The series: # 1 Vancouver Canucks (54-19-9, 117 points) vs. #2 San Jose Sharks (48-25-9, 105)
Regular season: Vancouver took the season series 3-1, outscoring San Jose 16-10 in the process. Roberto Luongo, who started two games versus the Sharks, posted an impeccable 0.96 GAA and a .975 save percentage with a record of 1-0-1. The Sedin twins totaled 11-points in four contests versus the Sharks, but if the playoffs have taught us not to put too much weight in Henrik and Daniel’s regular season dominance. Antti Niemi had his troubles with the Canucks offence this season, looking very mediocre in four games with a 3.64 GAA and .896 save percentage.
History: 2011 marks the first meeting of the Sharks and Canucks in the post-season. Both clubs share the dubious distinction of being known for their inability to reach the next level in the post-season… at least in the post-lockout era.
Kyle Wellwood was a member of the Canucks last season, and he offered some criticism of his former team’s makeup back in March, via The White Towel:
“I just feel feel Vancouver has a few more lessons to learn and I’m glad I’m in San Jose … They’re not so scared of losing. I think come playoff time this team (the Sharks) is going to be better.”
Quote machine Kevin Bieksa jokingly fired back at Wellwood’s assessment on Saturday:
“I don’t even remember what that weasel said. When we had him on our squad, we were afraid to lose. He was the smallest third-line centre in the league at that point.”
We’re going to wager a guess that there’ll be some history written between these two clubs by the end of this series.
The case for Vancouver: While the hockey world has wondered what’s been going on with the Sedins in the post-season, Ryan Kesler has become an NHL superstar. Kesler turned in a breakout regular season performance offensively, and he’s favoured to take home the Selke as the league’s best defensive forward. Factor in the fact that he’s leading the playoffs in scoring and pretty much put the Canucks on his back versus Nashville, and we’ve got ourselves an instance of a good player becoming a great player when it matters most.
Of the four teams remaining in the playoffs, only Tampa’s special teams have outperformed Vancouver. The Canucks have got it done with a solid performance on the back end from the defence and Luongo, while Kesler has carried the load up front with some help from the secondary scoring. The Sedins need to get involved offensively if the Canucks are to prosper, and Game 6 versus Nashville was a promising sign that they’re ready to reappear.
Oh yes, and there’s the Green Men.
The case for San Jose: The good news is that Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle have played at a level that warrants some Conn Smythe consideration. The bad news is that Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau were often invisible in the Western Conference Semi-Finals versus Detroit. The Sharks, like the Canucks, need their core of stars to contribute on the offensive side of things. Luckily, San Jose has seen both Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe pick up the slack left behind by the likes of Marleau and Heatley.
It’s imperative that San Jose’s big guns out produce Vancouver’s if they’re to make it to the dance. That said, their depth has been their saving grace. The trio of Joe Pavelski, Torrey Mitchell, and Kyle Wellwood have looked like the best third line going in the playoffs. Their great play has allowed Todd McLellan to have his way with the matchups.
Antti Niemi has never lost a playoff series, and he even managed to silence some of his critics by turning away 80 of 84 shots in Games 6 and 7 versus Detroit. Niemi could become the first NHL goalie in 94 years to win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back years with different teams. That should be all the motivation he needs to try and steal the series.
Key matchup: We could break down a number of team stats, but it’s really about whether or not the stars show up in this series. For San Jose, it’ll be up McLellan to play the matchups in a way that could exploit the defensive misgivings of the likes of former Shark Christian Ehrhoff. With the pairing of Bieksa and Hamhuis likely to see a lot of Thornton-Marleau-Setoguchi, the line of Couture-Heatley-Clowe will continue to be counted upon for offence… Heatley needs to step up his game.
As great as Kesler has been, another relative no-show from the Sedins could be catastrophic for the Canucks. Henrik Sedin has just 3-assists on the power play through 13 games, which just doesn’t cut it.
Prediction: Canucks in 6. The Sedins come alive, and Heatley doesn’t. Kyle Wellwood will eat his words, and that’s no fat joke.