Two of the ocean's deadliest predators come together in a battle to see which coach gets fired!
The Sharks and the Canucks really are very similar foes, at least in terms of their journeys. Here, we have two teams that have been among the Western Conference's elite for some time, but year after year fall short of expectations. Their cores have been questioned -- called soft, lacking in guts, tenacity, or whatever you'd call that intangible, Stanley Cup-winning quality that can only be recognized in retrospect. Their leadership, both on the ice and off has been questioned as well.
Now they face each other, and it's highly likely that there's more on the line than just a trip to Round 2. Neither of these teams can survive another first-round playoff exit without changes. An elimination could conceivably call for some drastic renovations to the room and the front office. And I'm not talking about the wallpaper and drapes.
Who will survive the death match?
Vancouver Canucks (3) vs. San Jose Sharks (6)
May 1: San Jose Sharks at Vancouver Canucks, 10:30 p.m. ET.
May 3: San Jose Sharks at Vancouver Canucks, 10 p.m. ET.
May 5: Vancouver Canucks at San Jose Sharks, 10 p.m. ET.
May 7: Vancouver Canucks at San Jose Sharks, 10 p.m. ET
May 9: San Jose Sharks at Vancouver Canucks* 10 p.m. ET
May 11: Vancouver Canucks at San Jose Sharks * TBD
May 13: San Jose Sharks at Vancouver Canucks* TBD
For much of this season, the Canucks were a one-line team. On the bright side, if you have to be a one-line team, a line featuring the Sedin twins is probably optimal. For a decade, the two brothers have utilized their creepy, off-putting telepathic game to create offence for the Canucks, and they remain just about as potent now as ever. Both Henrik and Daniel were top-30 scorers this season, at just under a point a game. With the infuriating Alex Burrows alongside of them, they'll likely be the most dangerous line in the series.
Behind them, however, things get weird. Ryan Kesler, who missed most of this season due to injury, is the anchor of the rest of the forward corps, and if he's on his game, he can be a handful. Whether or not he's on his game, however, remains to be seen -- especially when he missed practice this morning for mysterious reasons. If he's not at 100%, the Canucks are in trouble.
Derek Roy will be counted on to provide offence and anchor the third line, and it will be crucial that he, Jannik Hansen and Mason Raymond challenge the Sharks, because they can roll three complete lines, and the Canucks need to do so as well.
Joe Thornton and his 40 points in 48 games leads the way for San Jose, flanked by wingers T.J. Galiardi and Brent Burns, who has been lights out since being converted from defence. This line could go head-to-head with the Sedins, and if they can win this matchup, that may be enough to win the series.
The Sedins may also see a steady diet of Joe Pavelski, Raffi Torres and Tommy Wingels, a tenacious, two-way unit.
The Sharks' can also ice a scary, speedy line of Patick Marleau, Logan Couture, and Martin Havlat. Those guys will take a mile if you give an inch.
If the Sharks are firing on all cylinders, they're definitely the more dangerous team at forward. The concern for San Jose will be whether their scoring dries up, as it did for long stretches this season. The club's 2.42 goals per game average was the worst of the Todd McLellan era, and there were times that they seemingly had no answers for why.
Both the Sharks and Canucks possess two strong top pairings, one for shutting down, the other for starting up.
For San Jose, the shutdown duties will go to Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. They can expect to see a lot of the Sedins. Meanwhile, the firestarting will be the task of Dan Boyle and impressive rookie Matt Irwin. They're a speedy duo that can dodge forecheckers and get the puck up ice in a hurry. If they can disrupt the Canucks' puck retrieval system with their speed, the Sharks will be in good standing.
As for the Canucks, their shutdown pairing for much of the year has been Jason Garrison and Dan Hamhuis. Their offensive pairing: Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa.
The Canucks' blueline has been the backbone of their success this year, especially that top pairing with Garrison and Hamhuis. But besides the strong defensive play, this group also creates a lot offence for the Canucks. That top-four contributed 26 goals this year. Remove Burns from the Sharks' top-four (since, you know, he's not in it) and you're looking at 16 goals. If this series is tight, and I suspect that it will be with the goalies involved, the ability to get shots through from the point is going to be a major factor. There, the Canucks have a few more cannons.
Antti Niemi has been the Sharks' MVP this season. His 24 wins were tops in the league. His .924 save percentage was seventh. His 2.16 goals against average was 11th. He was one of 10 goalies to post four or more shutouts. His style can be a bit wacky at times, but there's no doubting that it worked for San Jose, and bailed them out more than a few times when the goals weren't coming. He'll be a major factor in this series.
Meanwhile, the Canucks' crease is full of just as much drama as ever. Fortunately, both o their guys are very good. It sounds like Roberto Luongo will get the start for Game 1, and while his numbers have suffered from some pretty spectacular blowouts this season, if he's on his game, he's still one of the best in it. And if Cory Schneider gets healthy, well, this year he's been even better.
In other words, it's a coin toss.
Does Their Season Deserve an Asterisk?
Maybe. Both the Sharks and the Canucks were hot and cold this season, with a few lengthy losing streaks and some baffling stretches where answers were hard to come by. But they're in the postseason, just as everyone expected.
If I'm being completely honest, I think their postseasons are what will deserve asterisks. There's a lot both of these clubs have yet to figure out, and in a longer season, maybe they get a little more sorted before the schedule ends. But such is life.
This is the fun part. Alain Vigneault and Todd McLellan are two extremely intelligent and skilled coaches, but both look like they may have run out of road with these groups. Neither coach deserves to be let go, and both would be unemployed for about a second if they were, but a second consecutive first-round exit is likely to get them dismissed. Expect every single tactical adjustment to be dissected and questioned as a result.
The Sharks' and Canucks' penalty-kills were about even, at 85.0 and 84.0, respectively.
The powerplays, on the other hands, were at opposite ends of the spectrum all year.
San Jose's powerplay hummed along at a very respectable 20.1 conversation rate, good for 7th in the league. The Canucks, on the other hand, took a nosedive, only scoring on 15.8% of their opportunities. Much of this had to do with the absence of Ryan Kesler (as well as Alain Vigneault's inexplicable refusal to use Jason Garrison on the top unit), but still. With the Sedins on the ice and one fewer guy defending them, you expect more.
I will never not post Bieksa Real Good if there's an opportunity, so the Canucks get that one:
The Sharks get the lovely Rowe and McDewitt's Black and Teal.
This series is a complete coin toss and I've gone back and forth about this prediction all week. But so long as Ryan Kesler is healthy enough to give San Jose something else on which to focus, I'm not convinced about the Sharks' ability to handle the Sedins -- especially young defenders like Matt Irwin and Justin Braun, who have a combined six career playoff games between them (all from Braun). I think that might be the difference.
Canucks in 7.