For the second time in three years, the Sharks will face the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A lot has changed for both clubs since that fateful bounce of the puck off a Rogers Arena stanchion and onto the stick of Kevin Bieksa dashed the Sharks' 2011 playoff hopes and paved the road to the Final for Vancouver. For one thing, the NHL's transition to seamless glass in all of its arenas means that stanchion no longer actually exists.
In terms of more substantive changes, franchise villain Raffi Torres will skate for the Sharks this time around after wreaking havoc in Vancouver blue the last time these teams met in postseason action. Ex-Canuck Kyle Wellwood is no longer a Shark while ex-Shark Christian Ehrhoff is no longer a Canuck. After a brilliant performance against San Jose throughout that Conference Final series including a 54-save effort in the deciding Game 5, Roberto Luongo isn't even expected to start for Vancouver should Cory Schneider's "body" injury heal in time. Meanwhile, after being lit up to the tune of 20 goals on 153 shots over the course of those five games, Antti Niemi is coming off a Vezina-caliber season and represents one of the more compelling reasons to expect the Sharks to come out of this thing alive.
But what hasn't changed is that both of these teams remain among the best in the Western Conference; legitimate Cup contenders with deep and skillful rosters . They also both exited the playoffs in short order last spring, each losing to physical juggernauts in five-game first round series, which only serves to ratchet up the intrigue and stakes of this matchup. Although Vancouver is a decidedly better draw for the Sharks than the team that felled them a year ago in St. Louis or the one that eliminated the Canucks in Los Angeles, this should still be a dogfight of a series that could go either way. Here are four keys to ensuring it ends in San Jose's favor.
1. Let them play JerkPuck™
This one deserves a bit of an explanation. Since taking the reins as Canucks GM five years ago, Mike Gillis has brought an influx of creative thinking to the organization ranging from the hiring of a "sleep doctor" to pumping up Cody Hodgson's trade value by starting his shifts almost exclusively in the offensive zone. One of his Moneyball-esque innovations has been what blogger Cam Charron appropriately termed JerkPuck:
But the Vancouver Canucks have diverged even further from this "money puck" route. The addition of Maxim Lapierre, as well as the maturation of Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows leads to a newly constructed term. It's not so much 'MoneyPuck' because we're talking about something larger than merely winning hockey games by finding undervalued players. More accurate, I'd describe it as: 'JerkPuck,' defined as a method of winning games by frustrating the opposition, trolling them, and baiting them into taking dumb penalties.
This was an enormously effective strategy when the Canucks' power play was the cream of the NHL crop but its cratering to 22nd in the NHL in efficiency this season makes JerkPuck a less viable strategy for Vancouver than it used to be. That's especially the case because the team's 15.8% power play conversion percentage doesn't belie its true talent in that department the way raw PP efficiency numbers are wont to do in small samples. By the most predictive measure of power play success available--shot rate--the Canucks ranked 23rd in the league. San Jose was 1st.
Both teams are equipped with formidable penalty kill units but the discrepancy in the effectiveness of their respective power plays is what really makes this a key to the series for the Sharks. There's a flipside to the JerkPuck coin: the Canucks have ranked fourth or higher in the West in times shorthanded each of the past three seasons. While conventional wisdom dictates that being pushed around is an easy way to lose a playoff series, the Sharks ought not to care all that much about Kesler, Burrows or Bieksa's post-whistle antics, on-ice embellishment or borderline stickwork. If Vancouver plans to make this a penalty-filled series, that's an outcome the Sharks should welcome. If this series is decided on special teams, the Sharks will win it.
2. Separate Scott Hannan and Brad Stuart
The preferable way to accomplish this would be by duct-taping Scott Hannan to the press box and letting an inexperienced but almost certainly superior defenseman in Matt Tennyson get his feet wet in the postseason waters. Unfortunately, that seems awfully unlikely to happen which is disheartening given the eerie resemblance of the situation currently surrounding the Sharks' defense to what occurred two years ago when the Sharks and Canucks met in the Western Conference Final.
In the midst of an excellent postseason that received rave reviews from someone with a pretty good conception of the sport in Mike Babcock, Jason Demers sustained an injury following the Sharks' Game 7 victory over Detroit in the second round and was unable to draw into the lineup against the Canucks. Rather than use then-rookie Justin Braun, the Sharks' coaching staff opted to insert Kent Huskins into the lineup, saddling poor Marc-Edouard Vlasic with an immobile and frankly useless partner. History appears poised to repeat itself; Demers is out with a leg injury and a capable rookie puck-mover in Tennyson is available to replace him but the chances he skates a shift this postseason are slim to none.
Hannan's usefulness as an NHL defenseman ended when the lockout did. No, not the lockout that engulfed half of this season. The 2004-05 lockout. He can hardly skate, is allergic to the puck and, worst of all, is being paired with a defenseman who possesses many of the same deficiencies that he does. The thought of speedy wingers like Mason Raymond, Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins driving wide on either of these two is nightmare-inducing, as are the turnovers that the Canucks' forecheck will surely force Stuart and Hannan to commit. Seventeen to eighteen minutes a night of Hannan and Stuart puts the Sharks at a severe disadvantage in a series where they could use every edge they can possibly manufacture.
3. Set Joe Thornton up to succeed
A somewhat overlooked aspect of the Sharks' mid-season turnaround that has them on a practice rink in Vancouver today rather than clearing out their lockers in San Jose was Todd McLellan's marked shift in forward deployment. After gradually weaning Joe Thornton onto incrementally more difficult matchups in each of his first three seasons behind the bench, McLellan used Thornton in a strict power-versus-power role last year. If Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar or Ryan Getzlaf was on the ice, so was Thornton. That continued through the start of this season but changed the same time the team opted to move Joe Pavelski to third-line center and pair Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture on the de facto second line.
Since then, when McLellan has last change or is able to deftly outmaneuver opposing coaches on the road, it's Couture who has drawn the toughest matchups with Pavelski playing quite a bit against second-tier opponents. That opens up the Joe Thornton line to on-ice mismatches and in this series will likely mean the Sharks captain, Brent Burns and T.J. Galiardi see a good deal of even-strength ice time against what appears to be the Canucks' third line of Raymond, Hansen and Derek Roy. They're a talented line but I'm not sure that trio would have a height advantage over either Thornton or Burns if they piled one on top of the other inside a trench coat.
For all the overwrought and patently false narratives surrounding Joe Thornton's career playoff performance, this is most certainly a series where the Sharks will need their captain to come through on the scoreboard, especially at even-strength. The best-case scenario is Couture and Pavelski playing Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler, respectively, to draws, meaning that Thornton and his wingers outscoring the Canucks' lesser lights will go a long way towards a series victory.
4. Win one on the road
This certainly doesn't qualify as a particularly insightful key to victory; no shit that winning games is better than losing games. But given the disparity between the Sharks and Canucks' respective performances so far this season at home and on the road, home-ice advantage is likely to play a significant role in this series and the Sharks don't have it.
While Vancouver's actual win/loss record on the road was a respectable 11-9-4 compared to the Sharks' poor 8-14-2 showing, both teams struggled to very similar extents at controlling the play away from home ice. Here's a look at how each club fared both home and away in Fenwick Close%, the percentage of even-strength shot attempts earned with the score tied at any time or within a goal in the first or second period.
Possession isn't everything (although it's pretty close to it when it comes to postseason success) and it's worth taking 24-game samples with several helpings of salt, especially given that the Sharks played just six road games after trading Douglas Murray and moving Pavelski to the third line; it's more than arguable that San Jose is a better road team heading into the playoffs than their season totals as a whole suggest. Still, both of these clubs are nearly mirror images of each other; dominant on home ice, much less so on the road.
Given that the Canucks earned the right to play an extra game on home ice, the Sharks will need to somehow wrestle that advantage away from them by winning a game in Vancouver. It doesn't necessarily have to be Game 1 but securing a victory in either of the first two games of this series would set San Jose up nicely to exert their will at the Tank the rest of the way. It doesn't matter how they do it; a lucky bounce or two, Niemi playing lights out or a more convincingly commanding performance than we've seen from them on the road so far this season. As a wise man once said, just win the game. Regardless of how they plan to accomplish it, the Sharks will have their first chance to notch a victory away from home on Wednesday. Drop the damn puck already.