Sharks vs. Canucks: First NHL Conf Finals Strictly in Pacific Time Zone

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We’ve now arrived to the Western Conference Stanley Cup Playoff finals and a battle that pits the no. 1 and 2 playoff seeds, respectively, in the Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks.

Would we want it any other way?

In scoring my predictions to date, I’ve predicted that the Canucks would defeat the Blackhawks in seven games, the Canucks would best the Predators in six games and the Sharks would win their series against the Red Wings in six games.  And while I was slightly off as to the number of games it would take the Sharks to win, my accuracy is nearly flawless, so far.

While I should quit while I’m ahead, I will once again try to keep my prognostication record in tact.

Onto to the series preview.

The Vancouver Canucks were engaged in a playoff dogfight against the gritty Nashville Predators with all but one game decided by one goal.  And while they appeared to find the playoff swagger that nearly deserted them in blowing a 3-0 series lead against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, the Predators clearly showed they were a worthy opponent.

As for the Sharks, they finally found a way past their long-time nemesis the Detroit Red Wings, having lost in four previous series attempts, by defeating the Red Wings 3-2 in a heart-stopping Game 7 battle.  And now the Sharks, a team who has seen their share of playoff disappointments, they get the opportunity for their first Stanley Cup conference finals appearance.

No matter the path taken, the Vancouver Canucks were the runaway freight train of the National Hockey League (NHL), especially during the regular season, easily winning the President’s Trophy for the most accumulated points.

In the Sharks, however, they face a team with sufficient offensive firepower, defensive acuity and a team whose goaltender, Antti Niemi, has experience as a Stanley Cup championship winner with the Chicago Blackhawks during last season’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

I offer my predictions by assessing each team’s offense, defense, special teams, goaltending and finally each squad’s “X-Factor” – no, not the new show coming this fall to Fox (shameless plug), rather, the intangibles that could decide the outcome of this series.  I will then conclude with my prediction as to how I see this series playing out – who wins the series and in how many games they will do it.

Here’s the Rundown:

Offense:

The Canucks possess no shortage of offensive firepower as the Canucks lead the NHL in scoring with 3.11 goals/game. They are lead of course, by the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik.  While Henrik captured the NHL’s Hart Trophy as the league MVP, last season, Daniel is making a case for himself this season by registering 104 points.  Don’t feel bad for Henrik, though as he registered 94 total points and led the NHL with 75 assists.  But this team is more than the twins as it’s loaded with a bevy of complimentary and secondary scoring resources, Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows to name a few.

The Sharks possess one of the NHL’s most offensively-gifted teams, having finished 6th in the league’s regular season scoring statistics, registering 2.92 goals/game. They possess a balanced scoring arsenal with as many as five players registering over 60 points during the regular season.  Patrick Marleau led the Sharks with 73 points and 37 goals, while Joe Thornton finished right behind Marleau with 70 points, leading the Sharks with 49 assists.  The Sharks also possess key secondary scoring prowess with as many as seven players scoring over 20 goals.

The key to each team’s success on the offensive end should rest on one player from each respective squad: For the Sharks, they will need Patrick Marleau to assert himself as he did for Game 7 of their series against the Red Wings; for the Canucks, Ryan Kessler should prove to be the difference maker for the Canucks.

So, in assessing which team gets the advantage, offensively, the edge goes to…

Advantage: Canucks (very slight)

Defense:

Much like their offense, the Canucks possess a very stingy, very gritty defense and also lead the NHL with the fewest goals allowed/game, only allowing 2.17 goals/game.  But beyond their ability to control the pace and tempo of a game with their tight-checking and shot-blocking prowess, the Canucks also do possess a lethal arsenal of offensive defensemen, lead by Christian Ehrhoff who registered 50 points, along with Alexander Edler with 33 points and Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa who also contributed offensively.

The Canucks recovered from their disastrous Games 4 and 5 in their playoff series against the Blackhawks by once again asserting their defensive toughness and shutdown capabilities.

The Sharks finished 9th the NHL in goals allowed/game, allowing a respectable 2.50 goals/game.  The Sharks, particularly during the 2nd half of the regular season, demonstrated an ability to control the pace and tempo of a game with tight-checking and solid shot-blocking.  The Sharks defensive scoring is led by Dan Boyle, who registered 41 assists to go along with his 50 points during the regular season.  Beyond Boyle, however, defensive line scoring drops off quite a bit.

And the Sharks also recovered from surrendering so many goals/game against the offensively prolific Los Angeles Kings by clamping down on the Red Wings elite offensive weapons during all of their four playoff series victories.

While it’s tough to split hairs with two such talented defensive units, in assessing to which team the advantage goes…

Advantage:  Canucks (slight)

Special Teams:

To assess each teams overall special teams play, there is a distinct difference on one side of the special teams:  Vancouver’s sizeable advantage while on the Penalty Kill (PK).  The Canucks ranked 3rd in the NHL in that category during the regular season, killing off 85.6% of the situations in which they were a player short, whereas the Sharks were near the bottom of the PK statistics, with a 79.2 PK rate.

However, on the Power Play (PP), the differences aren’t as distinct, as the Sharks were 3rd in the NHL in Power Play (PP) efficiency, with a very impressive 23.5 PP conversion rate.  The Canucks led the NHL in PP Conversion%, with a stealth 24.3 PP conversion rate.

So, when assessing the overall advantage in Special Teams…

Advantage:  Canucks (slight)

Goaltending:

While all of the matchups assessed may be vital and perhaps too close to call, the key to this playoff series will rest on the team with the more effective goaltending.  The Canucks are led in net by Roberto Luongo, who posted a stellar Goals Against Average (GAA) of 2.11 and an equally impressive Save Percentage of .930 during the regular season and who redeemed himself from a 1st Round disaster, particularly in Games 4 and 5 against the Blackhawks, to the point of being benched in favor of backup netminder Cory Schneider.  Fortunately for the Canucks, Luongo rebounded with a solid performance against the Predators during their playoff series.  However, for a goalie with a somewhat spotty playoff history, Luongo may have to dispel some demons of playoffs past, and facing the prolific Sharks may prove to be his greatest playoff test.

The Sharks are manned in net by Antti Niemi, he of the Stanley Cup championship pedigree.  The Sharks struggled to settle upon their primary netminder during the first half of the regular season, alternating between former Blackhawks Stanley Cup playoff stalwart Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki; however, Niemi’s strong second half play cemented his status as the primary goalie for the Sharks’ strong second half surge.  However, as the playoffs are a different animal, placing a proven playoff commodity like Niemi proved successful against the Red Wings.  And as goaltending is so much about confidence, particularly during the boiler room-like atmosphere of the playoffs, Niemi’s success proves to be an advantage the Canucks don’t currently possess.

So, when assessing each team’s goaltending units, particularly when factoring in each goalie’s playoff legacy, the edge goes to…

Advantage:  Sharks

X-Factor:

When assessing the variables not quantified via statistics, there appears to be no distinct advantage for either team.  Both teams have had their share of playoff heartbreaks and disappointments and both teams have finally gotten to the place predicted of them for many seasons going.  Both teams play well at home and on the road and both teams have a sizeable home rink advantage as it relates to the arena atmosphere and crowd noise.

While the burden for delivering in the playoffs is larger for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks, particularly being Canada’s lone remaining playoff participant, the Sharks carry a burden of being one of the best teams of the decade never to advance to this point, previously.

Advantage:  Push

Prediction:

While the Canucks breathed a sigh of relief at one of the most potentially embarrassing meltdowns in Stanley Cup playoff history, they did rebound in posting a scrappy four games to two series victory against the Predators.  And while San Jose expelled their demons against their toughest foe in the Red Wings, they will not be satisfied by merely taking the next step in their quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup.  The window of opportunity in this era of parity is too short.

Given all those variables, here’s the prediction:

Canucks in Seven Games

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