The Vancouver Canucks pride themselves on physical fitness.
It's an organizational staple of general manager Mike Gillis, who introduced nutrition plans and player-specific conditioning programs upon his hiring three years ago. In that time, players who have been imported from other NHL organizations have consistently failed to match existing Canucks in the battery of fitness tests conducted at training camp.
Some, like current San Jose Sharks forward Kyle Wellwood, fell woefully short of the mark, while others are close but not quite up to the snuff.
Forward Manny Malhotra and defenceman Christian Ehrhoff were exceptions. Both came from the Sharks, and both fared well against their new teammates at first blush.
For that reason, it's easy to believe Sharks head coach Todd McLellan when he says his team's conditioning is "very good" and doesn't have "any doubts that we can play deep into games, and well into overtime if we have to."
The Sharks are 5-0 in overtime this postseason, but fatigue was most certainly an issue in Game 1 of the Western Conference final, and the Canucks are going to test their capacity to cover the ice as the best-of-seven series continues Wednesday. Coming off a seven-game epic against the Detroit Red Wings, the Sharks lost their third-period legs last Sunday, surrendered two goals, and dropped a 3-2 decision to the Canucks at Rogers Arena.
"You want to get right back on the horse," McLellan said. "In this case, though, I think the extra day [off]will help us."
McLellan and defenceman Douglas Murray said the team was more mentally tired than physically spent, although there was evidence of both, and the coach singled out wingers Dany Heatley and Ryane Clowe for not skating well.
San Jose has lost third-period leads in three of its last four games, and has dropped two of six playoff games when leading after 40 minutes. Defenceman Dan Boyle said it was a matter of not finishing wounded opponents by failing to score the back-breaking goal, and all Sharks put a brave front when asked about their energy levels after 14 playoff games.
"I don't think there is a team, probably in the history of the National Hockey League, that gets to this point if they are poorly conditioned," McLellan said.
McLellan said his team wasted too much energy in its own zone Sunday, and is more accustomed to playing the bulk of games in the offensive zone. But the Canucks don't intend on making that easy.
Defenceman Kevin Bieksa said the Sharks seemed to "wear down" as the game went along, and the Canucks very much believe they can work San Jose's defence and force it into fatigue-fuelled errors. Missing Jason Demers, who was averaging nearly 20 minutes per game, four of the six rearguards dressed in Game 1 were 31 or older and Boyle, Murray and Marc-Édouard Vlasic may be leaned on heavily as the series progresses.
Vancouver wants to chip pucks behind the Sharks defenders, and force them to skate and retrieve. They also want to press on the fore-check, and see if those defencemen can handle the puck as games go along.
Then, there is the matter of size.
San Jose's lineup in Game 1 averaged more than 210 pounds, while Vancouver's checked in at 202 pounds. One dressing room looks like it is filled with linebackers and starting pitchers, while the other looks replete with distance runners and basketball guards.
The Canucks want to force San Jose's big bodies to move and test their opponent's skating. They have speed on the flank with Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen, while San Jose employs more heft on the wing with Clowe, Heatley and Patrick Marleau.
"The Torrey Mitchells and the Mason Raymonds have a huge impact on this series," McLellan said, referencing perhaps the two fastest players per side. "The bulls in the china shop have a huge impact on the series as well - and you need a combination of both."