges must then face the winner of two powerhouses, Nashville-Winnipeg. Better gulp down a deep breath first. “You take advantage as much as you can,” Schmidt says. We’d love for [a sweep] to happen again. But it’s not realistic.”
Indeed, the Golden Knights and Sharks appear too closely matched for that outcome. Both received stellar goaltending in the first round--Marc-Andre Fleury’s .977 save percentage ranks first among playoff netminders, followed by Martin Jones’ .970--and rely offensively on swift counterattacks that all but teleport through the neutral zone. “That’s both of our styles to a tee,” says Schmidt, the Vegas ice time leader likely responsible for marking San Jose’s toothy top trio of Evander Kane, Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi. “Four lines that can all move.”
The Sharks went 1-2-1 against Vegas during the regular season, beginning with an overtime loss along the Strip in November. “I was surprised,” DeBoer says. “They were off to a good start and everyone was mumbling and whispering whether it was real, whether the wheels were going to fall off. I remember walking out of the rink, thinking that their game was for real. It wasn’t based around one guy or a power play being hot, or them getting unreal goaltending while getting outplayed. Their game was real and that’s been consistent all year.”
San Jose has noticeably limbered up after getting blitzed by Pittsburgh for the 2016 Stanley Cup, both in systematic style and player personnel. (See: Kane, Donskoi, and superb Swedish rookie Marcus Sorensen.) The Golden Knights thus present a sizable--and speedy--challenge to see how those efforts hold up. “I’d like to hope that we can play fast like that,” DeBoer says. “I think when we’re playing well, we are playing like that. That’s got to be the challenge, because we’re going to have no choice in this round.”
It had become a running joke within the San Jose locker room that the team should fly to Vegas early and enjoy some pre-series festivities. But as the second round draws closer, the vibes have started to get serious about getting started again. After all, one can only study so many video clips (or watch so many Entourage episodes) before going stir-crazy. “Guys are a little bit anxious,” Schmidt says. “They want to play. They want to continue this journey. It’s a nice break. You get yourself ready to play. It just stinks when you want to do that, and you have to wait.”