May 142011
 
Vancouver Canucks vs. San Jose Sharks

Photo credit: canucks.nhl.com

So who ordered the fish?

It’s been a long road for the Vancouver Canucks, but at the halfway point in the race for hockey’s richest prize, they’ve overcome the second-round hurdle and, like the San Jose Sharks, want to go the distance. After finally vanquishing the Chicago Blackhawks in a seven-game thriller in Round 1, the Canucks dispatched the pesky Nashville Predators in six contests.

San Jose followed a similar route, needing six games to upend the Los Angeles Kings and squandering a 3-0 series lead against the Detroit Red Wings before burying them in Game 7.

It’s the first-ever Western Conference Final where both times are in the Pacific time zone, which at the end of the day, means absolutely nothing. What does matter is that both teams have had their fair share of playoff failures, and in about two weeks, one will shed the label of choke artist and book a ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.

In fact, there are some striking similarities between the two clubs, one which you’ll have to keep an eye on as the clash begins:

Ryan Kesler vs. Joe Thornton — Battle of the Power Forwards: Kesler has 15 points and at the end of Round 2 was tied with Pavel Datsyuk for the playoff scoring lead. Joe Thornton hasn’t been gun shy either, registering 11 points. Both players are exceptional two-way centres who are fuelled by sheer will and determination. Kesler managed to shut down both Jonathan Toews in Round 1 and Mike Fisher in Round 2, but Joe Thornton is going to be a different animal completely.

Sedins and Burrows vs. Heatley, Clowe and Marleau — A little something to prove: At some point during their careers, all of these players have had their playoff performance questioned. The Sedin twins were supposed to be the fuel to the Canucks’ offensive fire, but were nothing but a flickering ember in Round 2. Patrick Marleau finally showed up in Game 7 versus Detroit, but otherwise has been an invisible force again. As for the rest, Ryane Clowe, despite his leg injury, has been a stalwart for the Sharks while Alex Burrows is known to chip in a clutch goal or two so far. Dany Heatley has performed decently, scoring eight points, but the two-time 50 goal scorer needs to be at least a point-per-game player.

Kyle Wellwood vs. Christian Ehrhoff — Remember Me?: Two seasons ago, Sharks GM Doug Wilson traded blueliner Christian Ehrhoff to Vancouver for spare parts, just before Ehrhoff put up 44 and 50 points for the Canucks, both career highs respectively. Last summer, Canucks GM Mike Gillis let Kyle Wellwood go, only to see the diminutive centre bounce around the KHL and on NHL waivers before sticking with San Jose. Now, both players serve big roles on their team: Wellwood anchors the third line while Ehrhoff is Vancouver’s go-to on the powerplay.

Battle of the Bluelines: On a normal night, San Jose’s top six looks like Dan Boyle, Ian White, Jason Demers, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Douglas Murray, and Niclas Wallin. Vancouver counters with a blueline of Christian Ehrhoff, Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Sami Salo, and (likely) Aaron Rome. Unlike Chicago and Nashville, San Jose doesn’t have a defensive pairing which will give the Sedins fits and frustration, but this Sharks blueline loves to jump on the rush just as much as the Canucks blueline. Both bluelines are very deep.

Luongo vs. Niemi — Once more, with feeling: As it stands, Antti Niemi has the edge on Roberto Luongo simply because he’s beaten him in a playoff series once already. Neither goalie has been particularly outstanding in the postseason, but neither goalie has to be spectacular, either. Luongo’s Achilles’ heel has been shots from behind the net, while Niemi showed that he’s not fond of the backhand shot. I’m willing to bet both goalies will face their fair share of these when the two teams meet.

The Intangibles: Injured Canucks centre Manny Malhotra may provide a little insight on his former team, but it’s hard to say that’ll be the difference. Only Raffi Torres, Mikael Samuelsson, and Maxim Lapierre have made it to a Conference Final before, whereas the majority of the Sharks were a part of last year’s team ousted by Chicago in the WCF.

Well, game on.

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