Canucks Versus Sharks – First Round Playoff Preview

Leigh Ramsden May 1, 2013 15
sharks canucksPhoto by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Canucks finished off their regular season campaign last Saturday night, icing a shorthanded squad against the Edmonton Oilers.  A late third period collapse sealed the Canucks’ fate in the mean-nothing affair, the team already locked into third place in the conference and a date against the loser of last season’s Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings and the perennial underachieving San Jose Sharks.  The Kings came out on top and this ensured the Canucks a repeat of their 2011 conference final against the teal-clad team from the San Francisco Bay Area.

The two teams are being touted as mirror images by many, with most pointing to the similarities in their playoff success (or lack thereof) all the while being dominant (or, at a minimum, very good) during the regular season.  Both sides have been accused of not having heart or grit.  Canuck fans will be very familiar with the constant sniping about the Art Ross-winning “sisters”, while the Sharks boast their own whipping boys in Jumbo Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.  It’s generally thought that the coach that loses this series will, in turn, lose their job.  In reality, both sides are at a point where the proverbial “window” is closing and the time to win is now.

Specifically with the Canucks, there’s a real sense of fatigue in the fan base.  Somewhat surprisingly, the team has struggled to sell all its inventory of playoff tickets – in a market that has sold out Rogers Arena for something in the neighbourhood of 10 years, ranking it the fourth longest sellout streak in North America. The is a myriad reasons for this, but maintaining the same core and coaching staff, year in year out, regardless of the fact the team hasn’t won it all or seemingly learnt from its mistakes is starting to wear on Canucks Nation. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the Sharks’ fan base feels somewhat similar.  The bottom line is that both these teams need to make a deep run into the playoffs in order to prove out their historical long-term strategy – and a first round loss for either franchise will almost undoubtedly lead to massive, potentially sweeping changes.

How do these teams stack up against each other? Without further ado, let’s take a deeper look.

SEASON RECORD AND SEASON SERIES

The Canucks fumbled and bumbled their way to a somewhat unimpressive fifth-straight Northwest Division crown with a record of 26-15-7 for a total of 59 points.  The Sharks finished a mere two points in arrears with a record of 25-16-7.  As I mentioned last night, the Canucks’ record in regulation was 20-15, while San Jose was only able to generate a record of 17-16 in 60 minutes.  The Sharks lived off their success in the shootout, posting 8 wins in the skills competition.  Regardless of all this, the two teams performed very similarly against playoff calibre opposition, the Canucks at 7-8 and the Sharks at 9-9.  All in all, these are middling records at best.  It’s difficult to decide who has an edge based on this analysis.

It’s been well documented that the Canucks weren’t able to take a game from the Sharks this season, the team from San Jose beating the Canucks twice in regulation and once in a shootout.  Only the first game, played early in the season when the Canucks were still getting their legs and while the Sharks were on an impressive run to start the season, was decided by more than one goal. Games between the two sides have taken a turn to the mundane recently, as the Sharks now play a more sound, defensive-oriented approach bolstered by their surefire Vezina nominee, Antti Niemi.  The Canucks similar metamorphosis to dead puck hockey has been lamented in this space on numerous occasions.

Given the nature of this short season and the tight nature of these games, there’s not much to be concluded on the head to head games – difficult to gauge which team has the edge.

GOALTENDING

Antti Niemi burst on to the scene in 2010 with Chicago, backstopping the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup with his unorthodox butterfly style, before being signed away by the Sharks when Chicago had to dismantle its team for salary cap reasons.  After a couple of up and down years, Niemi came into his own in 2013.  Niemi had a great season and is widely viewed as a likely Vezina nominee.  Niemi sports an EV SV% of .930 after playing in 43 of his team’s 48 games, ranking him 10th amongst starting NHL netminders.

The goaltending saga in Vancouver has been discussed ad nauseum, but needless to say, the Canucks boast not one, but two of the league’s best goaltenders.  Number one goalie Cory Schneider ended up with 30 games after assuming the mantle from incumbent Roberto Luongo, and statistically edged Niemi in the all-important EV SV% metric, posting a mark of .931.  This is obviously the thinnest of margins (i.e. it equates to one goal for every 1,000 shots).  Schneider also bested Niemi with five shutouts in his 30 games, compared to four in 43 games.

While he’s been great this season and continues to completely take away the bottom of the net, I’ve just never been sold on Niemi.  On the other hand, I’ve watched Schneider become one of the league’s best.  Schneider lacks the playoff experience that Niemi holds, but I don’t care – even with a couple of bad outings, Schneider’s stats tell me he’s the real deal.  Similar to last year, the Canucks also have a fail safe in Luongo on the bench.  I’m going to give the edge here to the Canucks.

DEFENSE

The Kings finished the season with 112 goals against, good for sixth in the NHL.  The Canucks were tied for ninth at 115 goals allowed.

The Sharks re-tooled at the deadline, moving massive Lurch look-alike Douglas Murray and acquiring a past his prime Scott Hannan.  In addition, San Jose coach Todd McLelland moved versatile Brent Burns to forward.  The Sharks defensive corps is led by metal-loving veteran Dan Boyle, who saw his minutes decrease as he crossed the wrong side of 36.  Boyle didn’t put up the kind of numbers offensively that we are used to, but probably spent a lot of time covering/mentoring for rookie Matt Irwin.  Most view young Marc-Edouard Vlasic as the Sharks’ top defenseman, drawing the opposition’s best players alongside partner Justin Braun.  The bottom pair features the aforementioned Hannan with another ex-Shark who returned to the fold in Brad Stuart.  One thing this defense corps lacks that has troubled the Canucks in each of their past five playoff failures is a Norris-trophy calibre defenseman.

After monkeying around with his pairings for much of the season, Canucks’ coach Alain Vigneault looks as though he’s settled on a top four featuring Hamhuis-Garrison and Bieksa-Edler.  The bottom pair will be manned by impressive (so far) rookie Frankie Corrado skating alongside big Andrew Alberts.  Keith Ballard appears to (again) be the odd-man out, and Chris Tanev remains injured.  The defense has been the core of the team’s success for a number of years and given the focus on defense in the West, this continued to be the case this year.  One area where the Canucks’ D is clearly superior is offensively, with all top-4 defensemen having some level of offensive prowess.  In a series as tight as this one, offense may have to come from areas other than where you’d normally expect.

Finally, I want to make special mention of Alex Edler.  He’s never been my favourite player and I tend to be highly critical of him.  With all that said, he’s been playing his best hockey of the season down the stretch and at times has reminded fans what he can provide when he’s on top of his game.  His tendency to disappear, like in playoffs past, needs to stop now if this team is to get over the top.

All in all, the depth of the Canucks defense and its ability to generate offense from the back gives the Canucks a definite advantage in this area. 

FORWARDS

As I touched on last night, the Sharks’ top-nine is led by three top-quality centres – Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelski.  Surrounding this impressive trio include Marleau, converted defenseman Burns, Martin Havlat, T.J. Galiardi, ex-Canuck Raffi Torres, and a number of other lesser-known entities.  Scott Gomez, the butt of many jokes, anchors the fourth line alongside ex-Hawk Adam Burish. 

None of the previously high-flying Sharks had a stellar campaign offensively, but this may be a result of a more defense-oriented approach.  For my money, Thornton remains one of the game’s most gifted passers and as he gets on in age, he has something to prove.  The Sharks have a very deep, balanced forward group and while they won’t overcome you with their talent the way a Chicago or Pittsburgh might, McLelland has them playing a solid, balanced brand of hockey. Further, in my opinion, Joe Pavelski is one of the best “third line” centres in the entire league and he has a knack for scoring timely goals. 

Unfortunately this depth is something the Canucks may have difficulty contending with and this problem completely validates the Derek Roy acquisition.  This will put an extreme amount of pressure on the coaches to get the matchups they want, and will likely feed into this being a series where it will be very difficult for visiting teams to get a win.  I suspect the Canucks’ top line of Sedin-Sedin-Burrows will have a good series, and it will be up to the Kesler and Roy units to neutralize whomever they draw against.

Much to my chagrin, Vigneault spent the majority of the last 8-10 games of the season fiddle-farting around with the line combinations.  Based on practice today, it looks like Kesler and Roy will be split up, Kesler centering a physical unit between Zack Kassian and Chris Higgins, leaving Roy to skate with the speedier Jannik Hansen and Mason Raymond.  Other than breaking up Roy and Higgins, I don’ t have a big problem with this as it plays to each line’s strengths and leaves Hansen in a more appropriate third-line role.

That said, the Sharks’ depth up front is formidable and for that reason, I’m giving them the edge as this series begins.

COACHING/INTANGIBLES

As I touched on at the beginning of this article, both coaches are on the hot seat as they face off against each other.  McLelland has proven to be a good coach, but the lingering thought here comes back to his team’s struggles on the biggest stage in the playoffs.

This is a criticism from which Vigneault can’t escape as well. While I generally regard AV as a very good coach, I’ve really turned my thinking on him this season as the number of his baffling decisions continues to mount up and his apparent inability to motivate the team to play to their fullest potential endures.  There have been too many nights over the past season and a half where after a Canucks’ loss, one if left thinking they could have won had they tried a bit harder or played a bit smarter.  I forgave this pattern last year, thinking that the 2011 Cup run taught the team how it had to play every game come playoff time, only to be reminded in the worst possible way how quickly a series can go down the drain.

The Sharks will be a motivated group.  Thornton has played well the past few playoffs and he’s effectively shaken his previous reputation for disappearing come playoff time.  Their work ethic has been high all season long.  Most importantly, they have talked openly about avenging the loss to the Canucks in the 2011 semifinal.

The Canucks SHOULD be a motivated group, but based on the evidence we have before us, is there anything suggesting this motivation is guaranteed to be present?   The work ethic and commitment has appeared from time to time (such as it did last week against Chicago), and when it does, the Canucks are a force to be reckoned with.  Still, this level of inconsistency just won’t do in a short, seven game playoff series.

Beyond motivation, the Canucks have also appeared in all their recent playoff failures to struggle to adapt to a different set of circumstances as a forced by their opponent.  For example, when Boston turned up the heat physically, the Canucks had no response, continuing to attempt to draw penalties even while their PP stagnated.

On the subject of penalties, I have written almost the entire preview without discussing Kesler.  It might be just me, but I have seen a different Ryan Kesler this season (albeit in a limited number of games) than over the past couple of years. Gone is the petulant, whiny player who dove at almost every opportunity.  Instead, we have a player who talks openly in post-game pressers about being “embarrassed” by his own performance. It might be just a feeling, but it seems that Kesler is finally learning what it takes to truly lead a group of teammates.  A healthy, engaged Ryan Kesler, who’s playing the game the right way, is an intangible that few other teams can match.

I’ve written a fair bit on coaching and intangibles and that’s for a reason – I really believe this series is going to come down to these factors, there being too little to choose between these two teams otherwise.

SUMMARY AND PREDICTION

In my opinion, the Canucks hold a slight edge in net and on the back end, while the Sharks’ depth up front gives them a more significant edge in that area.  Because of this, expect the Canucks to continue to stress defense and limiting San Jose’s opportunities – expect some low scoring games.  The Sharks, on the other hand, will try to work the matchups up front in their favour, which should give them a definite leg up in the HP Pavilion (a building in which the Canucks have historically struggled, and where San Jose lost only two games in regulation all season long). Because of this, the difference between the two clubs is very small and I don’t suspect either team will be able to roll over the other. 

As I alluded to above, the key to the series may boil down to intangibles. It’s a cliché, but with two evenly matched teams, whichever one wants it more and is more willing to pay the price to win, for a full 60 minutes each night, should emerge victorious. The harder working team will generally draw more penalties, and these two teams have very good power plays (the Sharks led the league and while the Canucks struggled most of the year, they ended with a conversion rate of 25%  over the last 12 games and generally looked dangerous in this time period).

Can the Canucks draw upon their experience in 2011 and their other recent failures to drive them this time around?  Or will the Sharks, a lot of playoff failures under their belt as well, be the team to play the right way? The answer to these questions will likely determine the winner.

I’ve struggled to pick a winner in this series for days. Every time I think I’ve convinced myself, I end up flip flopping back.  Ultimately, maybe it’s just the gun-shy Canuck fan in me, but I haven’t felt like this team has in it what it’s going to take to win all year long.  I haven’t seen anything that leads me to believe they will suddenly find what the Kings did last year – tremendous consistency in their approach to each and every game.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the Canucks will tease us with one of their great, engaged performances early in this series, before taking their foot off the gas and giving it right back.  Losing home ice advantage in this series will be difficult to overcome, given San Jose’s success in the Bay Area.

While it pains me to say this, I’m going to have to go against my heart in this one.

Sharks in seven.