A year ago, San Jose and Vancouver met in the Western Conference Finals, with the Canucks winning in six games. Both teams are leading their divisions again this year as the NHL approaches All-Star Weekend.
The Canucks, hungry to get back to the Finals after losing in seven games to Boston, are atop the Northwest and their 62 points would get them the #2 seed. The Sharks are at 58 points and would currently slot # in the playoff bracket. One thing to keep in mind is that both Chicago and St. Louis have more points than either Vancouver or San Jose, so if either of the latter loses the division lead and automatic seeding in the top three, it’s a drop down to the bottom of the bracket. This is evidenced by the fact that Los Angeles moved into tie for first last night with San Jose in the Pacific Division, at 58 points apiece, but the Kings are seeded seventh.
Can San Jose and Vancouver overcome the Central Division’s power trio of current #1 seed Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis? Let’s take a closer look at last year’s conference finalists…
Vancouver: The Canucks remain an overall sound hockey team, with no obvious stand-out strengths and with the exception of maybe allowing a few too many shots, no obvious weaknesses. Vancouver ranks near the top of the league in goals scored and goals allowed. Their power play is the NHL’s best and they’re close to the top in the penalty kill.
The Sedin brothers, Daniel and Henrik, remain the core of this team. Henrik is at center, while Daniel operates on the right wing, and both are adept at scoring and passing. You also can’t overlook Alex Burrows, who’s a Top 30 scorer himself—that benchmark being chosen because it suggests that if talent were equally distributed, Burrows is good enough to be the lead scorer for somebody.
This core group is enough to get Vancouver where they are right now and that’s contention. They had problems defensively in last year’s Cup Finals though. Roberto Luongo can go back-and-forth from being a championship-caliber goalie to being a train wreck—against Boston last June he managed to do both in the course of a seven-game series. Backup Cory Schneider is capable, but any team with designs on the Cup clearly wants one guy they can count on for a shutdown performance in the postseason. And the fact the Canucks rank 16th in shots allowed suggests that the work of the defensemen, led by Alexander Edler and Kevin Biecksa, needs to be called into question.
My impression of Vancouver is that this is a fundamentally good team that can win a title if all breaks right, but is probably more likely to lose in the playoffs. Although Canucks fans, take heart—that’s the same description you can apply to the New England Patriots and they’ve made their own version of the Finals.
San Jose: The Sharks’ strength is their defense, and in particular the work of defenseman Marc-Eduoard Vlasic and Dan Boyle, who lead up a group that provides good depth and does solid work in preventing shots on goal. San Jose gets respectable goaltending work from Antti Niemi. While in an ideal world you might like to see a stronger goalie, Niemi is good enough to go deep into the playoffs with.
Where you have to be concerned with San Jose is on offense, and in particular, how well they’re working together to get shots. A strange statistical anomaly has the Sharks as producing the most shots in the league, but only ranking 13th in goals scored. Huh? Maybe in one game, or even a series, you can write that off to a hot goalie. When it’s the cumulative result against everyone after more than half a season. It suggests something isn’t right.
I don’t get to see the Sharks play, so I can’t answer the question definitively. But looking at the numbers makes me wonder if these are just shots wildly launched at the goalie that draw oohs and aahs from the crowd, but have little chance of finding the net. Are there rebounders and screeners in position? I don’t know. What we do know is that the talent level on San Jose’s frontline is down, as center Joe Thornton is now 32 years old and there’s no other reliable scorers out there.
You can never say never about anyone in the NHL playoffs, least of all a pair of division leaders. But San Jose definitely doesn’t like a championship team this year, and Vancouver appears maybe a notch off the pace.