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Canucks, Sharks more balanced since trade deadline

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- To get an idea how much the San Jose Sharks changed after the NHL Trade Deadline, just look at how different the Vancouver Canucks will be when the teams meet in Game 1 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series Wednesday.

After years of being by front-line veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, the top-heavy Sharks have become faster, deeper -- and arguably better -- since trading veterans Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe. They replaced Clowe with Raffi Torres in a trade with the Phoenix Coyotes, converted defenseman Brent Burns into a top-line power forward, dropped Joe Pavelski back to center a third line, and transformed into a better balanced team.

"I'm not sure if we rebranded," coach Todd McLellan said. "We looked at the ingredients we had -- what we lost and what we brought in -- and we decided that we had to play a certain way to be successful. The group agreed on it, and the last month of the season we played to that and had a chance to be successful each night. … That's the recipe we think gives us the best chance."

That recipe helped cook up a 12-5-1 run to end the season, a needed surge for a team that was battling to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the midway point.

"We needed that at that time, and you need that in playoffs," Pavelski said.

It's a recipe that includes stingy defense with the help of back-checking forwards, including Marleau playing more of a shutdown role, faster exits out of their own end from a more mobile, skilled defense, and line after line in on the forecheck.

"We got faster, we move pucks quicker, we get in on other teams faster," said Logan Couture, who has emerged as a team leader alongside Thornton and Marleau while scoring a team-high 21 goals. "We have three centers who are playing well, our third line is contributing offensively, adding Raffi up front brings us more speed, along with grit, and it's helped to balance out our scoring."

The Canucks, who lost all three games to the Sharks before the makeover, have noticed, abandoning a late-season attempt at loading up the second line with centers Derek Roy and Ryan Kesler together. Instead, each get a line of their own, with Roy dropping behind Henrik Sedin and Kesler on the depth chart to give the Canucks a 1-2-3 look up the middle that resembles the Sharks.

"Both teams are deep in the middle and it's going to be the team that works the hardest that wins," said Kesler, who is back at center, where he won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward in 2011, after a stint on right wing. "All our lines are pretty dependable defensively, so I personally feel confident with every single one of our lines going up against any one of their lines. I'm not saying they don't have some really good skill; I am just saying that defensively I have faith in every one of the forwards on our team."

Vancouver's move back to three more-balanced lines comes after coach Alain Vigneault talked in recent weeks about loading up the top two units because he hadn't been able to find nine forwards he could trust to round out three lines.

Ironically, one of the candidates has done just that -- for the Sharks.

Torres, who was part of the Canucks' 2011 run to the Stanley Cup Final, was on Vancouver's radar at the trade deadline, but went instead to San Jose, where he has been a big part of that balance on a third line with Pavelski.

"Getting Raffi, he is kind of a wild card," Thornton said. "He's a big hitter, he can fly out there, and he can score big goals. Losing those big playoff players (Murray and Clowe) in the trade and getting Raffi was huge for us."

Moving Burns up front had a similar effect.

"I think Burns going up front was a big move," defenseman Dan Boyle said "That is like getting a new forward -- a power forward -- and then shifting Pavelski to a so-called third line, it just kind of created a balance. I think those are the two biggest things that happened and then everything just kind of fell into place."

Whether it all stays in place remains to be seen -- for both teams.

For all the talk about balance, the Canucks won't be surprised to see the lines shaken up depending on the situation, with that Roy-Kesler duo reunited if they fall behind and need more of an offensive push late in the game.

"We'll see a lot of different lineups and a lot of different match ups," Kesler said.

Regardless how they are mixed and matched, each team knows is can't rely exclusively on front-line names Thornton, Marleau, Kesler and the Sedin twins, all of whom are facing questions about narrowing -- if not closing -- windows to win a championship after years of doing everything but.

The Sharks have shown they can actually be better leaning on them less.

"We are a committee team. It's as simple as that," McLellan said.

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