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Best of the West ready for showdown @NHL

Two teams that have yet to win the Stanley Cup will face off in the Western Conference Finals for the chance to get to the Final and take a crack at ending their streak. Though the Vancouver Canucks are 20 years older than the San Jose Sharks, both are in the conference finals for the third time in their history – but unlike the Sharks, who’ve lost both trips, the Canucks are 2-0.

Both teams have played 13 of a possible 14 games in the opening two rounds, and each team survived a scare after taking a 3-0 series lead. Vancouver won the first three games in the opening round against Chicago, lost the next three but won Game 7 in overtime. The Canucks then beat Nashville in six games. San Jose won three overtime games on the way to a six-game victory against Los Angeles in the first round, then appeared to be ready to breeze past Detroit after winning the first three games. But the Red Wings won the next three to force a Game 7, and the Sharks had to fight to the last second before holding off Detroit 3-2 to win the series.

The teams have never met in the playoffs.

The Sharks have arguably the deepest group in the League, and their top-nine forwards feature seven players who scored at least 20 goals in the regular season. A big question entering the conference finals is the status of Ryane Clowe, who leads the Sharks with 13 points in 12 playoff games. Clowe missed Game 6 against the Red Wings due to an upper-body injury, but he was back for Game 7.

During the postseason, Joe Thornton and Logan Couture have been consistent and dynamic. Thornton has 2 goals and 9 assists; Couture has 6 goals and 6 assists, including goals in each of the last four games.

The third line of Kyle Wellwood, Joe Pavelski and Torrey Mitchell could provide matchup problems for the Canucks. The trio has combined for 7 goals and 12 assists in the playoffs.

Selke Trophy-finalist Ryan Kesler was easily the most dominant player on the ice against Nashville in the second round. He had a hand in 11 of Vancouver's 14 goals as well as leading a near-perfect penalty kill, which was 20-for-21. Kesler had 11 points, two game-winning goals, 24 shots, 16 hits, 12 takeaways and won 59 percent of his faceoffs. He was also magical with his defense in Round One, holding Chicago’s Jonathan Toews without an even-strength point. Kesler's linemates, Mason Raymond and Chris Higgins, essentially turned the Canucks' second line into their first line against the Predators.

While quiet by their high standards, Henrik and Daniel Sedin are, of course, always dangerous. They combined for just 7 points and a minus-10 rating against Nashville, but with Kesler they were in on the game-winning goal in Game 6. Vancouver also has a dangerous third line with Maxim Lapierre, Jannik Hansen and Raffi Torres providing some offense and a lot of energy and physicality.

San Jose’s blue line corps was thought to be a weakness entering the postseason, but it's been anything but that through two rounds.

Dan Boyle has 2 goals and 9 points, with the latter tying him with Vancouver's Christian Ehrhoff in that category during the playoffs. Boyle and defense partner Douglas Murray have been matched up against the opposition's best forwards. Boyle is averaging 25:55 of ice time per game, about five minutes more than any other defenseman on the team.

Ian White is a threat offensively, while Niclas Wallin is more likely to sit back and handle business in his own end. Jason Demers, primarily a seventh defenseman during the playoffs last season, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic round out the corps.

The Canucks’ top four defensemen are logging a lot of ice time. Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis have been the top shutdown pair, and each are playing nearly 26 minutes per game. They were phenomenal in shutting down the Predators' best forwards in the previous round. Alex Edler and Christian Ehrhoff, a pair that was split up in Game 6 against Nashville, are each around 24 minutes per game. Ehrhoff leads Vancouver's defensemen with 9 points in the playoffs.
Sami Salo played with Edler in Game 6 and can be an anchor if he stays healthy. Salo missed four games bridging the first and second rounds, but he returned in Game 4 against Nashville and played 19 1/2minutes in Game 6. Aaron Rome played all six games against the Predators after seeing time in just two games against Chicago.

Antti Niemi has been inconsistent in the playoffs, evidenced by his 3.01 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. At times against the Red Wings, he was brilliant. At other times, he allowed too many rebounds that resulted in goals. But Niemi, who has never lost a playoff series in six tries, was superb in Game 7, stopping 38 of 40 shots to enable the Sharks to move on.

Niemi is making his second straight trip to the Western Finals – he led Chicago to victory against San Jose last year on the way to the Cup. If McLellan should decide to go in a different direction, he has Antero Niittymaki at his disposal. Niittymaki has one win in the postseason. He earned it in relief of Niemi when the Sharks rallied from a four-goal deficit in Game 3 against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round.

Roberto Luongo has done a good job of proving his bounce back ability and moxie through two rounds. He has eight wins, a 2.25 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and two shutouts through two rounds. Luongo has been excellent since he relieved Cody Schneider early in the third period of Game 6 against Chicago. Since then he has won five of seven starts and allowed only 12 goals.
Schneider hasn't played since he cramped up directly following Michael Frolik's penalty shot goal in Game 6 of the first round. He has a 3.09 GAA and .878 save percentage in three appearances.

McLellan is back in the third round for a second straight year, and his team's depth allows him to balance his lines. He doesn't have to worry about mixing and matching his forward lines, as they are defensively responsible and strong down the middle. If Clowe remains out of the lineup, however, it will be interesting to see how he goes about juggling his lines against the equally deep Canucks.

Alain Vigneault gives his leadership core a great deal of responsibility to handle a lot of what goes on in the dressing room, and the players respect him for that. His in-game adjustments have been, for the most part, spot on. He could have been egged in Vancouver if the decision to start Schneider in Game 6 against Chicago wound up crushing the Canucks, but benching Luongo has actually refocused the franchise goalie, who you could argue has never been better. Vigneault has stayed fairly consistent with his message about this whole run being about the process. He has not shown much emotion despite some emotional wins and losses.

"I think you get in streaks and games when the pucks seems to magnetize to your stick. The past couple of games it has been doing that."
-- Canucks' forward Ryan Kesler

Both the power play and penalty kill have been below average for the Sharks. The power play showed improvement early against the Red Wings, going 4-for-15 during the first three games. But it faltered in the second half of the series, going 1-for-13 in the final four games. The penalty-killing unit is ranked seventh in the playoffs.

Vancouver's penalty kill was indeed special against the Predators. The Canucks killed off 20 of 21 power plays, including all five they faced in Game 6. They are 86 percent on the PK in the playoffs. Vancouver had the League's No. 1 power play in the regular season and it has been OK so far in the playoffs at 22.2 percent (8 for 36) -- just a shade off the regular season success rate of 24.3 percent. The Canucks connected for a power-play goal in Game 6 against Nashville and it proved to be the series-clinching goal. The problem is the Predators scored a pair of shorthanded goals, and Chicago also got one. Vancouver allowed only two shorthanded goals in the regular season.

Patrick Marleau, Sharks -- The Sharks were able to get by against the Red Wings without getting much of a contribution from their all-time leading scorer, but that will have to change against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks. Marleau needs to find the form that made him a 36-goal scorer during the regular season and helped him get 2 goals and 3 assists in 6 games against the Kings during the first round. His game-winning goal in Game 7 could be the catalyst.

Ryan Kesler, Canucks-- It would simply be an injustice not to put Kesler in this spot. He was the Canucks’ best player in the second round, perhaps the best on any team, and will have to be just as big a factor if the Canucks are going to push through and make it to the Stanley Cup Final.

Sharks will win if ... Antti Niemi plays like he did in last year's West Final. The Canucks can score with any line and from anywhere on the ice. It may take Niemi standing on his head for the Sharks to reach their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.

Canucks will win if ... Luongo continues to be as good as he has been, their top four defensemen don't succumb to tired legs and they get more out of the Sedins. If you assume that the Sharks’ best forwards will ignite their offense, then the Canucks have to get the same from Henrik and Daniel, who have been hit or miss in the playoffs so far.

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