With their thrilling 3-2 game 7 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, the San Jose Sharks avoided a collapse of epic proportions and booked a ticket to Vancouver for the Western Conference final.
Sharks… Canucks… Get excited Vancouver!
It’s an intriguing matchup for a number of reasons. Both teams have never won the Stanley Cup. The Canucks haven’t been to a Stanley Cup final since 1994, while the Sharks have never been to the finals. Both teams have been considered (rightly or wrongly) to be playoff underachievers.
So those are the intangibles, lets look at how they matchup:
The Canucks won the season series with a 3-1 record. The Canucks won both games decided in regulation, while the teams split the two games that went to a shootout. Their games were typically high scoring with lots of shots and scoring chances.
The goaltending matchup is a rematch from last year when Luongo faced Antti Niemi (then of the Chicago Blackhawks). Roberto Luongo should be the better goaltender, but Antti Niemi has found a way to get it done in the playoffs, albeit playing behind excellent teams. With all the criticism Roberto Luongo has received, his numbers are far superior to those of Niemi this postseason. Luongo is 8-5 with a 2.25 GAA and .917 SV%. Niemi for his part is 7-5 with a 3.01 GAA and .906 SV%. Luongo will need to win the goaltending matchup for the Canucks to win the series.
The Canucks and Sharks defense corps are similar in the sense that both are deep. Neither team has a Norris trophy caliber defenceman, with apologies to Dan Boyle. The Canucks may be a little deeper, but they’re comparable. Kevin Bieksa will likely be matched up against Joe Thornton’s line, but the other two defense pairs will have their work cut out for them also. San Jose has three strong forward lines, with lots of fire power throughout.
Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray will likely get the assignment against the Sedins as much as possible, but their other two defense pairs, Vlasic-Demers and White-Wallin, are solid also. The Sharks distribute ice time to their defense fairly evenly, similar to the Canucks. Dan Boyle is their only defenceman that averages more than 25 minutes of ice time per game.
It’s close, but I think the Canucks have a small advantage on defense.
San Jose might have the most fire power of any team in the league. Their first line features a former Hart Trophy winner, Joe Thornton, in between Patrick Marleau and the suddenly surging Devin Setoguchi. Their second line features a former 50 goal scorer, Dany Heatley, along with super rookie Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe. Their third line is centred by US Olympian Joe Pavelski with Torrey Mitchell and former Canuck Kyle Wellwood on the wings.
The Canucks have about as much fire power as the Sharks up front, although their not as balanced. Daniel and Henrik Sedin along with Ryan Kesler are legitimate stars in the league. Not having Manny Malhotra to fight off the Sharks top flight centres will hurt even more in this series. With that said, Maxim Lapierre has played excellent in his absence and will need to continue his strong play.
Both teams have some bumps and bruises, but it’s the bigger injuries which are of the utmost importance. Henrik Sedin seemed to be labouring in the Nashville series with a leg injury and it’s unknown how serious it is. Hopefully for Canucks fans, the time off will do him a world of good. It’s unknown how severe Mikael Samuelsson’s injury is but I imagine he isn’t likely to start the series. Manny Malhotra is still injured, but there might be a chance that he suits up later in this series, though it’s a long shot.
The Sharks appear to be extremely healthy, with the exception of Ryane Clowe. Clowe missed game 5 and 6 of the second round due to injury and was relatively quiet in game 7.
There are a number of X-factors at play in this series. Both teams have some playoff demons they still need to exorcise. Can Luongo and the Sedins produce when it matters? Can Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley elevate their play? Roberto Luongo has been a little bit inconsistent so far in these playoffs and the Sedins have been good (not great) so far. As far as the Sharks are concerned, Thornton is probably enjoying his best playoff season thus far. Heatley and Marleau have been somewhat disappointing to this point. The stars with spotty playoff resumes that can elevate their play will go a long way to deciding this series.