The answer of course is the San Jose Sharks. The bigger question now becomes; what can the Canucks do to win the series?
What follows is my perspective on the four things the Canucks need to accomplish to secure a spot in the Western Conference Semi-Final. Knowing that the Sharks were the only team the Canucks did not get a regulation win against in its season series, with San Jose winning two in 60 minutes and one in the shootout, what I outline below are the key factors for Vancouver to execute to beat the Sharks.
The biggest challenge for the Canucks will be to turn the other cheek and to initiate and not retaliate. Stupid penalties are even more costly in the playoffs. Opening at home fosters a “protect our turf” attitude, but staying out of the penalty box will be paramount to keeping the Sharks in check. San Jose’s seventh ranked power play tied for the fourth highest amount of power play goals in the league, and tied most in the Western Conference with 34. Discipline also means keeping shift length short, as the playoffs are a marathon, not a sprint, and tired legs early in a game or series could spell disaster as the battles continue to escalate towards Lord Stanley’s Cup. Thinking back to how Vancouver eliminated the Sharks in five games in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the power-play was instrumental for the Canucks, scoring nine power play goals. Lost in the five game series victory was the fact San Jose’s power play scored seven.
Get Shots Through to the Net
The San Jose Sharks blocked 800 shots this season, most in the Western Conference, and 234 more than the Canucks. In the season series versus Vancouver they blocked 68 of the Canucks shots in the three games played. For Vancouver to pepper and keep Antti Niemi busy, they must not only adjust in getting shots through, but get to rebounds as well. Niemi has a very active blocker side which produces juicy rebounds, and the Canucks must track those pucks in the offensive zone to sustain in-zone pressure. The Sharks break down defensively when things get frantic, and to create that result, Vancouver must not only get pucks to Niemi, they need to find the rebounds first.
Start With the Puck
Every faceoff is a puck battle. The more help a centerman gets from his wingers, the better likelihood to start with the puck and control the flow of play and implement the team’s system. The Sharks had the second highest faceoff winning percentage in the NHL, with Vancouver coming in 25th. If the Canucks are forced to chase for a higher percentage of pucks after every draw, the energy used could be draining. With the return of Ryan Kesler to the line-up, the Canucks have trended upwards in the faceoff circle, and that must continue in the playoffs.
Own the Middle of the Ice
Systematically, when the Sharks attack through the neutral zone they prefer to enter with the puck right down the middle of the ice over the blueline. This pushes the defencemen back and the next thing you know they are finding the second-wave trailing attacker in the high slot with a grade “A” scoring chance because of traffic at the net. Conversely, when defending in the neutral zone, San Jose pushes everything towards the boards by stacking the middle of the ice and wedging players to one side or the other, and then they swarm and out-man. If Vancouver can own the middle strip of the playing surface, especially in San Jose’s end, they will force the Sharks to play a game they are uncomfortable with. When that happens, the Sharks top players improvise, and their team play suffers.
The Canucks have shown in the past they can play more physical than the Sharks, and dictate the speed and crispness of the game by using quick passing and a smart cycle game. When Vancouver can get the puck off the boards in the offensive zone and take it to the net, they will force the San Jose to chase and run around in their own end.
In following my suggestions to a letter, I predict a Canuck opening round victory in six games.