Sharks Gameday: Power vs. Power
Series tied 0-0
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The Western Conference Finals between the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks kicks off tonight in what is expected to be one of the most exciting series' of this postseason. Both teams contain a lot of depth up and down their roster, and when one considers the fact that a Stanley Cup Finals appearance has evaded these organizations for a long time now (17 years for Vancouver, the entirety of San Jose's history), there's even more at stake than usual at this stage of the postseason.
The Sharks vaunted offensive depth has been getting a lot of air-time recently and for good reason-- the third line of Joe Pavelski, Torrey Mitchell, and Kyle Wellwood really came into their own down the stretch, giving the Sharks an ability to pick on opposing team's bottom pairings with regularity. Going into the first and second round against Los Angeles and Detroit we highlighted their contributions as being a big key to success for the club, stating that those easier minutes would allow them to shift the tides of the matchup.
Against Vancouver however, that advantage becomes much thinner. The Canucks third pairing of Sami Salo and Aaron Rome (Keith Ballard looks to be the odd man out but may play) could serve as a second pairing on many clubs, creating a situation where the Hellacopter line's ability to raise some hell is slightly less possible. Although they match up well with the Canucks third forward line, the defensive capabilities of Vancouver might snuff that out.
Which leads us to the first and second lines. Scoring depth is always an important asset for a team to have during a postseason run, but the more I look at the Canucks roster, the more it becomes apparent to me that San Jose's top line will probably have to outplay the Sedins for San Jose to advance. This isn't really a point of concern-- as we mentioned yesterday the top line had an excellent series against Detroit-- but bears noting for a couple reasons.
Patrick Marleau didn't find the score sheet until game seven against Detroit, finishing the seven game series with a mere one goal. And while we can talk scoring chances til' we're blue in the face (I've defended Marleau with so much regularity over his career that I'm certain someone has mistaken for George Sr. in Reno), the fact of the matter is Marleau will need to start burying those scoring chances into the back of the net with much greater regularity.
The good news on this front is that Marleau is about as streaky of a scorer as they come, going through waves of production that fluctuate like the heartbeat of HP Pavilion during a game seven*. It seems like one big goal has always managed to get him going again-- none are bigger than a series clincher in game seven.
*Two days later and I still feel like I need a nap and a smoke. What an orgasmathon.
The second line is also going to be very important for San Jose. Logan Couture, Dany Heatley, and Ryane Clowe will likely be matched up against Christian Ehrhoff all series, a player who is definitely the weak link defensively in the Canucks top four. That's a good matchup for San Jose. Vancouver's second line isn't anything to scoff at of course-- Ryan Kesler could sleep with my girlfriend and I'd probably just ask for his autograph-- but this is a place where the Sharks have the ability to do the most damage in terms of forward line vs. defensive pairing matchups. The third line won't get as many good looks, the top line is going to see a heavy dose of Bieksa-Hamhuis. San Jose's greatest opportunity comes right with the second, and while I still think Thornton & Co. will have to outplay The Sedin Machine to advance, Clowe-Couture-Heatley is an area on the ice where the Sharks have the biggest edge on paper.
At any rate, with the top line versus top line power matchup established as something to look out for this series, transitioning into the transition game seems relevant (and it comes with some wordplay to boot). Vancouver is a very quick team, the type of team that has given San Jose trouble historically, and can go from one end of the ice to the other in the time it takes you to say "neutral zone turnover". I'm sure Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan is going to emphasize to his team that keeping the puck along the periphery and in the corners will be a key to their success this series, much like it has been for them through their first two rounds.
The thing is, Vancouver can bang with the best of them as well. Their blueline is physical, their forwards are quick and great at controlling the puck in their cycle game, the entire team can take the body (and in the case of Alex Burrows and Raffi Torres, take the extremities), and they get their scoring from all over the place. The blueline activates well just like San Jose's, their top lines are dangerous just like San Jose's, they have a notable scorer who's struggling to find twine (Henrik Sedin) just like San Jose (Patrick Marleau), and they have a great goaltender who's prone to some inconsistency just like San Jose.
In essence, Vancouver is San Jose and San Jose is Vancouver. The Canucks superior defensive depth is offset by the Sharks superior offensive depth, and around and around we go. There's no clear advantage one can pick out from either lineup and say "This guy is going to have an easy time getting opportunities out there" because as soon as you think you're onto something, there's a counter for it. It's like two chess grand masters got together to read each other's playbook and decided to play to a draw for the rest of their lives.
If Los Angeles was a noisy dump truck, Vancouver is a fuel-efficient monster truck. If Detroit was a sleek Camaro, Vancouver is a Ferrari with some of those Mario Kart unlimited mushroom boosts constantly in a white box above their bench.
But if San Jose wasn't ready for Chicago last year, they're sure as hell ready now.
Welcome to the prime time.
God save us all.
Prediction: Sharks win 3-1. Goals by Marleau, Couture, and White. Kyle Wellwood shows Niclas Wallin the best hamburger joints the city has to offer following the game.