Western Conference Final Preview - (2) San Jose Sharks vs. (1) Vancouver Canucks
The backdrop to the 2011 NHL Western Conference Finals begins 17 years ago, on both sides of the divide.
In 1994, the San Jose Sharks played their first season in their current arena and made their first playoff appearance. Had the Sharks scored one goal in overtime of Game 6 of the West semifinals against the Toronto Maple Leafs, they would have played the Vancouver Canucks in the West finals. Alas for the sons of Silicon Valley, they fell to Toronto in that overtime period and then bowed in Game 7 against the Leafs. A meeting between California and Canada did not materialize, and in the 17 years since the rendezvous that wasn’t, neither one of these franchises has been able to win a single conference title.
The West Coast has not enjoyed sustained success in the hockey world. The Anaheim Ducks – formerly the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim – made two Cup finals in 2003 and 2007, winning the latter one under their current no-frills nickname. Since 1994, no other franchise from the Pacific time zone has been able to compete for the Stanley Cup in the final series of the hockey playoffs. Now, though, at long last, either San Jose or Vancouver will be able to take on the Eastern Conference champion for the drinking bowl that is the object of every hockey lifer’s affection this time of year. One of these two franchises will be able to draw within four victories of the toughest title in North American team sports.
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The battle – as is usually the case – begins with the goalies. Antti Niemi of the Sharks and Roberto Luongo of the Canucks should wage a terrific battle between the pipes. Niemi carried his team in its just-completed series win against the formidable Detroit Red Wings, but Luongo was also strong in net in Vancouver’s six-game triumph over the Nashville Predators. What has to be said about these two goalies – who both struggled profoundly in their respective first-round series – is that they faced markedly different teams in the West semifinals. Nashville was and is a defense-first club that did not throw the kitchen sink at Luongo. Detroit, meanwhile, has won a Stanley Cup in recent years and boasts one of the most skilled teams in the NHL. Niemi, who won the Cup last year with the Chicago Blackhawks, faced much stiffer opposition in the West semis than Luongo did. This means that Luongo, now up against the Sharks’ physicality and size, will be in for a tough series. Vancouver has to make life easier for Luongo in order to take control of this clash, counterpunching so that the Sharks can’t camp out along the boards or behind the Canucks’ net. It’s up to Vancouver to get the Sharks out of their comfort zone; if Luongo has to work harder than Niemi in this series, it will be a bad sign for the top-seeded Canucks, winners of the 2011 President’s Trophy for most points in the NHL.
The other point of focus is Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler. The do-everything performer was all over the ice against Nashville, scoring five goals – two of them game winners and one of them an overtime tally – while racking up 11 points all told. Kesler and the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, have to be able to match the star power of the Sharks, with Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, and Ryane Clowe providing a formidable lineup for San Jose. It’s true that grunt-guys can and do surface in the hockey playoffs, but San Jose is so deep that Vancouver must be able to fight fire with fire on the ice of the West Coast. If the Canucks don’t bring their big guns to this showdown and rattle Niemi’s cage, Luongo is likely to be swallowed up by the Sharks’ assault. San Jose’s seven-game win over Detroit marked an epic series filled with first-class action and high-level skill, so the Sharks should rate as the favorite against the plucky but still uncertain Canucks. It’s up to Vancouver to find the extra resources and chess moves that can disrupt San Jose. If the Canucks can’t make some magic, that President’s Trophy won’t amount to much… and San Jose will make its first trip to the finals of the tournament staged for Lord Stanley’s most consequential Cup.
By: Matt Zemek
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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