West finals preview: Canucks-Sharks
They might as well call this one the Baggage Cup.
Those lovable playoff underachievers for most of the past decade -- the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks -- will meet in the Western Conference finals after the Sharks bent but did not break against the Detroit Red Wings in Thursday's Game 7.
In about 10 days, one of these long-suffering franchises will go to the Stanley Cup finals. If it's the Sharks, it will be for the first time; if it's the Canucks, it will be for the first time since 1994, when they lost in seven games to Mark Messier and the iconoclastic New York Rangers.
How one of these teams gets there should be a great story.
Although we may joke about the pratfalls these two teams have shown us in recent years, they were the two best teams in the Western Conference and arguably in the NHL during the regular season. They deserve this matchup even if both managed to blow 3-0 series leads this spring.
Given the Sharks' late-series swoon against Detroit and the Canucks' six-game tedium-fest against Nashville, it's fair to say that neither team steamrolled into the conference finals. Whatever momentum is to be had between these two high-powered offenses, it will have to be generated once the puck is dropped Sunday night.
1. The middle men: When Pittsburgh and Detroit appeared in back-to-back Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, we marveled at the teams' depth down the middle, especially the Penguins' with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
Well, the Sharks have a trio of pivots who could be the catalysts for a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture have combined for 29 points through the first two rounds and will mightily test Vancouver's defense. Look at Couture's crucial steal-and-score move against Henrik Zetterberg late in the first period of Game 7 versus Detroit as an example of the young man's maturity.
The Sharks' depth will put even greater pressure on Daniel and Henrik Sedin to get going if the Sharks' pivots can continue their strong production. The evolution of Couture, a rookie of the year candidate who has played mostly with Ryane Clowe and Dany Heatley, has allowed Thornton to enjoy his best postseason yet.
Meanwhile, Pavelski continues to establish himself as one of the league's up-and-coming clutch players. With one of Vancouver's top defensive centers, Manny Malhotra, gone for the season with an eye injury, you wonder what the Canucks can do to ensure this imbalance down the middle doesn't cost them the series.
2. The penalty kill: If you're a glass-is-half-full kind of person (a Canucks fan), you will point to how Vancouver convincingly shut down Nashville's power play in the second round, allowing just one goal on 21 tries. If you're a glass-is-half-empty type (a Sharks fan), you will suggest that any four players could have held the popgun Preds to one power-play goal.
Certainly, the Canucks' penalty kill did get exposed in the first round when Chicago scored two power-play goals a game for three straight contests. And on the man advantage, the Sharks will look a lot more daunting than the Predators.
Perhaps the bigger point is the Canucks' discipline. The Canucks have given the opposition four or more power plays seven times in 13 postseason games. That's too many against a team as skilled as San Jose. The Canucks are averaging more penalty minutes per game than any of the remaining conference finalists, and that is not good.
On the flip side, the Sharks' penalty kill was terrific against Detroit, even as the Wings stormed back from a 3-0 series deficit. The Sharks killed off 15 straight power plays to end the series, including all four attempts in Game 7.
3. The Kesler factor: We've heard it whispered in some circles that Ryan Kesler's postseason performance thus far is mindful of a guy named Messier. A little "Twilight Zone"-like, given Messier played in Vancouver and was the captain of that New York Rangers team in the 1994. But we digress. It is certainly heady praise, but Kesler's performance, especially in crucial moments, lends weight to the comparisons.
Kesler had an assist in Vancouver's Game 7 win over Chicago to end the first round, then recorded five goals (including two game winners) and six assists against Nashville. The Selke Trophy nominee also leads all playoff performers with 15 points. His teammates frequently refer to him as "a horse," and Nashville coach Barry Trotz was unequivocal in his praise, saying few players can elevate their games the way Kesler did against the Predators.
If he keeps rolling, there may well be a Conn Smythe Trophy in his future and a Stanley Cup in Vancouver.
4. The Luongo factor: Maybe it's because we're predisposed to be skeptical of Roberto Luongo's inner game, but it still seems as though the Vancouver netminder has the ability to give up the oddest goals at any time. Although he allowed just 11 goals in six games against Nashville and wasn't yanked once, unlike in the first round, Luongo still gave up a handful of questionable goals, often from bad angles.
A smart, talented team such as the Sharks will be watching the tape, and we can only imagine the message from San Jose coach Todd McLellan: Shoot from everywhere, anytime, because you just never know with Luongo.
Still, the 2010 Olympic gold-medal-winning goalie has now guided his team beyond the second round for the first time in his career, so maybe this is truly his time. Or not. His opponent, of course, has been down this path before just last season. Antti Niemi, like Luongo, shook off an up-and-down first round to help stabilize the Sharks when they needed it most against Detroit. Niemi was brilliant in the past two games and turned aside 38 of 40 shots in Game 7 to preserve the Sharks' win.
5. Players with baggage: If we accept that few teams have underachieved as dramatically in recent postseasons as these two teams, it stands to reason that few players have been more maligned for their playoff performances than Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
Marleau had his captaincy taken from him at the start of the 2009-10 season, and former teammate/TV analyst Jeremy Roenick called Marleau "gutless" during the Detroit series. Ouch. Marleau was especially ghostlike against Detroit until his third-period goal gave the Sharks a 3-1 lead. The goal, his first point of the West semifinals series, turned out to be the game winner, but the notoriously streaky Marleau has to be better if the Sharks are going to take down the Canucks.
As for Thornton, he's been dynamic and a leader on both sides of the puck and is playing his best playoff hockey ever. Can he keep that up as the stakes get even higher?
• Matchup versus matchup: Thornton's line has seen most of the heavy lifting against opposing teams' top lines, but will McLellan want Thornton on against Kesler, or will McLellan save him for the Sedins and let Pavelski/Couture work against Kesler? The question extends to the defense, too; McLellan will have to decide whom he wants to use Dan Boyle against. If the Sedins remain dormant, it's an easy choice -- Boyle and partner Douglas Murray will try to reduce the room Kesler has in the offensive zone. But if the twins start to wake up, McLellan's job will become infinitely more difficult and the Sharks' chances of advancing will go down exponentially.
• Vancouver: The Sedins. Yes, we know, they're not one person; they just look like it. What the Canucks have to hope for is they start to resemble the players they were during the regular season, when Daniel won his first scoring title and earned a Hart Trophy nomination and Henrik finished fourth in scoring. The two combined for 198 regular-season points but managed two goals and five assists in six games versus Nashville. Not terrible, but not enough. Their playoff history has been checkered; now is the time to step forward.
• San Jose: Boyle. The veteran defenseman who won a Cup in Tampa Bay in 2004 was admittedly not at his best in the first round, but he rebounded to have a terrific series against the Red Wings (eight points). For a team looking to make its first Stanley Cup finals appearance, the Sharks will be looking to the guy who's been there before.
• We've been hard on the Canucks, and in fact, we're not sure we've picked them to win a single playoff round since the lockout. Until now. The Canucks' depth up front and Kesler's virtuoso play will carry Vancouver to the Cup finals. Canucks in six.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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