For the first time since 1994, the Vancouver Canucks (54-19-9) are back in the Western Conference Final and standing between them and their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 17 years are the San Jose Sharks (48-25-9), who are making their a Conference Final appearance for the second consecutive year.
This series features two teams that, in many respects, are almost mirror images of one another. In recent years, both have had reputations for being tremendous regular season teams and perennial Cup contenders that just can't seem to have success when it really counts in the playoffs. One of these teams, however, will finally break through the glass ceiling this year be it the Canucks, who are looking for their third trip to the Cup Final in their 40-year history, or the Sharks, who have never been to the Cup Final in their 20-year history. This is the third Conference Final trip for both respective clubs.
I think our team fits this style of play with the way our defence moves the puck. You don't have to be the fastest skaters to play fast. You have to be able to move the puck and know where to move the puck when you get it. - Henrik Sedin on expecting a more aesthetically-pleasing style of hockey in this series against the Sharks.
The Canucks and Sharks finished as the top two teams in Western Conference regular season standings but there was still a sizeable gap between them with Vancouver finishing with 12 more points. The Canucks were also dominant in the regular season series winning three of the four head-to-head meetings. Their only blemish was a 2-1 shootout loss on home ice back on January 20.
This series will mark the first time that the Canucks and Sharks have met in the post-season. For the Canucks, the Sharks are the 19th different opponent that they have had in the playoffs. For the Sharks, the Canucks are the 13th different playoff opponent they will have met in team history.
This is the sixth time the Canucks have met a California-based team in the post-season. Vancouver has an all-time series record of two wins and three losses against California-based clubs in the playoffs with five of those series coming against the Los Angeles Kings whom they are 2-2 against all-time. Their other series against a California-based team was a loss to the Anaheim Ducks back in the 2007 Western Conference Semifinal.
Coincidentally, this series also happens to be the sixth time the Sharks have faced a Canadian team in the post-season. San Jose has an all-time series record of two wins and three losses against Canadian teams in the post-season with both of their series wins coming against the Flames. Their three losses have come against Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto.
Including play this season, the Canucks have an all-time regular season record of 44-34-12 against the Sharks.
Both teams have played 13 games to date in the 2011 playoffs but Vancouver have the advantage of being the fresher team.
Although the Canucks have endured two travel-heavy series already making two separate trips to Chicago in Round One and two separate trips to Nashville in Round Two compared to the Sharks who had a relatively easy travel schedule in Round One staying in their own state, Vancouver will have had five full days off without game action by the time this series gets underway. The Sharks, in that time, have had to fly to Detroit from San Jose for Game Six and then fly back home for a Game Seven tilt that was played on Thursday. They'll also have to make the trek up to Vancouver to begin the series with the Canucks holding home-ice advantage.
The Sharks will be running on an emotional-high thanks to their Game Seven win over the Red Wings just three days prior puck drop in Game One and, coupled with the fact they've had a more routine playing schedule over the past week, that might give them an edge in the early going of this series. If the series becomes drawn out, however, the advantage could start shifting in the Canucks' favor.
Neither team has any significant injuries to this point (with the exception of Vancouver's Manny Malhotra who is not expected to play again this season despite recently joining the team for practice) but both have their fair share of bumps and bruises. Mikael Samuelsson is day-to-day to start this series with a leg injury while, over the course of this past week, the Canucks have given extra days off to the likes of Henrik Sedin, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Chris Higgins. For the Sharks, Dany Heatley and Ryane Clowe are among the players believed to be playing through injury.
It'll be interesting. We'll enter a series as the underdog. That hasn't happened before. Maybe there will be a little pressure taken off us there and we can go play free. - Sharks coach Todd McLellan playing up the underdog role for his team in this series versus the Canucks.
The Canucks have just three active players in Maxim Lapierre, Mikael Samuelsson and Raffi Torres (four if you include Malhotra) who have ever appeared in a Conference Final game. Out of the three, Lapierre has the most recent experience after being a part of Montreal's run to the Eastern Conference Final last season that ended with the Flyers knocking off the Habs in five games.
The Sharks have 16 returning players from the team that advanced to the Western Conference Final last year before bowing out in four straight games to the eventual Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks. They also added several players with previous Conference Final experience, most notably netminder Antti Niemi and forward Ben Eager who were a part of the Blackhawks' Cup run last year as well as Jamal Mayers, who was part of a run to the Conference Final with the Blues back in 2001.
All games in the Conference Final series between the Canucks and the Sharks can be seen by Canadian viewers coast-to-coast on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada and in French on RDS. For viewers in the United States, Games 1-3 and 5-7, if necessary, can be seen on VERSUS. Game 4 will be shown on NBC. Listen to every Vancouver Canucks playoff game live on the TEAM 1040 Sports Radio or online at teamradio.ca.