May 012013
 

On paper, the Vancouver Canucks probably couldn’t have drawn a better match-up in these first round of the NHL playoffs than the San Jose Sharks.

Or maybe put it another way, at least they don’t have to play a 7-game series against a bigger, more physical St. Louis Blues team.

The Canucks and the Sharks resemble each other in many ways. Both teams have veteran-laden rosters that have experienced a lot of regular season success. But also, save for an extended run or two, both teams have a history of crashing and burning in the postseason.

Since the 2004 lockout, the Canucks have put together 5-100 point seasons and have won 6 playoff rounds. Ditto the Sharks, but they won 1 more playoff round (7) than the Canucks. Of course, both teams met in the Western Conference Finals in 2011. And of course, following that, both teams also flamed out in the first round of the playoffs last year.

With an aging core, a lot of pundits predict that whichever team loses this series will be forced to undergo major changes in the offseason. But then again, with a decreasing salary cap, maybe both will be forced to make changes anyway.

Why the Canucks will win

Except for Chris Tanev, who is expected back sometime in the middle of this round, and David Booth, the Canucks are finally healthy, and what a healthy roster can do to improve how this team looks can’t be understated.

Now, coach Alain Vigneault can roll out 3 potentially potent scoring lines consisting of Sedin-Sedin-Burrows, Higgins-Kesler-Kassian, Raymond-Roy-Hansen. Or, if he wants to load up the top-6, he can roll out Sedin-Sedin-Burrows, Higgins-Roy-Kesler, and roll out a checking line of Raymond-Lapierre-Hansen. Either of these combinations match up well against the Sharks.

On defense, the group of Hamhuis, Garrison, Bieksa and Edler, is deeper than the group of Boyle, Vlasic, Stuart and Irwin.

We’ve seen what a healthy Canucks lineup can do, evidenced by a complete effort against the Chicago Blackhawks just last week. The only question is whether or not they will be motivated enough to do so for the next 2 months.

Why the Sharks will win

Antti Niemi may very well hold the key to a Sharks series victory. He’s been great this year, finishing the regular season with 2.16 GAA and a 0.924 save percentage. Particularly against the Canucks, he was lights out, stopping 82 of 87 shots (0.943 save percentage) in 3 San Jose wins; for those counting at home, that’s 5 goals allowed in 3 games.

Now, this is not an indictment on Cory Schneider because, statistically, Schneider was a shade better (2.11 GAA and a 0.927 save percentage). However, Niemi has much more playoff experience than Schneider does. Schneider has only appeared in 8 playoff games. The last team with a relatively inexperienced goaltender to win the Cup was the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010… with Niemi in net, who at the time had 42 NHL games under his belt and was appearing in the postseason for the first time.

If Niemi shuts the door on the Canucks’ 20th-ranked offense, the Canucks will have to rely on Schneider and hope he’s equally up to the task.

[Update]

Scratch that. It looks like Roberto Luongo is starting tonight.

Quickies

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