The 2011 Western Conference Finals is upon us, and it should be a dandy. The Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks are arguably the two most exciting teams to watch in the entire NHL. They have many of the best scorers in the league, they have depth among their forwards, and they have some of the best offensive defensemen in the league.
These two teams love to attack and, on March 10th of this year, they provided us with the best game of the regular season. A 5-4 shootout victory by the Canucks in a game that had tons of scoring chances and nothing but end-to-end action had fans drooling at the thought of these teams potentially meeting in the Conference Finals and that’s exactly what has happened.
There are a number of ways to break down this series, but in most categories these teams are dead even. The Canucks did win three of the four games between the teams in the regular season, but three of those four meetings were also decided by one goal (two of them went to a shootout).
Since there really aren’t any areas where one team has a major advantage, this preview will simply serve to provide you with three things to watch in this potentially epic battle between the Canucks and the Sharks.
This may be a wide open series with more scoring chances for both teams, compared to the Canucks' last series with the Nashville Predators. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more goals scored.
The Sharks always seem to bring out the best in Roberto Luongo, and facing the top offensive teams in the playoffs usually brings out the best in Antti Niemi. Luongo only let in a combined three goals in the two games he played against the Sharks in the regular season and Niemi played very well last year in the playoffs when he faced the Canucks as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Combine that with the fact that many of the top scorers for both teams are either hurt, or haven’t been finishing like they normally do, and that’s a recipe for a lot of missed scoring chances.
Mikael Samuelsson had a 50-point regular season for the Canucks, but he is currently out of the lineup with a lower body injury and may not play at all in this series. There is a rumour that Henrik Sedin is also playing hurt, as he not practiced at all for the Canucks since they finished off the Nashville Predators in the second round.
For the Sharks, they might not have any injuries to any top scorers, but two of their all-star forwards have been struggling to find the back of the net lately. Patrick Marleau and Danny Heatley both had just one goal in the entire seven game series in the second round. Of course, no one is saying that these two star forwards can’t turn things around. However, if they continue to squeeze their sticks even a little bit against an elite goaltender like Roberto Luongo, they’ll likely continue to fail on their scoring chances.
So much like the Sharks' seven-game battle with the Detroit Red Wings, expect a back and forth series but don’t expect a ton of 5-4 games in the 2011 NHL Western Conference Finals.
Many fans and members of the media have been critical of Daniel and Henrik Sedin in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs and they have every right to be.
Daniel and Henrik put up 104 and 94 points respectively in the regular season, but in 13 playoff games they have just 10 and nine points respectively and are a combined minus-16. The point totals aren’t terrible, but they don’t come anywhere near the twin's regular season numbers if you average out their points per game. Combine that with their brutal plus/minus numbers and they need to pick it up.
The good news for the Sedins is that they won’t face any defensemen who are quite as tough to play against in this round. The defensive duos of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook for the Chicago Blackhawks, along with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter for the Nashville Predators, are among the very best in the entire NHL at shutting down their opponents.
The Sharks don’t have anyone on their team quite that good at stopping opposing forwards. Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are both very good defensemen, but they are known more for moving the puck and putting up points from the back end than they are for shutting down their opponents. Douglas Murray is tough, but he’s still not in the same class as the defensemen the Sedins had to face on a regular basis in the first two rounds.
Look for Daniel and Henrik to take advantage of this. They had a combined 11 points in the four regular season games between the Canucks and Sharks and are pretty consistent at taking advantage of defenders who aren’t among the best in the league at stopping their opponents.
When looking at how the Sharks defence does against the top scorers on the opposition, take the production of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for the Detroit Red Wings in the last round. The two best forwards on the Red Wings went up against the best defensemen on the Sharks most of the time and they still combined for 17 points in the series.
This is a good sign for the Sedin twins and, unless Henrik’s rumoured injury continues to hinder his performance, look for them to do the same thing against the Sharks.
Goaltending is always a huge part of every single NHL playoff series and this series will be no exception.
Both Roberto Luongo and Antti Niemi will face many scoring chances in this series and I see no reason why either of them can’t be great.
With the exception of a couple of bad games in Round 1, both Luongo and Niemi have been brilliant so far in the playoffs. Niemi was arguably the biggest reason why San Jose defeated the Detroit Red Wings in Round 2 of the playoffs. The Red Wings out-shot the Sharks in four of the seven games played, and had over 30 shots on goal in five of those seven games.
With 35 wins and a .920 save percentage in the regular season, and his performance against Detroit in the playoffs, Niemi has proven that his Stanley Cup run in goal for the Chicago Blackhawks wasn’t just because of the team in front of him. He’s more than just another goalie and he seems to always bring his game to another level against the best teams. The Canucks are one of those teams and, considering how well Niemi played against them in the playoffs last year, don’t be surprised if he does it again this time around.
Roberto Luongo, on the other hand, has flown slightly under the radar for the Canucks in the 2011 NHL playoffs. In Round 2, he was overshadowed by the outstanding series of Pekka Rhinne, the goalie of the Nashville Predators. In Round 1, he was remembered more for the goals he let in than the ones he stopped. But nevertheless, Luongo has been great and would probably be the Canucks MVP in the playoffs so far if it wasn’t for the ridiculous hot streak that Ryan Kesler has been on lately.
Many people consider Luongo to be a poor big game goaltender. But there has only been one elimination game in Luongo’s career that he has played poorly in. It’s a label that I believe is unfair and Luongo is proving that in this years’ playoffs.
Much like Niemi against the Canucks, Luongo has played some of the best games of his career against the San Jose Sharks. Granted, these games took place in the regular season, but he’s never faced the Sharks in the playoffs before. Therefore, we can only look at those games when predicting how he’ll do in this series.
Both goalies will get a lot of work in this series with all the offensive fire power on both teams. But look for them to be at their best when it matters the most, which will make this series extremely close and even more intense.