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West's elite battle as Canucks visit Sharks

by Davis Harper

CANUCKS (12-9-1) at SHARKS (13-5-1)

CBC, CSN-California (HD)

Last 10:
Vancouver 6-4-0; San Jose 7-2-1

Season Series: This is the first of four meetings between last season's Western Conference finalists. The Canucks won tht series in five games, but it took two overtimes and 54 saves from goalie Roberto Luongo in the decisive game to do so. Two regular-season meetings went to shootouts in 2010-11, with Vancouver and San Jose winning one each.

Big Story: Both teams are enter HP Pavilion on winning streaks -- Vancouver has won three straight, San Jose four -- that suggest they are rounding into form. Saturday's game should be a stern test for two of the West's hottest teams.

Team Scope:

Canucks: After a tepid start, the Canucks are reminding the League why they left the rest of the West in the dust last season. They've outscored opponents 10-1 while winning their last three games, including shutouts in Colorado (3-0 on Wednesday) and Phoenix (5-0 on Friday). Here's a stat that should worry future opponents: Vancouver still owns the best power-play conversion rate (24.5 percent) despite scoring all eight goals during the two shutouts at full strength.

While the offense is clicking, the real story of Vancouver's run has been the play of backup goalie Cory Schneider - spelling the injured Luongo. He has won three in a row and stopped 73 of 74 shots in that span.

"We were pretty sound defensively tonight. When we did have breakdowns, a couple there in the first period, Schneids was there," center Ryan Kesler said. "He's been there for the last three games for us. He's been our best player each and every night."

Sharks: A successful team is often defined by players who seem to singlehandedly pull their peers through games. Forwards who find an extra gear to put away the game-winner with seconds to play, say, or defensemen who sacrifice life and limb to preserve a tenuous lead. Wednesday night in San Jose, that player was goalie Antti Niemi. In a 1-0 win against Chicago in which San Jose were void of attack (21 shots) and often sloppy on defense (13 giveaways, 8 PIMs), Niemi made 34 stops against his former team for his fifth straight win and first shutout of the season.

"He made some tremendous saves," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He exuded confidence. We were able to survive a night where we didn't play well."

Who's Hot: While he was poor against Chicago - along with every Shark save Niemi - Patrick Marleau tallied a hat trick at Colorado and two assists against Dallas.

Injury Report: Vancouver's injury list is as long as it is varied. Keith Ballard (back) and Andrew Ebbett (foot fracture) are out indefinitely. Nolan Baumgartner will miss at least a month with a broken foot. Steve Pinizzotto (shoulder surgery), Byron Bitz (groin surgery) and Mason Raymond (fractured vertebrae) are on injured reserve. … San Jose is healthy except for goalie Antero Niittymaki, who has been sidelined all year while he recovers from hip surgery. His return is approximately a month away.

Stat Pack: Niemi can't protect the Sharks from themselves forever, and Vancouver might be the team that finally exploits their weak penalty kill. San Jose is 28th on the PK (76.2 percent), putting it almost as close to the bottom as Vancouver is to the top of PP conversion (1st with 24.5 percent). If last season's conference finals are any indication, San Jose will have their hands full. Nine of Vancouver's 19 goals in that series came on the man advantage.

Puck Drop: When asked after the Phoenix game which goalie he would start Saturday, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was coy.

"I know who's going to play," Vigneault said. "I'm going to tell my goaltender tonight on the game, so I've got to tell them before I tell you."

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