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San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton, 19, Patrick Marleau, back left, and Dan Boyle, right, celebrate Marleau's goal against the Vancouver Canucks during the second period of game 1 of the NHL Western Conference final Stanley Cup playoff hockey series in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday May 15, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (Darryl Dyck/CP)
San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton, 19, Patrick Marleau, back left, and Dan Boyle, right, celebrate Marleau's goal against the Vancouver Canucks during the second period of game 1 of the NHL Western Conference final Stanley Cup playoff hockey series in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday May 15, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Gary Mason

Can the Canucks, Sharks seize opportunity? Add to ...

The Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks entered the opening game of the Western Conference final Sunday night carrying a similar burden of expectations and playing against an analogous backdrop of circumstances.

Both teams have, in recent years, dominated their divisions and won the Presidents' Trophy. While San Jose has been considered more of a serious Stanley Cup contender than Vancouver over the last six or seven years, both teams enter this series looking through a not dissimilar window of opportunity. San Jose's Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, for instance, are just a year older than the Sedins of Vancouver. The mean age of the core group of both teams is comparable.

"We're just coming into our prime," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said on Sunday. "We figure we have a three or four-year window now with our best players. We have experience to build on in terms of the experiential learning [in the playoffs]the last couple of years, which is a good thing."

Vancouver GM Mike Gillis agrees his team is looking through very much the same window.

And while that window is open, both teams have an opportunity to gravitate to the top of the NHL power structure, to be recognized as great organizations in the way, say, the Detroit Red Wings are. Gillis has never shied away from saying he is trying to emulate the Wings' method of operation. Detroit is the NHL gold standard against which all clubs are measured.

While Wilson plays down the suggestion that a team needs a Stanley Cup to be considered an elite NHL organization, Gillis does not. He says the pedigree of any team that wants to be included in the same breath as the Detroits of the world has to include the big prize.

"Absolutely," Gillis said Sunday. "Until you've won it all, you can't be considered in that category no matter how well you may have done in the regular season over the years. Having said that, I also know how difficult it is, even to reach this point.

"To get out of the first round in today's NHL is a stunningly hard thing to do. It's a war. The first round is an absolute war."

Regardless of who wins this round, both teams are likely to be Western Conference powerhouses for the foreseeable future. While no one can ever rule Detroit out, it does look as if the team is closing in on an overhaul given the age of the club. Certainly if Nick Lidstrom retires, as many believe he will, the Wings' Cup chances in the next few years will be dealt a severe blow.

Chicago, of course, could bounce back next season. It has as talented a core group as Vancouver or San Jose. Still, there's a better than even chance that over the next few years, either the Sharks or Canucks will emerge to fight for the Cup. A new world order is being established in the West.

That is why you don't want to waste any opportunity you get if you make it this far. San Jose has frittered away a couple of these chances over the past seven years, including last year. Vancouver's last appearance in the conference final was 1994. That said, it would rather not have to come back next year talking about how its loss to the Sharks was a good learning experience.

And as Gillis freely admits, it makes it easier on an organization if its Cup-contending team can win it all soon after its window of opportunity has opened. It takes pressure off everyone. Should San Jose lose in the conference final again this year, the strain on the Sharks' players will only become that much more unbearable next season.

Both teams want to prove they have figured out the formula that makes them the best. Both teams know that their division pennants and Presidents' Trophy wins will be justified only when their names are engraved on the Stanley Cup.

"Winning the Cup is the legitimizer of the season," Gillis said. "It legitimizes careers, it legitimizes organizations, it allows everybody to take a deep breath and get that much better. It's huge."

That's what's at stake here.

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