Well, we're guaranteed one thing: one of two teams that have been carrying burdens of playoff disappointments will make the Stanley Cup Finals.
Both Vancouver and San Jose can probably understand each other's plight pretty well. The two squads have entered the last few postseasons with very high expectations, local fans dreaming of their organization's first Stanley Cup title, only to fall short of the Finals. San Jose has had perhaps the biggest label of playoff underachiever, but the Sharks were in the conference final last year. This is Vancouver's first trip since 1994, when it lost in seven games to Mark Messier's Rangers.
"It's always fun playing in the playoffs. I mean, it's the conference finals," Daniel Sedin said. "It's going to be extremely tough games. Everyone keeps saying that Nashville plays tight defensively. I think San Jose is equally as good defensively. They probably have more firepower up front. It's going to be a tough series, equally as tight."
Ironically enough, the top two seeds in the Western Conference have taken similar, albeit reversed, paths to get this far. In the first round it was the Canucks playing a Game 7 after holding a 3-0 lead on Chicago whereas the Sharks had the same scenario against Detroit in the second round, holding off the Red Wings in Game 7.
In the four games played between the two this season, the Canucks had plenty of success, taking seven of a possible eight points. The Sharks picked up three.
"It'll be interesting. We'll enter a series as the underdog. That hasn't happened before. Maybe there will be a little pressure taken off us there and we can go play free," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said.
Here's the breakdown:
Forwards: When you look at the list of players on both sides, you begin to understand real fast why these are the top two seeds in the West. With these two, it's really pick your poison. The Canucks have a Hart Trophy winner (Henrik Sedin last season) and one in the running this season (brother Daniel) and perhaps the hottest skater in hockey right now (Ryan Kesler). Going into Round 2 against Nashville, there were questions about how much would the Canucks score as the offense was struggling some and the Predators are stingy. For San Jose, the names Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Heatley, Setoguchi, Clowe and Couture are enough to scare any opponent. It's an elite and deep group of forwards the Sharks throw out on the ice. But much like Vancouver with the Sedin twins, the Sharks are looking for a little more production out of their top players, namely Marleau. The Sharks star was criticized by Jeremy Roenick among others during the series against the Red Wings, but perhaps his Game 7-clincing score will be the boost he needs to start producing like he does annually in the regular season.
Edge: Hate to cop out, but it's a push.
Defensemen: When you start looking at the two units, there is a troublesome stat/note for both. For San Jose, it's concerning that they surrendered 40-plus shots to the Red Wings in Games 3, 4, 6 and 7. That's asking a lot from your goaltender night in, night out, especially against a team with the skill of the Canucks. Vancouver, meanwhile, has had just one pairing of defensemen stay together through the whole of the first two rounds, luckily for them it's their top shutdown duo of Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa. When you compare the meaningful sample size of the regular season, you start to see an appreciable difference. The Canucks were the toughest defense to score on in the NHL at 2.20 goals against a game compared to San Jose's 2.54, good enough for 10th. Talking offensive production, the two teams look pretty similar with one standout racking up 50 points this season (Dan Boyle for the Sharks, Christian Ehrhoff in Vancouver) and a pretty steep drop off to the next.
Goaltenders: Again, the two goalies, like the teams, have had similar postseasons so far. Both Roberto Luongo and Antti Niemi struggled mightily in their respective first-round series with each being pulled at one time. In the second round, however, each was spectacular, recording save percentages above .930 (.933 for Luongo, .931 for Niemi). Luongo was the center of a heaping of criticism for his play against Chicago, adding on to what has always been a subpar postseason resume. Perhaps that's behind him after he finally got past the conference semifinals for the first time in four tries. For Niemi, there's been no such perception problem when it comes to playoffs. With the series win over Detroit, Niemi is a perfect six-for-six after leading the Blackhawks to the Cup last year. Keep this one in mind: against the Canucks this season, Niemi was 1-2-1 with a 3.64 GAA and .896 save percentage. But also remember he beat the Canucks last year in the playoffs.
Edge: Ever-so-slightly to Canucks, Luongo.
Special teams: After detailing the firepower both teams possess, it should come as no surprise that these were the NHL's two most efficient power-play units. The Sharks are in a little rut with a man up coming out of the Detroit series as Devin Setoguchi's Game 7 tally was their only goal in the last 13 tries. It's worth noting, though, that the Sharks have five players on the roster who recorded nine goals or more with a man up compared to just two for the Canucks, so it's safe to say San Jose can throw two solid power-play lines on the ice. Perhaps the biggest mismatch in the series, though, comes in the battle between Vancouver's power play and San Jose's penalty kill. In that department, the Sharks were ranked 24th in the league this season at a 79.6-percent kill rate. In the playoffs it has been a little better, killing off 82.7 percent. Vancouver, meanwhile, has kept pretty consistent with its third-ranked regular-season penalty kill percentage of 85.7, including their current run of just one goal allowed in the last 26 short-handed attempts.
Prediction: This was the better matchup of the two possibilities for the Canucks, not to mention they had to love the Wings pushing the Sharks to the limit and helping exhaust them before getting this series under way. Believe it or not, this is the first time the perennial playoff teams have met in the postseason. But as has been the norm in the West the last few weeks, expect every game to be close, with every loose puck being fought for with the utmost tenacity. Although the Canucks got almost every edge from me, the differences aren't large, except some when talking defense. I'm inclined to say the Canucks will prevail in six games.
-- Brian Stubits
|Western Conference Finals|
|No. 1 Vancouver vs. No. 2 San Jose - Series Tied, 0-0|
|May 15||at VAN||8 p.m.|
|May 18||at VAN||9 p.m.|
|May 20||at SJ||9 p.m.|
|May 22||at SJ||3 p.m.|
|* May 24||at VAN||9 p.m.|
|* May 26||at SJ||9 p.m.|
|* May 28||at VAN||8 p.m.|