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Canucks, Sharks set for Western finals @NHL

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) - Fairly or not, Vancouver and San Jose face off in the Western Conference finals as perennial playoff underachievers. Fairly or not, it's a label only one team - and several star players - will shed with a long awaited chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

With trophy cases full of awards as the NHL's top team, scorers and players in the regular season, the Sharks and Canucks are mirror images of each other.

"We both had good regular seasons for a few years now. We've both been building towards something, the core group has stayed relatively the same, and we both have similar labels as teams that have good regular seasons, but haven't been able to make it in the playoffs," Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa said.

The Sharks have come closer of late, getting to the Western Conference finals a second straight season, but are still looking for their first trip to the Cup finals. Vancouver has played for the Stanley Cup twice in 40 years, but Game 1 on Sunday will be its first trip to the NHL's final four since 1994.

Both teams flirted with ghosts of playoffs past by almost blowing 3-0 series leads - Vancouver to nemesis Chicago in the first round, and San Jose to Detroit in the last round - before recovering to win pressure-packed Game 7s. But both sides also know that isn't enough to shed a reputation for tight collars in the postseason; that only one trophy - the Stanley Cup - will end that talk.

They even reference each other when discussing it.

"(San Jose defenseman Dan) Boyle said it best: Until you actually win you are always going to have that label as a team and as an organization," Bieksa said.

And as players.

Much of the focus for past playoff failure has fallen on the top players for both teams. In San Jose, captain Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have both been called out for failing to raise their games in the playoffs after continued success in the regular season.

"We have this anchor that everybody throws at us either fairly or unfairly," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. "We don't worry about that.

The Sharks' top duo answered some of the critics in Game 7 against Detroit on Thursday night. Thornton, who won the league scoring title and MVP awards in 2006, dominated the first period, and Marleau scored the winning goal - his first point of the series - with 7:47 left to play.

Still, the first questions as they prepared to board a flight for Vancouver after practice Saturday focused on San Jose's past playoff letdowns.

"The only way you get rid of that is to move on," Marleau said. "It would be nice, you put in a lot of sweat and everything, to get a little bit of recognition."

Which must sound familiar to Vancouver's top-line twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

The Sedins won the last two NHL scoring titles, a first for brothers, Henrik was selected the league MVP last year, and Daniel is a finalist this season. But both are under the microscope after struggling late in the first round against Chicago, and against Nashville throughout. Rather than the series-clinching goal they combined on to finish the Predators, the focus is on a combined minus-16 playoff rating.

"They've gone through the same things as we have," Daniel said. "They've been getting a lot of criticism but they've been to the conference final two years in a row, which I think is pretty good."

So did brother Henrik, who argued that was the difference between the teams.

"They've had a top team for a number of years," he said. "We've never felt this good about our team for a long time so for us this is maybe the first year where we thought we were a contender."

If that was an attempt to play down the Canucks status, San Jose coach Todd McLellan wasn't buying it. He pointed out Vancouver won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team, and led the league in goals, goals-against, power play and faceoffs, and was second in penalty killing.

"We've got to play to the underdog role, McLellan said. "I think it will allow us to play free.

Free from the burden of expectations, perhaps. But only a win will erase the labels.

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