On Wednesday night in Vancouver, the mirror series begins. Two teams, remarkably similar, squads of speed and skill turned toward rawer play, two teams that share much in the way of accomplishments, and more in what they’ve failed to accomplish.
A year ago, the Vancouver Canucks took the best regular-season record into the first round of the playoffs and lasted all of five games, an ignoble feat the San Jose Sharks pulled off four years ago, though the NHL-best Sharks of 2008-09 lasted six games before they were dismissed.
In a four-season run, 2007-08 through 2010-11, the Sharks won their division four times, but could never make the Stanley Cup final, getting trounced in the Western Conference final twice, the last time by the Canucks. Vancouver, meanwhile, has five consecutive division titles, and except for its near Cup victory of 2011, hasn’t made it past the second round.
Time runs short. Two teams, one window.
“We’re not approaching this as a last chance,” veteran Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said Tuesday. “Until any team wins a Stanley Cup, there’s always going to be doubters, naysayers.”
The two teams, in the sometimes itinerant world of pro sports, are something like families. Bieksa, the Sedins, Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and others in Vancouver. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle in San Jose.
“We’ve come a long way together,” said Bieksa, 31, in his eighth NHL season, all of them in Vancouver. “We’ve grown up together.”
In the locker room after a practice full of drills, many of them power play and penalty kill, there were new blue playoff T-shirts at each stall. “In the moment,” was the slogan emblazoned in white on the sleeve.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault evoked the phrase several times when he spoke to reporters. When asked if his team was hungrier this year than last, he was surprisingly frank. He pointed to the window, figuratively, since it was a windowless room, in the bowels of Rogers Arena.
“We’re all getting a little older,” Vigneault said. “I think they understand they’ve been working for this moment, this opportunity, for a long time. … They understand about the window. We’re in our window.”
On both sides of the ice, a window. Open, yet closing.
Of the Sharks’ top five scorers, three are older than 30. Of the Canucks’ top five, four are older than 30. Both are among the older teams in the NHL.
In terms of size, San Jose is decidedly bigger, such as the force of defenceman-turned-forward Brent Burns.
In net, San Jose’s Antti Niemi and Vancouver’s Cory Schneider are equally effective at even strength and in general. Schneider, not yet named the starter after a minor injury, said he felt good on Tuesday: “It’s the playoffs. I want to find a way to play.”
The executive leadership, too, has been in place for years, with some wondering if the losing coach’s job is on the line. Vigneault is in his seventh season with Vancouver, and only Al Arbour with the New York Islanders has won a Cup so late in a coaching tenure with one team.
San Jose’s Todd McLellan is in his fifth year behind the bench. His boss, Doug Wilson, has been general manager for a decade, double the length of Vancouver’s Mike Gillis, whose five-year contract extension, awarded a year ago, begins after this season.
The regular-season records: Vancouver, 26-15-7; San Jose, 25-16-7. The Bodog odds, basically a wash, have Vancouver, the home team, slightly favoured at 4 to 5 compared with San Jose’s 11 to 10.
On special teams, both teams are good, but the Sharks are better on the power play and penalty kill. The Canucks’ power play came alive only in the last throes of the regular season.
On goals for and against, the Canucks were 127-121, the Sharks 124-116.
The most glaring difference is likely in shot differential. The Sharks put an average of 2.8 more pucks per game on net than shots against. The Canucks allowed an average of 0.8 more shots per game against than for shots for.
At the end, there is a window. One team makes it through.