The calendar has turned to May and, with the dismissal of the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night, the field of Stanley Cup contenders has been winnowed down to the final four. We’ve arrived through the first two rounds, seventy games behind us and no more than 21 left ahead of us. We’ve arrived at the conference finals, a battle of north versus south along both coasts of North America, with a shot at Lord Stanley’s Chalice on the line. Let’s take a look at the Western Conference series on tap as we prepare for this weekend’s start of the next phase on this year’s road to the championship…
#1 Vancouver Canucks
#2 San Jose Sharks
While the Eastern Conference has produced some huge upsets and low-seed playoff pairings in recent years — this year’s 3/5, last year 7/8 series between Philly and Montreal, or the 4/6 the year before that — the Western Conference regular season bears out quite effectively which teams are going to duel for the title. This is the third time in the past six seasons since the lockout that the Western Conference final has come down to a battle of attrition between the top two teams in the regular-season standings…
OFFENSE (Advantage: Vancouver)
- Vancouver – The Canucks were the highest-scoring team in the regular season, though they have been hovering well below their season average so far in these playoffs. What that tells me immediately is that they have yet to reach their full scoring potential, something that they should be capable of achieving against a Sharks team that they enjoyed great success against this season (15 goals in four games). And during this postseason they have seen Ryan Kesler blossom into a force during these playoffs. He’s leading all scorers after the first two rounds and has the look of a Smythe winner if the Canucks advance and bring the Cup back to Canada for the first time since 1993. Daniel and Henrik Sedin (10 and 9 points respectively) have done nothing to dispel their own place as two of the top players in the game, and Alex Burrows (4 G/4 A)has also been a solid contributor to the team. But it still seems like this team has another gear awaiting it, and San Jose might just be the team to open that scoring faucet.
- San Jose – The Sharks, on the other hand, have been playing at an offensive level consistent with their regular-season output (2.92 goals/game in the postseason versus 2.96 during the preceding 82 games). Ryane Clowe and Joe Thornton have combined on the top line to produce well, but the real secret for them has been the explosion of Logan Couture and Devin Setoguchi. Setoguchi was a bright spot in the team’s second-round run last year, but Couture has burst out this year centering hte second line and gives the Sharks balance that alleviates the pressure on Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. The test will be keeping pace with a Vancouver club that proved they could score against San Jose during the regular season.
DEFENSE (Advantage: Vancouver)
- Vancouver – The Canucks not only led the league in scoring this season, but they also led the entire NHL with the fewest goals against. Their defensive prowess has remained intact during the postseason, where their cold streak on the offensive end has been shored up with even tighter defense in their own zone. Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis have done a stellar job all season locking down on other team’s top lines, but the real secret to the Canucks’ success has been the breakout play of Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Edler on the second unit. With 15 points between them so far this postseason, they have been offering assistance on both sides of the rink.
- San Jose – What the Sharks lack in talent versus the Vancouver blueline, they more than make up in playoff experience. On the top pairing Dan Boyle, a veteran with his name on the Stanley Cup as part of Tampa Bay’s 2004 team, teams with young Marc-Edouard Vlasic to form a solid partnership. The third unit features Niclas Wallin, an underrated defender who was part of both Carolina Hurricanes runs to the Stanley Cup finals; he too has his name already on the Cup as part of the 2006 team that defeated Edmonton in seven. The rest of the unit, other than the oft-traveled Ian White (four teams in the past two seasons, acquired by San Jose before the deadline), is a youthful group of talent cultivated from the draft to this point.
GOALTENDING (Advantage: Vancouver)
- Vancouver – It isn’t often that a guy is voted ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champion goalie, but if anyone is up to the task it is Roberto Luongo. The backstop for Canada’s Olympic gold-medal-winning hockey team, Luongo has plenty of big-game experience and seems to play at his best when the pressure is highest. He’s also been playing as well as anyone else in the Western Conference during these playoffs (8-5, 2.25 GAA, .917 SV%). For a spell in the Chicago series it looked as though he was losing his mental focus, with Cory Schneider coming into three of the games, but Luongo is still the undisputed starter and this franchise’s best chance to win its first Stanley Cup.
- San Jose – This, of course, is to take nothing away from Antti Niemi, who was a critical element in the confluence of events that brought the first Stanley Cup to Chicago in five decades. Yet the Blackhawks viewed his services disposable, allowing him to go to the Sharks in free agency. He now has the opportunity to become the first goalie since Patrick Roy to win the Cup with two different teams. Of course, that depends on him getting over his own case of the yips (7-5, 3.01 GAA, .906 SV%), which have plagued him at times. Backup Antero Niittymaki has had to come in to several contests, and at this point posts the lowest stats of any goalie with multiple appearances (2GP, 1-0, 0.66 GAA, .967 SV%). If Niemi gets shaky, capable relief does wait in the wings… but could also prove the distraction that is their undoing.
COACHES (Advantage: Vancouver)
Just like Claude Julien in the Eastern Conference, Alain Vigneault is a former Montreal coach that has found far greater success since leaving the pressure cooker boiling up perpetually in Quebec’s biggest city. The Canucks coach has finally reached the conference finals after four trips to the second round in his previous eight years managing teams. Todd McLellan, his counterpart on the San Jose bench, has had this experience before, having taken the Sharks to this point last season only to be swept by the Blackhawks. He has known nothing but success in his first three seasons as a head coach, winning the Pacific Division all three years and securing top-three berths. His postseason record has saw him lose to Anaheim in the first round in 2009 before reaching the final four in 2010. Trends would seem to work in his favor, but it is hard to ignore the fact that Vigneault got Vancouver to play the ultimate two-way game this season.
While Vancouver has seemed to reform its identity from the freewheeling days of the past decade, San Jose seems to still fly by the seat of its pants. The Canucks had the harder sailing in the opening round, and their series against Nashville was anything but easy, but being battered to a full seven games by the Red Wings and being the last team to book its ticket to the final four could end up exacting a heavy toll on the Sharks.
The Canucks have reached this point while playing well below their full potential. San Jose has been playing right at the same pace as they did in the regular season. But Vancouver played well against the Sharks in the regular season, going 3-0-1 — with their only loss a shootout defeat in January after overtime ended 1-1. The Canucks have effectively owned the Sharks this season, and that isn’t likely to change. The one thing going in the Sharks’ favor seems to be their luck in overtime (4-0 in overtime games in 2011 playoffs), but it is unlikely that they will force enough extra periods to make that kismet tilt the scales far enough in their favor. San Jose is capable of forcing a few games its way, but Luongo shouldn’t crack in this series as Vancouver takes it in six…