Through seasons dating back to as far as 2002, Vancouver or San Jose were popular preseason picks for the NHL’s Western Conference Finals. Postseason success never materialized for either team and, while they combined for five division titles and eight playoff appearances since the lockout before this season, neither team won a game past the second round.
They haven’t made it easy on their fans. Both teams squandered 3-0 series leads (only to win in defining Game 7s) and have had trouble holding leads in games, allowing the opposition to creep back in, along with the many doubters the teams have picked up over the course of their disappointments over the last decade.
Roberto Luongo, the enigmatic veteran goaltender who is quite possibly the only goaltender to have been awarded a Vezina Trophy nomination after coming off two games in which he was pulled, bolsters the Canucks in goal. He has a .916 SV% this playoffs and allowed just 10 goals in the second round in six games. Meanwhile, two relatively young defensemen in Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis anchor a defense that is one of the league’s best, a big reason why the Canucks were the team with the best goals against this season. Two-way forwards Ryan Kesler and Christopher Higgins have done an admirable job at keeping their opponent top scorers off the scoresheet through two rounds, but the same happened for the Canucks in Round 2. The usually reliable Sedin twins will need to produce both at even strength and on the power play for the Canucks to advance. One thing that has harmed the Canucks is an uncharacteristic team shooting percentage of 7.3 per cent, down from 9.8 in the regular season. Expect that to turn around.
San Jose’s Antti Niemi has yet to lose a playoff series, although his career against Vancouver is pretty average, with just a .901 SV%. His play has also been all over the map these playoffs, with brilliant Games 6 and 7 against Detroit but some shaky moments as well. The Sharks defense has a couple of key offensive forces in Dan Boyle and Ian White, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic is the best stay-at-home man on the team, although he doesn’t soak up the minutes he should on this offensive-oriented team. Up front, the Sharks have had breakout postseason performances from Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe which has been enough to sustain them while Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley play themselves out of slumps. Marleau had a terrific Game 7 against the Red Wings with two points and a key late blocked shot.
The Sharks have better offensive depth, but the Canucks’ two-way game and goaltending should win them this one and send them to their first Final appearance since 1994.