The NHL playoffs begin this week with a bevvy of intriguing opening-round series. A seven-game set out west between the third-seeded Vancouver Canucks and sixth-seeded San Jose takes center stage.
The Sharks and Canucks rekindle a rivalry that features a recent conference finals thriller. Both teams battle for Stanley Cup supremacy following a lockout-shortened season, and there are several factors that should ultimately determine which squad survives and advances in the wildly contentious Western Conference bracket.
These teams are set to become division rivals when NHL realignment goes into effect. This series should will set the tone for future matchups and add a spark to a burgeoning rivalry.
Here's a look at how the Sharks and Canucks stack up against each other.
The Northwest Division champions finished 26-15-7, performing at a consistently high level throughout the second half of the regular season. Led by the Sedin brothers yet again, the Canucks won 10 of 12 contests between March 19 and April 10.
Vancouver hasn't suffered more than two consecutive losses since March 10. Coach Alain Vigneault has led the team to six postseason appearances during his seven-year tenure.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks placed third in the Pacific Divison, carrying a record of 25-16-7. San Jose slid to the sixth seed with a loss to in-state rival Los Angeles in the regular-season finale.
The team started the season with seven straight victories but went winless in its next seven. San Jose was largely plagued by inconsistency before hitting its stride in late March.
The Sharks won seven in a row between March 25 and April 5 to solidify their spot in the conference playoff race. This is the team's fifth consecutive postseason visit under coach Todd McLellan, who led the team to back-to-back conference finals in 2010 and 2011.
This is just the second time these squads have met in the playoffs. If their first tango is any indication, hockey fans could be in for an epic seven-game series.
The Sharks and Canucks battled in the 2011 Western Conference Final. Although Vancouver won in five games, the matchup was much closer than the final outcome reflected.
San Jose surrendered a late lead in the closing seconds of the decisive game Game 5. The Canucks went on to win in a second overtime session, as Kevin Bieksa scored on a rebound to send Vancouver to its first Stanley Cup Final since 1994.
That series victory highlighted a dominant stretch for the Canucks against San Jose. Vancouver claimed victories in 10 of 13 games versus the Sharks between 2010 and 2012.
However, San Jose turned the tide this year. The Sharks swept Vancouver in three regular-season collisions.
You could argue each coach in this matchup is sitting squarely on the hot seat.
Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks
The veteran stalwart has played in 629 straight games, building a reputation as one of the game's great iron men. Sedin, 32, serves as team captain and is half of an identical twin duo (along with brother Daniel) that has been dominant for a significant span.
Sedin led Vancouver in points this season (45) and is among the NHL's elite distributors. He bagged a team-high 34 assists during the regular season.
Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks
The Ontario native is an emerging presence at the center position. Since being selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2007 NHL draft, Couture has faced high expectations.
This season, he built off of consecutive 30-goal seasons with another strong campaign, scoring a team-high 21 goals to go with 16 assists. Couture, 24, is on the verge of cementing himself as one of the sport's brightest young stars.
Cory Schneider/Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks
Schneider finished an impressive regular season (17-9-4, 2.11 GAA) sidelined with an undisclosed injury but is expected to be ready to roll for the start of the postseason. In his first year as the Canucks' primary starter between the pipes, he recorded five shutouts and stopped nearly 93 percent of shot attempts.
Veteran backstop Roberto Luongo is an interesting option should Schneider stumble. The 34-year-old may be entering the final stages of his swan song with an organization he's suited up for since 2006.
His postseason experience makes him one of the league's top Plan-B goalkeepers.
Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks
Niemi started 43 games in his third season with San Jose, recording career-bests in save percentage (.924) and GAA (2.16). The 29-year-old is reliable but hasn't yet proven himself as an outstanding player at the position.
The opening pair of games in Vancouver should tell us a lot about Niemi's state of mind entering a crucial postseason for his career. If he comes in hot, San Jose is a very dangerous underdog.
The Canucks have two capable goalies, including a Stanley Cup Final veteran. Vancouver's defensive approach has been effective throughout the regular season and helped fuel a late-season surge to the top of division standings.
Meanwhile, San Jose brings a pedestrian offensive attack onto the ice. The Sharks rank 24th in the league in scoring and lack depth at both wing positions.
If Vancouver is able to make life miserable for San Jose's stable of talented centers, goals will be at a premium for the Sharks.
The Canucks can deliver a decisive blow to San Jose by containing centers Joe Thornton and Logan Couture. Most of the Sharks offense runs through those two, and both players are tremendous facilitators.
Vancouver has a significant advantage in terms of roster depth, so it's important the squad sets the tone early in this series in an effort to wear down San Jose. If the Canucks can maintain an excellent penalty-killing effort (ranked eighth in the NHL), it would go a long way toward staving off the upstart Sharks.
Antti Niemi is the X-factor here, and he could propel San Jose to the second round by catching fire. The goalie showed signs of brilliance during spots in the regular season but has plenty to prove in the postseason.
He faces a savvy veteran Vancouver offensive unit led by the feared Sedin twins. The Canucks are just a couple years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final, and much of their roster from that run remains intact.
Niemi could turn the tide early in the series if he plays well enough to earn a split north of the border. He has the abilities, but it's a matter of executing on the game's greatest stage.
It's hard to ignore the Sharks' regular-season sweep of Vancouver, but playoff hockey is a different beast. Each team has star power, idolized leaders and substantial postseason experience.
While head coaches Todd McLellan and Alain Vigneault have enjoyed sustained success at their current positions, the loser of this playoff clash could be looking for employment elsewhere.
Vancouver's advantage on the edge makes the difference, and the Canucks wrap up a thrilling series on home ice.
Prediction: Vancouver in seven