By Stu Hackel
In a series that matches two teams with star-crossed postseason histories and similar styles, the Western Conference Championship could shape up as a classic. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks are more rested, but the Sharks, the West’s No. 2 seed, have to feel pretty good about themselves after prevailing against an excellent and determined Red Wings team in what was the tightest seven-game series in Stanley Cup history: six games decided by one goal and one with an empty net goal. It’s hard to figure which of these teams has an advantage, so let’s mull it over and look at six important categories. (For the Eastern Conference Final analysis, click here.)
We’ll determine which team has an edge in each, but you can draw your own conclusions on the outcome. We stand by our practice of making no predictions as you never can tell what will happen in the playoffs. If want a prediction, SI.com’s Darren Eliot offers one here.
Vancouver — One of the better puck-possession teams in the NHL, the Canucks thrive in open ice and are perhaps even better on the cycle. However, so far in the playoffs they have not been the offensive machine they were during the regular season. They are averaging 2.31 goals per game, down from over 3. Some of that is expected in the playoffs, but what has been a surprise is the drop-off by Daniel and Henrik Sedin, the league’s top scorers during the last two seasons. The twins were everything for the Canucks, playing gloriously until the middle of the first round against the Blackhawks. Then the increased intensity of their opponent, combined with the checking attention they received, resulted in diminished production. The Sedins combined for just seven points and were jointly a minus-10 in the Nashville series. Fortunately, Ryan Kesler has stepped up to rival Pavel Datsyuk as the most complete player in the postseason — and Datsyuk’s season is done. The two are tied for the lead in points and Kesler is one behind Datsyuk in assists. Chris Higgins has moved up to the Kesler line along with Mason Raymond. Mikael Samuelsson has had a great playoff before, especially effective on the power play, but he’s apparently been slowed by injures. He skated with Cody Hodgson and Tanner Glass at the end of the last round. Vancouver’s other depth forwards — Raffi Torres, Maxim Lapierre and Jannik Hansen, can contribute timely goals, but they’d be considered a bonus. Former Shark Christian Erhoff has been the Canucks’ top producer on the blueline, but he scored only one goal against Nashville. A bit more production from the blueliners in general might make coach Alain Vigneault happy, but he’s probably more concerned with cutting down on turnovers.
San Jose – Like the Canucks, the Sharks are a puck-possession team and they like to grind it out along the wall and below the goal line. Their Game 7 production enabled them to tie the Lightning for most goals in the postseason so far and they are averaging 2.92 per game. They’ve got great depth up front and, as the decisive game against Detroit showed, their key players can elevate their play to extraordinary levels. The trick has been doing it consistently against a quality foe and having all of them do it together. Joe Thornton was magnificent for most of the Red Wings series, using his size and skill to great advantage. Coach Todd McLellan had him skating with Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi, and Marleau answered his critics with a strong Game 7 as well, including the series-winning goal.
He’ll have to continue to play well in Round 3. You can see the value of rugged Ryane Clowe, who skates on the second line with Logan Couture and Dany Heatley in how much better the Sharks played with him in the lineup as opposed to Game 6 when he was scratched. Heatley hasn’t found the net much this spring (only three goals), but Couture continues to produce in big situations. The third line of Torrey Mitchell, Joe Pavelski and Kyle Wellwood has some speed (well, not Wellwood) and Pavelski has become a reliable playoff performer the last two years. Ben Eager, Scott Nichol, and rookie Benn Ferriero bring grit and energy but little in the way of offense in their limited ice time. From the back end, Dan Boyle has been excellent while quarterbacking the power play, making strong first passes and jumping into the play intelligently. His Stanley Cup experience showed in the Detroit series. He leads all defensemen in postseason scoring with 11 points (two goals, nine assists). Ian White also has a big point shot and Jason Demers has gotten more minutes from McLellan as his game develops.
ADVANTAGE – Sharks, unless the Sedins get going.
Vancouver — Allowing slightly more than 29 shots per game, the Canucks are the best of the remaining teams in that stat. Of course, they just finished a series with Nashville, who has great trouble generating offense, but you have to give Vancouver credit for making it hard on the Predators regardless. Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis are a very good shutdown tandem. Kesler is a relentless forechecker…
…as is Alex Burrows and all their depth forwards. But the absence of Manny Malhotra as a shutdown center may be felt more in this round. Kesler will have that job — he’ll likely go against Thornton — but you can bet Vigneault would have loved to have Manny in that role so Kesler could be more free to score. And there may be some worry about the defensemen’s playoff jitters. Three of the top six leaders in giveaways among NHL blueliners are on Vancouver (the other three are out of the playoffs). And a fourth Canuck is not far behind. (Bieksa leads with 16.) NHL Real Time stats are sometimes unreliable, but just watching the Canucks shows them to be somewhat less sure-handed than they were in April and before. It caused assistant coach Rick Bowness to mix up his defense pairings, putting Erhoff with Alex Rome and Erhoff’s shaky partner Alex Edler with Sami Salo. As Henrik Zetterberg learned in Game 7 against San Jose, the Sharks’ forwards can be deadly on turnovers and they have better finish than Nashville, so it has to be a point of concern. In any case, Vigneault also has hip checking Keith Ballard and Andrew Alberts in reserve, and that’s a lot of depth.
San Jose — The Sharks have allowed 32 shots per game, but that’s something of a misleading stat since they’ve played five overtime games so far (and won them all). Still, the Red Wings high-octane attack exposed some flaws on their blueline and now the Sharks must take on the Sedins. If the twins’ problems in the first two rounds were caused by the strong Chicago defense corps (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson) and the equally strong Nashville defense corps (Ryan Suter and Shea Weber), they may be in for something of a break this round. Boyle is good, but not great in his own end. Douglas Murray, while a physical force, can’t skate with them. White, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers are not elite defenders. The Sharks’ forecheck, led by Clowe, is probably just as effective as Vancouver’s.
ADVANTAGE – Canucks, based on their deeper defense corps.
Vancouver – Roberto Luongo (whose real first name is actually not “The Much-Maligned”) has had his ups and downs this spring, but he’s still standing and has won all the big games he’s had to. Still, this year’s Blackhawks didn’t have the depth of the team that beat him last year and the Predators were, well, the Predators. The Sharks provide his biggest playoff test. Vulnerable to shots in his feet from strange angles, and sometimes falling oddly forward belly-first to make saves, Luongo will need his best playoff performance to date to hold off the potent Sharks attack. If there was ever a time for him to raise his level of play, this series will provide it.
San Jose — Playing better now than he did beating the Canucks last year on his way to winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago, Antti Niemi was excellent against Detroit. He allowed very little to get through him and his challenging style and confident movements reveal a maturing netminder who has the confidence of his teammates. He still can be plagued by poor rebound control and there are questions about his glove hand, especially on high shots, but he is doing a better job smothering shots and he stopped Pavel Datsyuk on a slap shot that was ripped high to the glove side in Game 7 to preserve the win.
ADVANTAGE – San Jose
Vancouver – With the extra man, the Canucks 22.2 success rate is just behind the Lightning’s as the best of the remaining teams. Kesler has excelled here as expected and this is an area where the Sedins will have to step up to if they hope to regain some of their mojo. Having Salo back gives them another good point shot to go along with Ehrhoff. Their penalty kill is also second to Tampa Bay’s at 86 percent, but that could be an illusion. Without Malhotra, they had problems in the Hawks series, but, again, the Nashville series fattened their numbers (they allowed just one goal in 21 attempts). They’ll be more sternly challenged by the Sharks, especially if they don’t show more discipline and avoid the penalty box.
San Jose — The Sharks’ power play has badly underperformed so far, especially considering their talent. They’re 7 for 51 (13.7 percent), but some of that is due to the excellent Kings PK in the first round, and while they had some success against the Red Wings early, they didn’t take much advantage later in the series until Game 7. In games when they scored with the extra man against Detroit, they won. They lost the three in which they didn’t get a PPG. And their penalty kill will provide a big obstacle for the Canucks as it comes into the series having snuffed the Wings’ last 15 power plays, and that’s something, considering the skill Detroit has.
ADVANTAGE – Even.
Vancouver — Vigneault coached his junior Hull Olympique team to the Memorial Cup in 1988, but this is the furthest he’s taken an NHL club. He did a terrific job as the Canucks were hit with injuries, especially to their defense corps, during the regular season, and he also showed he could make adjustments when he transitioned the team from a defense-first squad to a puck possession team after Mike Gillis became GM two years ago. The Canucks had the best special teams in the NHL this season, and that’s all about coaching. Vigneault managed so far to compensate for the loss of Malhotra and he’s handled Luongo well in games when the goaltender has showed his vulnerabilities. He didn’t panic when his club blew a 3-0 lead in the first round and he got the Canucks back on track to win Game 7. As with all other aspects of this round, the Sharks will provide the most serious test of deploying Vigneault’s assets.
San Jose – Todd McLellan has been this far before as a head coach – last year against the Blackhawks – and he was with the Red Wings as an assistant when they won their last Stanley Cup in 2008, so he knows the path he’s on. He kept tinkering and cajoling when this club was adrift in midseason until he found the right words and combinations that helped San Jose make an impressive stretch run to take second overall in the league. Perhaps even more impressive than Vigneault’s job in rallying his club for Game 7, McLellan had to do so after the Sharks couldn’t hold leads in Games 5 and 6 against the Red Wings.
ADVANTAGE – Even
Vancouver — Carrying the burden of finishing first overall into the playoffs is never easy (Presidents’ Trophy-winners get eliminated early about as often as they go to the Cup final), but the Canucks kept their confidence in the first two rounds despite scares from both Chicago and, to a lesser extent, Nashville. They’ve also got the burdens of 40 years of playoff frustration, a chronically skeptical fan base that feels this team – the best in club history during the regular season – provides their best chance to go all the way, and a home country that, in some measure, is anxious for a native team to win Canada’s first Cup since Montreal did it 1993. It’s a lot to carry, but it’s also unavoidable. Getting the Sedins going again could be Vancouver’s key to a third trip to the Cup final.
San Jose – With some confidence that they have now twice beaten a strong Detroit team to advance to the conference final, the Sharks now have a chance to take the next step and reach the Cup final for the first time in franchise history. Like Vancouver, they play for a highly charged fan base. They did a very good job tuning out the potential distractions of the media-generated controversy surrounding Marleau’s performance in Game 5/ Like the Canucks, they also have a franchise history of falling short in the postseason to overcome. More consistency from their top forwards and continued stellar goaltending by Niemi would go a long way to doing that.
ADVANTAGE – Even.