Western Conference Final Preview

Like the Eastern Conference final, the Western Conference match between the Sharks and Canucks is going to be tough to predict because this series could go either way. One thing that makes it different than the Eastern Conference final is that neither of these two teams are riding high percentages like the Bruins and Lightning were, they are actually two excellent teams that aren’t getting overly lucky this post-season. They are also two of my favorite teams from the Western Conference so I’ll be happy with whomever advances here but, I love to make predictions so let’s dig deeper inside this matchup.

Regular Season

Vancouver was slightly better at controlling play than San Jose was during the regular season and they have a slight luck advantage with their shooting percentage. The Canucks definitely weathered the worst of the storm by eliminating the Hawks in the first round but the Sharks aren’t going to be a pushover either as they also match up pretty well with Vancouver. I know the Canucks had the best powerplay and PK in the league going by success rate but look at how many shots San Jose can generate with the man advantage. Yikes. Vancouver better hope that they can stay disciplined this series. The playoff metrics tell a similar story…

The main difference is that the Canucks were controlling play a lot more during the post-season than the Sharks were. I want to say it was because they faced Nashville in the second round while the Sharks played the Wings but they also played Chicago in the first round while the Sharks played L.A., so that kind of dispels that notion. Also, the powerplay of San Jose has still been clicking and it was the main reason why they won Game 7 against the Red Wings. Vancouver’s powerplay is no slouch either but San Jose’s penalty kill has been notably better than their’s. Like I said earlier, it’s in the ‘Nucks best interest to keep this series at even strength.

Time to dissect the team’s rosters.

Forwards

Canucks

Yikes at the Sedins. They clearly have to be a lot better if the Canucks want to make it out of this series. Daniel was good early in the Chicago series (half of his points are from games 2 and 3) while he was almost shut down completely against Nashville. Granted, the Preds have one of the best top defense pairings in the league but him and Henrik are going to have to be a lot better than they’ve been so far. Kesler was on fire in that Nashville series, though and he is doing it at both ends of the ice. You could almost say that he carried this forward corps through that series. Vancouver’s first two lines have been shifted around a bit with Burrows and Samuelsson being switched back-and-forth on the first line but I think Burrows is the better fit for that line, as he has been playing better. Chris Higgins has been a nice story for the Nucks. Overhyped by a lot of people, he seems to have found a nice spot as a depth player for Vancouver who can occasionally play on the top 2 lines and he’s done that so far and has been very serviceable. The third line for the Canucks has some offensive upside but aren’t used a lot in that role. They still will probably have more of an impact than whoever plays on their forth line, who you can expect to play less than 10 minutes a game. Alain Vigneault is known for riding 2-3 main lines and that’s what he’s done in the playoffs this year. The Canucks have loads of talent here but so far only a few guys have come through….yet they still made it to the conference final.

Sharks

The Sharks line has been playing very well this post-season, including the “gutless” Patrick Marleau. Taking a good amount of defensive zone draws and still managing to put up a lot of points in the process. Interesting that the stats say that Ryan Clowe is struggling because he leads the Sharks in playoff points so far. He has given up a lot of chances at his own end, though which could be the problem. Same goes for Logan Couture, who has six goals and 12 points. That third line has been the most sheltered and all three have been playing good for the most part. I’m sure Pavelski is carrying that line for the most part, though since I don’t think too highly of Wellwood and Mitchell is mostly just a role player. Then there’s the hodgepodge of forwards which make up the 4th line. Eager, Mayers and Nichol are all solid forecheckers, but there’s not much else to say about them. I was actually surprised that Ferriero was given ice time in OT in Game 1 against the Wings where he scored the game-winner. Anyway, the Sharks forward corps is relatively deep but those first two lines are what is going to cause the most damage. It’s encouraging for their fans to know that the Clowe-Couture-Heatley line is still producing even when they aren’t at the top of their games. Having a talent like Pavelski playing on that third line helps them, too.

Defense

Canucks


Bieksa and Hamhuis have given the Canucks something they didn’t have in last year’s playoffs; a solid, shutdown defensive pairing. They log huge minutes and are always against the opponents top line. Bieksa has come a long way since last season and I’m surprised with how much he’s stepped up this year, but I think the addition of Hamhuis has a lot to do with that. The second pairing of Ehrhoff and Edler are mainly known for their work on the powerplay and you can see why by looking at the chart. Lots of offensive zone starts and at even strength, they surrender a lot of chances. It’s strange because Edler wasn’t poor defensively during the regular season. The Canucks bottom defense pairing has changed a lot this season due to injuries and other things. What confuses me the most is that Keith Ballard has been scratched for five games when he’s been playing very well as a physical stay-at-home defenseman. Instead, Vingeault has elected to play Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts ahead of him. To me, that doesn’t make sense if you want this pairing to be a pair that’s solid in their own zone. Salo (if he’s healthy) playing here with Ballard would be a good pairing in my book. The other two? Not so much. Either way, Bieksa and Hamhuis get the toughest minutes and play an average of 25 minutes per night so the bottom-pairing shouldn’t make much of a difference other than giving the Nucks more depth on the back end.

Sharks

I have always been a huge critic of Dan Boyle and said he was a butcher in his own zone but he proved me wrong in the series against Detroit as he may have been the Sharks best player. I still like him more for his playmaking skills rather than his defense but he was simply on another level in the Detroit series. Meanwhile, Douglas Murray is a great compliment to him. Big, physical and great at keeping opposing forwards in check. It makes for an excellent shutdown pairing if Boyle can repeat what he did against the Wings. Vlasic and Demers get the most defensive assignments and have been solid so far, but they see weaker competition than Boyle/Murray. Niclas Wallin has played well in sheltered minutes and Ian White’s stepped up a lot in the playoffs, but he is more of a powerplay threat than a shutdown defenseman. Boyle is obviously the key player here and a main reason why SJ’s powerplay has been so successful, but if picks up where he left off against Detroit then that would be a huge plus for the Sharks.

Goaltending

Yes, I know San Jose had a higher team save percentage in both the regular season in the playoffs and that Niemi won a Cup last year but I will still take Luongo over him with this match-up. Luongo’s actually been very good at even strength (.931), while Niemi’s struggled in that area (.914). Which is another reason why Vancouver will have to stay disciplined this series. Luongo has been brutal on the penalty kill, but most goalies tend to be. I know it’s easy to talk about Luongo’s playoff struggles and how he was pulled twice against Chicago, but let’s not forget that Niemi was yanked twice against Los Angeles, too. He was great against Detroit, though. Both goalies are prone to awful outings but Luongo is far more capable of stealing a game than Niemi is in my opinion.

Prediction:

There’s a lot of questions still unanswered. Can Boyle/Murray do as Nashville did and shut down the Sedin line? Because if they do, then they will take this series. Unlike Nashville, the Sharks have better forwards than Mike Fisher and Joel Ward who can torch Vancouver if they make any mistakes. Then you have to wonder about the secondary scoring of both teams. I would actually take Clowe, Couture, Pavelski and Setoguchi over Burrows, Raymond, Samuelsson and Higgins. Vancouver has the depth on the back-end to halt them, though. San Jose also has a clear advantage with their special teams, so if the Canucks are baited into taking bad penalties, then that will make it a long (or short) series for Vancouver. There seems to be a lot of things that can go right for the Sharks and a lot of questions surrounding the Canucks, which makes me lean towards the Sharks here.  What I do know is that these two teams put on a show the last time they met and I hope every game this series is in that fashion. The best thing is that it won’t end in a shootout.

San Jose in 7

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