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Golden Knights need to push back on Sharks’ Karlsson, Burns

Updated April 11, 2019 - 6:22 pm

SAN JOSE, Calif. — This is where things became obvious: Game 1 of a Western Conference playoff series had reached the seven-minute mark of the second period Wednesday night at the SAP Center and penalties had led to the Golden Knights and San Jose engaging in 3-on-3 hockey.

And present on the ice for the Sharks were Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.

Both defensemen.

It’s certainly not a typical look, but the San Jose blue line stars are hardly standard pieces to any roster’s puzzle.

They’re elite, and the Golden Knights did their best (worst?) to prove it.

Karlsson found Burns on that 3-on-3, created space for his teammate and Burns beat Marc-Andre Fleury for a goal and 2-0 lead in a game the Sharks would win 5-2.

The Knights need to be a whole lot better at everything to have a chance at tying the series in Game 2 on Friday, and near the top of such a list is making things far more difficult on Karlsson and Burns.

“We can do a lot better against them,” said Knights forward Alex Tuch. “We know they’re skilled and skate fast. But they’re not unhittable and nobody likes to get hit. We need to make them think twice about what they’re going to do and where they’re going to be. We have to be more physical on guys like that on the forecheck.

“You have to look over your shoulder and know they’re on the ice and where they are. But as much as you respect them, you have to put pressure on them, and we didn’t do that enough (Wednesday).”

Karlsson had two assists and a Corsi of 59.26 in 26:25 of ice time; Burns finished with a goal and an assist in 28;25, his Corsi reading 51.56.

They were really, really good, as you would expect from two past winners of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman.

But isn’t this what San Jose — and, really, the entire league — believed would occur when the Sharks beat out others, including the Knights, in landing Karlsson via trade with Ottawa in September?

He was injured enough this season to play in just 53 games, so what we witnessed Wednesday hasn’t been the norm, which might explain why the Sharks couldn’t overcome Calgary atop the Pacific Division.

But the Knights need only worry about the present, meaning getting pucks much deeper and not allowing Karlsson and Burns free runs to transport from one end to the next. That’s just 5-on-5. Trying to contain them on a power play is a totally different animal.

Not even Joe Pavelski’s face can do that.

“It’s just an investment to finish checks every chance you get,” said Knights forward Cody Eakin. “We didn’t do near enough a good job against them, for sure. We have to finish things better. Play the game hard and every time you get a chance to finish against top guys like that, make it tough on them.”

Vlasic scored, too

It wasn’t just Karlsson and Burns as San Jose defensemen hurting the Knights. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who struggled this season while also dealing with injury, had two points Wednesday and walked in untouched on Fleury for San Jose’s third goal.

The Sharks were faster, more physical, created turnovers, offered better sticks. Mostly, they weren’t bothered much in their own end until perhaps the final 10 minutes or so.

Where was the Knights offense that took the league’s third-highest rate of shots since late December?

Where were all the danger chances?

San Jose’s team defense was terrific, a potential blueprint to carry into Game 2 and force the Knights to either adjust or fall behind even more in the series.

“When you have 10 shots in the first two periods, you don’t deserve to win,” said Knights forward Reilly Smith in recalling how little his team created over the opening 40 minutes Wednesday.

“We need to clean our game up. With a player (like Karlsson), you have to get within inches of him and if the hit is there, take it and separate him from the puck. Just get on him early. Get in his way. But it’s not just him. It’s all their defensemen. We want to make them make tough plays with the puck.”

Nothing was tough for them in Game 1, when the likes of Karlsson and Burns operated without much resistance.

I would think trailing a best-of-seven 1-0 is motivation enough for the Knights to begin pushing back.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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