The San Jose Sharks need big games from all skilled players to beat the Vancouver Canucks, but some are more important than others
The San Jose Sharks are getting a rematch of the 2011 Western Conference finals. This time they are not coming in more banged up, less rested or just short on talent compared to the Vancouver Canucks.
Still, getting revenge will not be easy. The only team they beat as a lower seed since the lockout-lost season is the Nashville Predators. They were the fourth seed taking on the fifth both times.
Making the challenge more pronounced, the Sharks relied more on home ice for success in the 2013 NHL season than any in the past. Meanwhile, they were 8-14-2 on the road when only one other team (the Los Angeles Kings) in the Stanley Cup playoffs was more than two games below .500.
Then again, one of their road wins came in Vancouver. They will need at least one to see the second round.
Getting wins in both places obviously takes good play from multiple lines, pairs and in net. No list of five Sharks needing to play well would be enough to overcome a solid team at this time of the year.
For instance, Martin Havlat (31 points in 31 career games) and Patrick Marleau (consistently among the top three San Jose playoff scorers) would greatly help their team if they showed up. But neither has had to play well to get a win.
After scoring nine goals in his first five games, Marleau had eight in the next 43 while the Sharks went 20-16-7. Havlat is earning just over a point per three games all season. They were 2-4-2 in the eight games he missed, but that includes only two teams that did not make the playoffs and only two home games.
The team can win without those guys. The following five players must all play well and get the support of a few of any of their teammates for the Sharks to advance.
Antti Niemi has easily been the best player for the 2013 San Jose Sharks. He has certainly been among the three best goalies in the entire NHL.
San Jose uses him to ensure scores are kept low. The defense in front of him is solid and blocks shots especially well, but only two goalies stopped more shots over the season than Nemo.
No team can win in the Stanley Cup playoffs if a player who has been their best in the regular season is suddenly pedestrian. Nemo must give the Sharks an edge in the most important position in sports if they are going to overcome the faster, more skilled Vancouver Canucks.
Dan Boyle is the best-skating defenseman on the San Jose Sharks and virtually the only offensive threat. He is a veteran leader who knows what it takes to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup. He absolutely must be the best player on the blue line, because nobody else's peak is as high as he plays regularly.
Despite being its oldest member, perhaps only Marc-Edouard Vlasic is better conditioned than Boyle. The Sharks lack his speed and will have to put him in on both ends of the ice. He must continue to play the two-way game he has picked up since losing teammate Douglas Murray to a trade.
This is something that more people need to say: Logan Couture is the best player on the San Jose Sharks. He is markedly better than Rick Nash despite the Columbus Blue Jackets demanding him in a trade for their power forward.
Couture is a two-way monster. Among his second-best forward total of 51 blocked shots are at least two that sealed games. Only 29 players had more than his 31 takeaways. He is 51.5 percent in the faceoff circle.
Couture has centered the second line steadily. It has been San Jose's best since he was teamed with speedsters Patrick Marleau and Martin Havlat.
If he draws the checking line or top pair and his two enigmatic linemates disappear, he must at least find a way to produce on the power play to make the second round. He is also the best Shark on the road, something that is key on a team not playing well there and lacking home-ice advantage.
Joe Pavelski has not earned the nickname "The Big Pavelski" for nothing. He practically carried the San Jose Sharks past the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. He has scored at least five goals and nine points in three of his five playoffs in his young career.
He also has been key to San Jose's turnaround. Since coach Todd McLellan moved him to the third line, there has been depth enough to roll four lines.
That is not only essential to reduce the wear on the top players in a condensed 2013 NHL season but also to spreading out defensive support for the other team. Pavelski's line must take advantage of better matchups with the focus on the scoring lines by the Vancouver Canucks for the Sharks to advance.
Obviously, any team needs its captain and most-established player to perform well. But Joe Thornton has to do more for the San Jose Sharks than set up teammates.
He must become more responsible with the puck, especially in the defensive and neutral zones. On the attack, he must shoot the puck when the opportunity presents itself rather than try to force a pass through a defender. He must not pull up consistently along the halfboards but rather drive the play deep.
If Thornton does those things and defends well as he can (only 12 players in the NHL had more than his 37 takeaways, and he finished fourth in faceoffs), he does not need to score more than five points in seven games.