May 13 2011 09:17AM
"I don't wanna look. Is the puck back there? Don't tell me! Aw crap. There it is."
"Whoop there it is! Whoop there it is! There's more a-comin, Niemi."
(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Image)
The Vancouver Canucks are playing in a Conference Final series for only the third time in their history. The San Jose Sharks are playing in a Conference Final series for only the third time in their history. The only difference is that the Canucks took 40 years to do, while the Sharks took only half that time. Both the Sharks and Canucks have been much maligned for their lack of playoff success recently despite strong lineups. One of these teams will move on to fight for hockey's Holy Grail, and the other will mire in another season of failure and months of questions to answer.
So which team takes the big leap to hockey's final battle?
Both teams have a lot to prove, a long line of critics to silence, and a couple of high profile players that are underperforming. Both teams have been at the top of their respective divisions for a few years with nothing to show for it in the post-season. One of these teams will finally get a crack at Lord Stanley's Cup.
Let's break down this series.
The San Jose Sharks essentially have an entire line that was plucked unchanged, right from Team Canada's gold medal winning team. Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, and Patrick Marleau. Then there's Pavelski, Setoguchi, Couture and Clowe. The Sharks have some depth up front and they can roll even when two of their top 3 forwards (Heatley and Marleau) haven't had good playoffs. Then there's Kyle Wellwood. Pudge has been a decent addition to provide some experience in the bottom six.
The Sharks' top two lines are pretty formidable. Their bottom two lines, with the exception of Joe Pavelski, are not terribly menacing either offensively or physically. Sure, Wellwood is a decent pickup, but is not to be relied upon to win a key faceoff or provide some much needed offense.
The Canucks have supermachine Ryan Kesler, arguably the current front runner for the Conn Smythe trophy. And they have the last two Art Ross trophy winners in the Sedins. The problem is that the Sedins have been woefully un-Sedin-like these playoffs. Granted, they've been against Keith/Seabrook, then Weber/Suter. And the Sharks don't have a pairing that's as good as either of those two. Plus their top pairing might focus on Kesler. The Canucks do also have Burrows and Higgins, who have been potting goals, as well as Samuelsson (if he gets healthy), Raymond, Hansen and Torres who are capable of getting on the scoresheet. For the Canucks, they just came off a series playing against one of the, if not THE, stingiest defensive teams with a Vezina candidate in net, so they are going to find things easier against the Sharks defense and goaltending.
While the Canucks have a slightly deeper forward roster, the top end of the Sharks is slightly better. And in the end, your offense is always measured by the collection of your best players.
The big x-factor here is the injuries. Clowe is hurt, but we're not sure how bad it is, and now the Sharks have 2 days off. We know Samuelsson is hurt, Higgins is nursing some pain but will likely be fine for Sunday, and there is a ton of speculation that Henrik is hurt too. So these 6 days off is doing a world of good for a few Canucks forwards. But if the Canucks forwards aren't healthy, they could be in trouble. If Clowe is hurt more than he's letting on, or if any of the Sharks top 6 get seriously hurt during the series, then the Sharks lose their edge. The two keys to the offense in this series are the Sedins breaking out on the scoresheet, and both teams getting healthy.
The Canucks defense is deep and playing very well. In their second round series against the Predators, the defense played very solid for 5 games. They were noticeably off in Game 5, but quickly got back on track for Game 6 to close it out. Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis have been fantastic in the postseason. They will provide no end of problems to the Sharks top line. The big debate in Vancouver regarding the defense is who should play in the 6 spot. The Canucks have easily the best defense remaining in the playoffs and STILL have a $4.2m defenseman sitting in the pressbox as the EIGHTH D. Nuts. Plus the Canucks D is providing offense, combining for 6 goals thru 13 games.
The Sharks D thins out after the top pairing of Boyle and Murray. While the Sharks have also added 6 goals in the 13 games, Jason Demers has 2 of them... Keep in mind that he only had 2 goal in the regular season, so saying that his two goals in the playoffs are an anomaly is an understatement. Sure, Dan Boyle is a stud. But Douglas Murray is slow and prone to errors.
The Sharks forwards are going to have a much more difficult time with the Canucks young, deep defense than they've had against either LA or Detroit. While the Canucks forwards are facing the weakest D yet (you can't tell me that the Sharks have a better blue line than either the Blackhawks or Predators. Not even close).
The x-factor here is the offense provided by the defense. Which teams will be able to activate their blue line more effectively? The Canucks' depth on defense indicates that they have a distinct edge.
Advantage - CANUCKS
Roberto Luongo has officially shaken off the demons of the Chicago Blackhawks. He locked down the Predators and played superbly through all six games. He looks confident, positionally sound, and big in the net - just like he did all through the regular season.
Antti Niemi has not a playoff series. EVER. Ok. So last year with the Blackhawks was his first playoff experience ever. But Niemi is 6-0 in playoff series. But even though he shouldn't have been tested against LA, he got pulled twice. But he did come up big when he had to be against the Red Wings. A good bounce back series for him after a brutal series against the Kings. And he does have that all important Cup Ring, which as Mike Babcock will tell you... Until you've won the Cup, you haven't won the Cup.
Advantage - EVEN
The Canucks power play, despite limited opportunities, has been ruthless especially on the road. The Canucks were 4-for-10 against the Predators in Nashville... And lest we forget that the Preds have a DAMN good PK. The Canucks PK was also very tight against the Preds allowing only 1 goal on 21 chances. Granted the Preds PP is pretty terrible, but the Canucks got their penalty kill working properly again.
The Sharks power play was turrrrible against the Kings, and marginally better against the Wings. Their PK was decent but certainly has its flaws. And the Sharks give up a lot of chances. This could be the perfect opportunity for the Sedins to finally break out.
Advantage - CANUCKS
I'm just gonna say it. Alain Vigneault has out-coached both Joel Quenneville and Barry Trotz. When the players executed his game plans, they worked. When his players strayed from the script, the Canucks lost. Simple. So Vigneault's job is making sure his players just STICK TO THE SCRIPT. Use your speed. Forecheck hard. High-percentage passes out of the defensive zone. But Vigneault's talent this postseason has been activating guys who are going strong, and deactivating the guys who aren't.
Todd McClelland is a disciple of Mike Babcock, so he does come from lofty pedigree. But I couldn't tell you his script. He seems to tell his forwards - go score. He doesn't look to line match. He doesn't have a defined checking line, and his top D pairing is also his shutdown matchup. He doesn't have quite the same ability to move guys around, especially on defense.
After being outcoached by the Q-stache two years in a row, AV definitely learned something. Plus the Canucks have team favourite Manny Malhotra sitting in the wings, offering advice, and tips and tricks on how to beat his former team.
Advantage - CANUCKS
The Sharks forwards are a LOT more formidable than the Predators. But lest we forget that the Canucks beat the Blackhawks in the first round, and quite effectively shut down some of their top forwards. And the Sharks forwards have not met as good a defense as they are about to meet in Vancouver. Nor have they yet met a goalie as good as Luongo.
As for the Canucks, they've already faced a tough offensive opponent in Chicago and beat them. They've faced a lockdown defensive team and a Vezina-nominated goalie in Nashville and beat them too. The Canucks can play an offensive, high-flying game and win... They can play a shutdown, choking defensive game and win. The Sharks don't have that type of range and give up a ton of chances, but they do generate a lot of their own chances.
The Canucks were 3-0-1 against the Sharks this season. Both teams won one game in a shootout, while the Canucks won the other two games, the first one quite handily. And the thing is... the Canucks didn't beat the Sharks when the Sharks were in their massive tailspin - they beat them when they were playing well. In fact, the Canucks shootout loss to the Sharks came when the Sharks were swooning. The Canucks have proven that they can beat Niemi and the Sharks this year.
The Canucks versatility, depth on defense and quality on special teams will be the difference.
Canucks in six.