Despite finishing as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Western Conference, it hasn’t been easy for either the Vancouver Canucks or the San Jose Sharks in the playoffs. Both teams suffered near-complete playoff meltdowns, as 3-0 leads meant little for these high-powered squads.
Both of these teams represent offensive juggernauts — scoring chances won’t be a problem. Goaltending, as in any playoff series, will become utterly critical in this battle.
San Jose enters the Western Conference Finals finding redemption. Finally, the Sharks have a chance to gloat about their regular season AND postseason success. Although Evgeni Nabokov served as the Sharks netminder for years, the team was never able to make it very deep into the playoffs. Could it be said that the Sharks finally found the goaltender that can take them to the promised land? Although Antti Niemi doesn’t quite lead the league in stats during the season, he appears to be one of the most playoff consistent goaltenders of the past two seasons. Niemi helped carry the Chicago Blackhawks to Stanley Cup glory in last year’s playoffs, and he deserves a pat on the back for at least getting the shoddy San Jose Sharks to the Western Conference Finals.
Vancouver stands as the last team to represent Canada in the playoffs. Of course, it’s no surprise the Canucks are here, after taking the President’s Trophy by a dominant margin of 10 points! However, Vancouver almost saw its entire work-out-art season come crashing down. Vancouver’s sudden playoff rival, the Chicago Blackhawks, nearly shattered Vancouver’s dream-year, as well as the Canuck’s 3-0 lead. And Game 7 of that series was close, overtime close, and had Chicago found a way to bury the OT winner, it would have gone down as one of the biggest playoff upsets in NHL history (20 points separated Vancouver from Chicago). Nevertheless, here we are, and Vancouver also has a taste of redemption, as the Canucks stand right where everyone thought they would be: in the Western Finals. But here is the question, how well can star goaltender Roberto Luongo hold up? Don’t get me wrong, Luongo is an elite goaltender in the NHL, but he is still relatively untested in the playoffs. Although he is a Vezina finalist, that doesn’t mean much come playoff time (see Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas from the past two seasons).
It’s obvious that offense won’t be a problem, as both teams are stocked with talented offensive firepower. But the real question is, which goaltender do you put your faith in when a game is tied late in the 3rd period, or even overtime? It’s a tough call. Luongo has the stats, but Niemi has the ring. As great as Luongo is, my pick goes with Niemi. One stat that refuses to lie: never doubt a Stanley Cup champion.