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Button handicaps unique Canucks-Sharks battle

by Craig Button / Vancouver Canucks

There's no way around it now -- either the Vancouver Canucks or San Jose Sharks will be going to the Stanley Cup Final.

In the vast array of storylines that exist going into the Western Conference Finals, the undeniable fact that the championship spell will be lifted off one of these snakebitten teams is perhaps the most interesting and the most telling of this matchup.

"One has to emerge," NHL Network analyst and former general manager Craig Button told NHL.com. "Even if it's accidental, one has to emerge."

Button was half-kidding, of course, but the first thing that most people will think of when it comes to this matchup is past playoff failures and the near misses for each squad this spring.

The top-seeded Canucks haven't been to the Western Conference Finals since 1994, yet they've lost in the semifinals five times in the last 16 years, including twice in a row and in three of the four seasons prior to this one.

The second-seeded Sharks made it to the Western Conference Finals last season, but were swept out by Chicago and Antti Niemi, who, of course, is now their last line of defense. San Jose has won six division titles in the past decade, including four in a row, but has only won two of 10 conference final games they have played.

Both the Sharks and Canucks blew 3-0 leads in these playoffs only to survive by barely winning Game 7.

"What teams do when they blow 3-0 series leads is they expose their flaws," Button said. "Whose flaws are a little bit more obvious now? I think it would be San Jose's flaws just because it's recent and right there in the memory."

However, Button doesn't necessarily think that is true in net, where a major storyline exists.

Niemi outplayed Roberto Luongo in last year's Western Conference Semifinals when he was with the Blackhawks. He went on to win the Stanley Cup, something Luongo, with all of his pedigree and huge contract, has not sniffed until now. He has won six straight playoff series and is looking to become the first goalie since Harry Holmes in 1916-17 to win back-to-back Cups with different teams.

"The Canucks exorcised the Chicago Blackhawks' demon, and there standing in front of them now is Antti Niemi," Button said.

Niemi and Luongo both played well in the previous round, but the Sharks' goalie faced a much sterner test from the Red Wings and came away with a .931 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average in the series despite facing nearly eight more shots per game (35.1) than Luongo did against Nashville (27.3).

"I've watched the San Jose Sharks and in the past I always looked at them and asked, 'Are they a team you can believe in? Can you get behind them?' I never could say that with much conviction," Button said. "I don't feel that way this year. I like Niemi and I think their team has a different strut about them, so to speak.

"I'm not going to be critical of Jimmy Howard, but the difference in that series was Antti Niemi. He wasn't leaky."

Button said Luongo has a tendency to be just that. For instance, there is the example of Nashville forward David Legwand's goal in Game 6, which came from a sharp angle to Luongo's left side and yet still managed to slither through the goalie's legs.

"Luongo has not shown me that he can close that door," Button said. "Whether it is the goal he gave up to (Jonathan) Toews late in Game 7 or some of the goals against Nashville, which isn't that good offensively -- that's what I get out of Roberto. They don't have as much room for error against San Jose as they did against Nashville, so he can't let in a goal like Legwand's against San Jose."

That being said, Button also believes that if the Sedin twins re-establish their regular-season form -- keeping the puck in the offensive zone and making plays with it there, something they were not able to do consistently against Nashville or in the later games against Chicago -- the advantage goes to the Canucks.

"Against players like the (Ian) Whites, (Jason) Demers and (Marc-Edouard) Vlasics, that's where they have to find a way to have success," he said. "First you're playing against (Brent) Seabrook and (Duncan) Keith, (Niklas) Hjalmarsson and (Brian) Campbell, and then you come against (Shea) Weber and (Ryan) Suter -- San Jose doesn't have that quality of defense. The Sedins have to get the puck in the offensive zone, hold it and play with it."

However, if the Sharks use their size up front to pound on the Canucks blueliners and get the puck in front of Luongo, then maybe what the Sedins do won't matter.

"San Jose made it really hard with their forward-size on the Detroit defense," Button said. "They're big, physical, heavy, and they have to do the same exact thing to (Dan) Hamhuis, (Alex) Edler, (Kevin) Bieksa and (Christian) Ehrhoff. They have to get in there and establish their size presence. They have to get low, and they'll get to the net. Where Nashville couldn't get to threaten, San Jose's forwards will."

Button listed seven Sharks forwards (Devin Setoguchi, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe) that he believes are better than anyone Nashville had up front.

"This is exactly where San Jose has to take advantage," he said.

Button, though, also said the guy that Canucks truly want to focus on is defenseman Dan Boyle, because he's the one that makes it all happen by creating offense from the back end so the Sharks' elite forwards can get to the net and do the dirty work.

"If I'm Vancouver, I go into that series saying, 'That's the one guy that is not beating us,' " Button said of Boyle. "He makes too many things happen offensively and defensively."

The challenge should be on Ryan Kesler to "unsettle Boyle," Button said. Usually a Selke Trophy finalist like Kesler will be tasked with shutting down another forward line, but Canucks coach Alain Vigneault should "stick Kesler on Boyle to wear him down, make him play defense and really punish him.

"They have to make life really hard on Danny Boyle," Button added, "and Kesler can."

But can the Canucks make life difficult on Niemi? Will the Sharks befuddle the twins and manage to hold down Kesler, a.k.a. Superman? Is Luongo up for the task? What about Thornton, Marleau and Heatley?

"It's really interesting when we talk about it," Button said. "I really don't think (much separates the Canucks and Sharks), but one of these teams is going to compete for the Cup."

It's been a long time coming.

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