The Western Conference Finals open Sunday between the two best teams in the Western Conference, and the series has all the makings of a classic battle.
The last time Vancouver appeared in the Western Finals was back in 1994, with Trevor Linden, Kirk McLean and some young Russian guy named Pavel Bure.
The Sharks and Canucks have had some memorable games this season, including a key 4-3 loss back in January. The loss led to postgame comments from Ryane Clowe, who openly challenged his teammates and signified a turning point to the season.
With all the chips pushed into the pot, the two best teams in the Western Conference now prepare to do battle.
Both teams have a checkered history in the playoffs, both teams eventually beat their respective rivals after blowing a 3-0 lead in their series and both teams are without a Stanley Cup to their name.
Here are the keys to defeating the Vancouver Canucks and advancing to the Sharks’ first Stanley Cup Final ever.
Vancouver boasts a myriad of offensive skill players, defensive stalwarts and depth that would rival any NHL roster. They are the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season with an excellent power play in the playoffs.
The Canucks have also overcome their own battle with history, eventually beating the Chicago Blackhawks after blowing a 3-0 series lead.
The Sharks have beaten the Canucks just once this season, 2-1, behind Joe Pavelski’s shootout winner back in late January. Vancouver has enjoyed playing at HP Pavilion this season and recorded its first victory on San Jose ice since 1997 in early November.
Most of the other regular season matchups have been one-sided affairs, as Vancouver has outscored San Jose 17-10 this year. San Jose hasn't had much success against the Canucks this season but finished with a tremendous effort against Vancouver before falling 5-4 in a shootout.
This series may very well boil down to the lessons learned by both teams after blowing their respective 3-0 series leads.
The Sharks must maintain focus to prevent the late-game collapses that allowed the Red Wings to storm back in the series. Against a deeper defense in Vancouver, the Sharks must play strong in their own zone and maintain focus to advance to their very first Stanley Cup Final.
After struggling against Detroit for much of the semifinals, the San Jose Sharks stabilized their play in both Games 6 and 7 by starting Ben Eager. The fourth line for San Jose has struggled for the better part of the playoffs and must answer the call against a very deep Canuck team.
With 13 skaters with at least a goal, the Canucks are reaping the benefits from some of the smaller, unheralded moves GM Mike Gillis made before the deadline.
Chris Higgins has three goals and one assist so far, and Maxim Lapierre has been a solid contributor in the playoffs as well.
Ben Eager-Scott Nichol-Benn Ferriero must get off to a fast start and for five to seven minutes must play defensively sound hockey. Bottom line is, they cannot be a liability on the ice and must outperform the Cody Hodgson-Tanner Glass-Mikael Samuelsson Vancouver line.
Both teams have had unheralded support in closing out their semifinal series on the fourth line, as Jeff Tambellini started in place of Samuelsson and delivered a very solid performance for Vancouver.
Likewise for San Jose, Eager was in coach Todd McLellan’s doghouse for the majority of the playoffs before returning for Games 6 and 7. His size and skating has improved the play for the Sharks' fourth line, and they must maintain this pace against the Canucks.
The Vancouver Canucks have truly enjoyed a breakout season, having dispatched the Chicago Blackhawks and advanced past the second round.
You can’t talk about Vancouver, of course, without talking about the Sedin twins, who make up one of the most dynamic lines in hockey.
Daniel Sedin won the Art Ross Trophy with 104 points, and his twin Henrik finished fourth in scoring with 94. They’ve been relatively quiet in the postseason, however, with Daniel leading the way with six goals and four assists in 13 games.
They combined for three goals and eight assists against the Sharks in the season series, recording a plus-six along the way.
Patrick Marleau led the Sharks in scoring during the regular season with 73 points and for the second season in a row scored the series clincher against the Detroit Red Wings in the semifinals.
Ryane Clowe has led the Sharks in scoring during the postseason, and Joe Thornton is playing some of the best playoff hockey of his career. Joe will have his work cut out for him after having his way against the Red Wings and a gimpy Pavel Datsyuk in the faceoff circle however.
Vancouver has two of the very best faceoff men in the NHL in Ryan Kesler and Manny Malhotra. Although the Canucks have officially stated Malhotra is still out due to his unfortunate eye injury suffered earlier in the year, he has been skating of late.
After facing off against Jonathan Toews to a near stalemate in the quarterfinals, Kesler has broken through in the semifinals, scoring five goals and six assists against the Predators. Kesler also failed to score a goal against San Jose in their regular season series but played a huge role in shutting down Marleau.
Marleau and Kesler have both shouldered blame for previous postseason failures, and both will play huge roles for their respective teams in the West Finals.
Which one of them will lead his team into the Stanley Cup Final?
Devin Setoguchi has been a monster in the playoffs so far
Make no mistake—the Vancouver Canucks boast the deepest and arguably the best defensive corps in the NHL and roll out four very good lines at any given time. Dan Hamhuis has been a steady rock for the Canucks all season, and Kevin Bieksa might be having his best year ever.
A familiar face in Christian Ehrhoff is leading the way for Vancouver with nine points in 13 games, Dan Boyle checks in ahead of Ehrhoff with 11 points and had his best performance in Game 7.
Alexander Burrows has been the playoff hero for Vancouver, recording four goals and four assists.
San Jose will be hard pressed to match the depth and excellence of the Vancouver blue line and will need to stay focused to prevent late-game collapses.
The Sharks’ second and third lines have paved the way to their second consecutive Western Conference Finals and need to continue their play against Vancouver.
The second line of Dany Heatley-Logan Couture-Ryane Clowe dominated the Red Wings in the early going of the series. Torrey Mitchell-Joe Pavelski-Kyle Wellwood continue to be red-hot since their inception in March, and secondary scoring is not an issue for San Jose this year.
With seven goals and 12 assists in the playoffs so far, the Sharks’ third line will play the biggest role against Vancouver.
The obvious standout line for the Canucks would be the Chris Higgins-Ryan Kesler-Mason Raymond combination, combining for nine goals and 15 assists so far in the playoffs. Vancouver’s Raffi Torres-Maxim Lapierre-Jannik Hansen line has played decently, but with three goals and three assists they will need to step up their play to keep the pace.
The Canucks see another familiar face as they prepare to take on Antti Niemi again, who just a year ago foiled Vancouver in convincing fashion after struggling in the early going.
As he did against the Kings, Niemi struggled against the Canucks before closing them out with a .967 save percentage to lead the Blackhawks. His stellar play was more of the same against the Detroit Red Wings, outdueling Jimmy Howard while facing some of the league’s best snipers in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
Vancouver put down two very good goalies in Corey Crawford (.927 save percentage) and Pekka Rinne (.931 save percentage), so Niemi has his work cut out for him.
For Roberto Luongo, he’ll be facing a much different team than the one he just faced in the Nashville Predators. Not always known for his playoff performances, Luongo is playing inspired hockey and just may be taking the next step for the Vancouver Canucks.
Luongo redeemed himself in Game 7 against the Blackhawks, coming up with several huge saves in overtime. He was also very good against the Predators, but they were severly overmatched against the Canucks.
Joel Ward is a nice player, but the Sharks will be bringing a completely different level of skill and depth to the table. Luongo was lights-out against San Jose during the regular season, posting a 1-0-1 record and a microscopic 0.96 goals-against with a superb .975 save percentage.
Could the week of rest put some rust into his game? The Sharks certainly hope so.
This series against the Canucks figures to be every bit as hard-fought and close as the Detroit Red Wings series. But the Sharks penalty kill will have to continue improving against the top-ranked power-play unit in the regular season.
The Canucks with the man advantage have not fallen far from the regular season pace, operating at a 22.2 percent rate.
San Jose has improved its penalty kill from the horrendous showing in the quarterfinals and late in the semifinals started to find its groove.
The power play for San Jose continues to befuddle, going scoreless in its last 13 chances before Devin Setoguchi broke through at 12:20 of the first period in Game 7. The Sharks will need to find more consistency in this area against the Canucks' penalty killers.
As close as the Red Wing series was, the Vancouver Canucks pose a very different skill set and challenge, and the Sharks must come out with the same hunger and earn at least a split in BC.
For the second year in a row, San Jose has the chance to advance to its first ever Stanley Cup Final. Their season of redemption has the Vancouver Canucks in their path, and the Sharks cannot forget the important lessons learned against Detroit.