The Sharks devoured the Octopus after seeming to choke on it for awhile in a 4-3 series victory over the Red Wings that could mark the end of the Niklas Lidstrom era. And now they face a stiffer, bigger challenge in the form of the orca and the Vancouver Canucks. Both teams blew a three nothing series lead in these playoffs, threatening to become the fourth team to blow a three, zero series lead.
The Skinny: Vancouver took the season series 3-1 over San Jose and finished above them in the standings winning the presidentís trophy. In a meeting on March 10th, the two teams had one of the best regular season match-ups this year with Vancouver winning 5-4 in OT after the teams exchanged goals just over two minutes apart. Both teams boast offensive prowess in their games and use most of their energy attacking the opposing team. By all accounts it should be an extremely exciting series and one of these yearly playoff disappoints will be the Western representative in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Forwards: The Canucks boast a Conn Smythe worthy forward in Ryan Kesler. After a less than stellar first round, until game seven against Chicago, Kesler has turned it up a notch and is carrying the Canucks on his back, especially against Nashville where he put up 10 points in the final four games of that series. He has been a thorn in the side of the opposition, agitating them and drawing penalties at opportune moments. The Canucks still dearly miss Manny Malohtra up the middle, but Chris Higgins has seemingly found a gear that made him a dangerous player for the Montreal Canadiens a few years back. Vancouver really needs the Sedinís to pick up their game if they want to advance past a Sharks team that wonít be a push over offensively like Nashville was and that could provide all sorts of problems for Vancouver.
Captain Joe Thornton is starting to shed his playoff stigma by being a force for San Jose and it looks like heís found that mean button that was lacking in his game. After a snippy interview after game seven, Thornton might finally understand what it means to be a player in the playoffs. Jeremy Roenick called Patrick Marleau gutless after his game five performance and in game six, Marleau did little to dispel that notion. However, in game seven Marleau really shined scoring the game winning goal and making a huge block on Darren Helm obliterating him before he could get a shot off that would have tied the game. These arenít the Sharks that weíve come to know. Marleau finally had a big game when it mattered most, Thornton is tired of being Mr. Nice Guy, Clowe, Pavelski, Setoguchi have all matured and they have a Stanley Cup winning goaltender in Antti Niemi who is looking to be the first goalie in NHL history to win back to back Stanley Cups with two different teams.
These teams match up quite evenly, but ultimately, the Sharks bottom six might have the slightest edge over Vancouverís with the loss of Malhotra.
Edge: San Jose
Defense: The Sharks defense is quietly going about its business, anchored by the unflappable Danny Boyle and Ian White is shining in his first playoff experience. Jason Demers, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Niklas Wallin donít score as much as youíd like from the back end but Wallin has a knack for scoring the biggest goals. He has four in the playoffs and all four have ended up being the game winner. They have a decent mix of puck movers and stay at home defenseman which is usually a recipe for success in the playoffs. Really helpful is Boyleís experience as a Cup champion in Tampa Bay.
The Canucks are formidable along the blue line, and seem to be healthy for the first time this playoff. Edler and Ehrhoff continue to shine as Vancouverís top pairing and are doing a magnificent job at not only limiting opposition scoring chances, but also putting points up on the board. In addition to the two Eís, Ballard, Hamhuis, Salo and Alberts have all been solid and Vancouver is far more balanced than the Sharks when it comes to higher end defenseman.
San Joseís blue line has experience with two Cup winners in Wallin and Boyle but Vancouverís D is just that more dangerous in terms of pure firepower and size.
Goaltenders: Roberto Luongo is well on his way to finally earning his first shot at Championship glory and settled down after a tough first round against his lifelong nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks. Luongo has been steady, and keeping pucks in front of him and if not for some terrible puck luck would have the Nashville Predators out in four games. A few bad bounces ended up being the difference from a good series for Luongo and a stupendous one. He has always been known for not being able to win the big one, but with an Olympic Gold under his belt, winning a Stanley Cup could cement Luongo as one of the best goalies of all time.
Antti Niemi was thought to be the weakest link in the Blackhawks run to the Cup this year, but just maybe itís his luck that gets teams in the finals. In six playoffs series, Niemi has won every single one of them and is proving to be one of the most clutch goalies in recent memory. Niemi is agile and almost awkward in between the pipes and seems to have trouble getting up quickly to get back into position. But what doesnít work for other players, seems to work for Niemi and he needs to be solid again for the Sharks to move on.
Niemi has won a Stanley Cup, so he knows what the pressure of the Conference Final is like, Luongo has never made it there before, but you know heís dying to.
Edge: San Jose
Coaching: Todd McLellan and Alain Vigneault are very similar to one another in which they ask for their defenseman to always be involved in the play and pinch to keep pucks in.
Vigneault is in unfamiliar territory in a Conference Finals for the first time in his history, however he seems to have found an extra gear and figuring out what it takes to match lines and it doesnít hurt to just let Kesler go out there and do his thing. Itíll be interesting to see how he motivates his team moving forward.
McLellan on the other hand has been to the Conference Finals just last season, and like the Chicago Blackhawks the year before, maybe getting ousted by a superior team is what his team needed for them to take the next step. McLellan, a disciple of the Detroit Red Wings school of coaching just tells his super talented team to go out there and do their best. Heís more of a playerís coach than a taskmaster.
In the end, both coaches are similar though ultimately, you have to give McLellan a nod for having been here before.
Edge: San Jose
Series Outlook: These two teams match up very evenly, and have two of the most rabid fan bases in the league right now just itching for a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Though I have given the edge to San Jose in every category but the most important one, defense, and we all know, defense wins Championships, so you canít write off Vancouver as theyíre still the Presidentís Trophy winners and have home ice advantage throughout. If they want to go anywhere theyíre going to need their best players to step up and I believe they will.
Vancouver in Seven
Vishal Hussain has been a hockey fan since 1987 and a Devils fan since 1990. A graduate of the critically acclaimed College of Sports Media in Toronto Ontario, Vishal has actively been a fantasy player since 2000, winning his first ever Yahoo! pool and continually finishing in the top 3 each year since. He watches every game, every night through NHL Centre Ice, both online and on TV and is an excellent evaluator of fantasy players and up and coming prospects in the league. Email Coach Hussain at [email protected].