WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
(No. 1) Vancouver Canucks v. (No. 2) San Jose Sharks
Season series: 3-1 for Vancouver
O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!
Henrik Sedin (Vancouver) and Joe Thornton (San Jose) are both first-year captains, who've also won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player in the post-lockout era. Sedin replaced Roberto Luongo in the role and it immediately changed the leadership dynamic in the Canucks locker room for the better, permitting Luongo to focus on goaltending. Thornton took over after Rob Blake retired and though his off-ice personality is relaxation personified, he is a lead-by-example type. Thornton has ramped up the emotion and will during the postseason and gave a dynamic performance in the decisive Game 7 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
Luongo faltered at times against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, but came back strong against a scoring-challenged Nashville Predators team in the second. San Jose's offensive depth will provide a far greater challenge. Antti Niemi was in goal last year, when the Blackhawks knocked out the Canucks en route to the Stanley Cup championship. Niemi's raw numbers aren't as good as Luongo's, but he is a perfect 6-0 in his playoff career in series played and has a knack for making timely saves with the game on the line.
HOW SWEDE IT IS
Vancouver's heavy contingent of Swedish players (Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Mikael Samuelsson, Alexander Edler) will face only one of their countrymen, Douglas Murray, who plays on the top defence pair and is one of the most accomplished open-ice hitters in the same, a fierce physical presence who, along with Dan Boyle, will likely be matched against the Sedins whenever the Sharks get the last change.
The Canucks and Sharks had the NHL's Nos. 1 and 2 power plays in the regular season, respectively, but only Vancouver has been able to carry that over into the playoffs (22.2 per cent through 13 games). San Jose was a grim 12.5 per cent going into the seventh game against Detroit, but got a goal from Devin Setoguchi that was ultimately the difference in the game. Thornton remains one of the purest natural passers in the NHL, while Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler, who were Nos. 1 and 4 with 18 and 15 power-play goals in the regular season, respectively, both have three apiece now.
THE MERRY CHRISTMAS
Christian Ehrhoff, arguably Vancouver's No. 1 puck-moving defenceman, joined the Canucks largely as a result of a San Jose salary dump two years ago. Assuming Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis will be asked to check Thornton's line, Ehrhoff and Edler will likely be seeing a lot of ice time against Dany Heatley and Co.
DID YOU KNOW?
Though he doesn't have a reputation as a clutch player, Patrick Marleau's series-clinching goal against Detroit was the 13th playoff game-winner of his NHL career, third-highest total among active NHL players after Chris Drury (17) and Mike Modano (15).
THE HIDDEN STAT
Only eight current NHLers have three or more playoff overtime goals in their careers, but three play for the Sharks (Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski and Niclas Wallin).
Calder Memorial Trophy candidate Logan Couture is fast developing a reputation for timely scoring, scoring points in six of seven games against Detroit, including goals in each of the final three games. Earlier this year, he broke a record set in 1982 by Steve Larmer when he scored his seventh game-winner of the season on the road against the Washington Capitals en route to a 32-goal rookie campaign.
VANCOUVER WINS IF
The Canucks take advantage of the six days of rest they earned by eliminating Nashville in six games. San Jose was stretched to the physical and emotional limit by Detroit and could be fatigued in the early stages of this series. The Canucks will be much harder physically on the Sharks than the Red Wings were.
SAN JOSE WINS IF
The lessons of last year's conference final sweep at the hands of the Blackhawks sink in. The Sharks fell behind early and had no answers once they did. Winger Ryane Clowe believes they've matured since that frozen moment in time and have the ability and will to take the next step with a deeper all-around team.
Eric Duhatschek pick: Vancouver in seven games
David Shoalts pick: San Jose in seven games