The San Jose Sharks got faster with a string of deals near the NHL Trade Deadline but came up short in their quest to finish fourth and earn the home-ice advantage in the first round. That would have helped a lot -- the Sharks won 17 times and failed to earn a point twice in 24 games at HP Pavilion; they won eight road games, one in Vancouver. Antti Niemi has been excellent in goal, the defense is competent and the core forwards -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski -- can score.
The Vancouver Canucks won the Northwest Division for the fifth straight time, but that was attributable to the struggles of the other four teams as much as their solid play. The goaltending situation is the same as it was during the summer: Cory Schneider is the starter when healthy, former starter Roberto Luongo is the backup. Six forwards reached double figures in goals, but no one had more than 13 and only the Sedin twins finished with more than 27 points. Vancouver won its division, but the Canucks weren't nearly as dominant as they have been the past couple of seasons.
Niemi has a Stanley Cup championship on his resume; Schneider will have to prove to everyone he's the elite goaltender the Canucks need him to be.
San Jose won all three matchups in the regular season. Vancouver claimed the only postseason series between the franchises in five games in 2011.
The Sharks enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a deeper, more well-rounded group of forwards than the ones that led them to back-to-back Western Conference Finals in 2010 and 2011.
Two significant changes -- Ryane Clowe traded away and Brent Burns moved up front -- changed the personality of the group and spread the talent further down the lineup.
Burns has excelled on the top line with Joe Thornton and TJ Galiardi, allowing Patrick Marleau to anchor a skilled second line with Logan Couture and Martin Havlat. Couture, in particular, has raised his game this season, with coach Todd McLellan calling him one of the best players in the League earlier this month.
Joe Pavelski, a top-six talent, now presents a matchup problem for opponents on the third line along with Raffi Torres and Tommy Wingels. Burns and Torres perform similar roles as rambunctious players who create havoc on the forecheck and provide space for a playmaking center and a speedy complementary wing.
Thornton is one of the best faceoff men in the NHL this season (58.5 percent), and Couture and Pavelski each are at almost 52 percent, a depth few teams enjoy.
Two-time Cup champion Scott Gomez, Adam Burish, Andrew Desjardins and James Sheppard complete a unit that has remained healthy for most of the season; 11 forwards have played at least 35 games.
Even at 32 years old, Henrik Sedin remains one of the game’s most dangerous centers; he had 45 points in 48 games this season. He also is still incredibly capable in the defensive end, evidenced by his plus-19 rating.
Of course, where there is one Sedin, there’s the other. Henrik’s twin brother, Daniel Sedin, also remains a dominant player in the NHL. You can usually find Daniel’s name right next to Henrik’s on the score sheet; Daniel had 40 points this season, again playing a huge role in Vancouver’s run to another Northwest Division crown.
The Sedins, along with linemate Alexandre Burrows, have the ability to create havoc every time they’re on the ice. Burrows has consistently been a tremendous complement to the Swedish twins; he had 24 points and a plus-15 rating this season. During Vancouver’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011, he had 17 points in 25 playoff games.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault has assembled a dangerous second line, as well. After the Canucks acquired Derek Roy from the Dallas Stars at the trade deadline, Vigneault put Roy in between Christopher Higgins and Ryan Kesler. Not only can all three players score at any given time, but they’re all tremendous defensive forwards.
Jannik Hansen, another solid two-way player, helps the Canucks bring balance throughout Vancouver’s lines. He can be found alongside Mason Raymond and Maxim Lapierre, who provide grit and the ability to generate offense.
Power forward Zack Kassian can be found on the fourth line, but the first-round pick has both a scoring touch and the willingness to stick up for his teammates.
The Sharks rely on a collective effort, to be sure, from their back end. Lacking the high profile other Western Conference teams bring to the position, San Jose instead counts on nearly equal, defense-first contributions.
Dan Boyle plays the most, but his 22:47 of time on ice per game ranks No. 47 among defensemen in the NHL. Among the Sharks' top six in games played, Justin Braun plays the least at 18:46 per game.
Scoring isn't their strength: Only Boyle has 20 points, Matt Irwin has 12, no one else has more than seven.
Newcomer Brad Stuart has provided the stay-at-home stability that was expected, playing 20 minutes per game and tied for the lead among the group at plus-5.
Braun, Irwin, Jason Demers and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are reliable -- in 146 games played combined, they have been minus-2 or worse eight times -- and Scott Hannan has claimed a regular shift in three games since arriving from the Nashville Predators this month.
It would be a boon if Boyle, a Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, can increase his offense; he had 30 points in 33 playoff games in 2010 and 2011.
The Canucks added a big piece to their blue line this past summer, when they signed British Columbia native Jason Garrison to a six-year, $27.6 million contract. Garrison didn’t put up the numbers he would have liked (eight goals, eight assists), but he’s been steady in his end and is one half of a talented pairing, alongside veteran Dan Hamhuis.
Alexander Edler continues to accept a major chunk of ice time -- he averaged nearly 24 minutes per game this season -- while providing the ability to contribute offensively. He’ll be paired with Kevin Bieksa, who is ready to go after missing five of the final six games of the regular season with a lower-body injury.
Andrew Alberts skates on the Canucks’ third pairing and plays a physical style. He can be found alongside veteran Keith Ballard, who also doesn’t shy away from contact.
There are four No. 1 goalies in the 2013 playoffs who have won the Stanley Cup. San Jose's Niemi is one of them, getting the 16 wins for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010.
This regular season, he tied for the NHL lead in wins (24) and starts (43), was third in saves (1,127), tied for sixth in shutouts (four), tied for seventh in save percentage (.924) and seventh in goals-against (2.16) among those who played the majority of their teams' games.
He endured some rough patches, allowing at least three goals in eight of nine games from March 9-25, then giving up four each in back-to-back losses April 7-9.
But, as expected, when he was good, so was his team. During two seven-game winning streaks, he gave up two goals or fewer in 10 of the 14 games.
His playoff save percentage and goals-against are worse than his career regular-season numbers: .905 to .917; 2.84 to 2.34.
The goaltending situation has been somewhat of a circus this year in Vancouver, where the duties have been split between Schneider and Luongo after general manager Mike Gillis couldn’t find a trade partner for Luongo.
That might be a blessing in disguise; Luongo has been sharp when called upon and again became the No. 1 when Schneider went down with an undisclosed injury late in the regular season. It’s unknown if Schneider will be ready to go when the postseason gets under way.
Whether it’s Luongo or Schneider, the Canucks are blessed with a pair of goaltenders who are capable of stealing games.
McLellan has won the top prize in the minor leagues (2003 Calder Cup with the Houston Aeros), as an assistant coach (2008 Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings), and in the regular season (Presidents' Trophy 2008-09).
He has yet to reach the pinnacle as an NHL coach, and that is the unfortunate top line of his biography.
With so much regular-season success, it is difficult to say how much blame McLellan deserves for failing to raise the level as the lights get brighter and the games become more difficult. The fact is, when the Sharks go, they go quietly; they have been eliminated in six, four, five and five games under McLellan.
Using primarily the same 18 skaters and one goalie most of the season, McLellan did make a bold move that paid off, installing defenseman Burns as a forward on the top line, where he has provided energy and 20 points in 24 games.
The Canucks also have a consistent winner behind their bench. Vigneault has guided Vancouver to five straight Northwest Division titles, as well as the appearance in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. He's done all of this despite facing constant criticism and pressure to win in a city that is still awaiting its first NHL championship.
Vigneault’s best trait is his ability to always get the most from his star players. He’ll need to do so again this postseason if Vancouver plans on winning that elusive title.
The Sharks were next-to-last in the NHL killing penalties in 2011-12, slightly less than 77 percent. Plus, the PK gave up at least one goal in four of five playoff games, including three in a 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues with the series tied 1-1.
This season, the Sharks have been successful 85 percent of the time and rank No. 6 in the League.
A major difference has been the presence of Stuart, who arrived from the Detroit Red Wings this offseason. He leads the Sharks in shorthanded time on ice.
Offensive threats Pavelski and Marleau are now the top two penalty-killing forwards, and assistant coach Larry Robinson brought along a successful system from the New Jersey Devils.
The power play continues to hum along, this season connecting at 20.1 percent and providing 34 goals in 48 games, an output that mirrors the Sharks' year-over-year performance.
Vancouver’s power play struggled this season, finishing No. 22 in the NHL. But the penalty-killing unit was strong, finishing in the top 10. Hamhuis and Garrison played a huge role in the PK’s success, and Roy’s addition at the deadline could play a huge role for Vancouver in the playoffs.
Martin Havlat: The Sharks know what they're going to get from most of their lineup, from top players Thornton and Marleau to depth players Gomez and Torres. The only true wild card could be Havlat, an oft-injured and streaky wing who could wind up helping or hurting San Jose.
He has been getting more ice time recently (up to 16 minutes a game), and making the most of it, with five points during a four-game run in late April. He's been a minus player three times since Feb. 5, a span of 30 games.
Havlat has excelled in his three prior postseasons, with 31 points in 31 games dating to 2006 with the Ottawa Senators.
Alexandre Burrows: He struggled down the stretch, scoring one goal during the final seven games. But Burrows is the type of player who can be extremely effective at this time of year, and the fact he gets to skate alongside the Sedin twins means he’ll receive plenty of scoring opportunities. If he gets going offensively, the Canucks can go a long way this spring.
Sharks will win if … They get off to a good start. San Jose has been a streaky team, this season in particular and in the playoffs in general. When things go bad for them, it snowballs, and there's no time to recover in a best-of-7 series. Gaining confidence from road wins would be invaluable, but squandering their dominance at home would be more debilitating.
Canucks will win if … They pick a goaltender and stick with him. Whether it’s Luongo or Schneider, it’s imperative Vigneault shows loyalty and doesn’t change his mind should one bad goal be allowed. Consistency is key at this time of year, and the goaltender and the players in front of him need to be in a routine in order to have success.
Analysis by Brian Compton and Mike Battaglino