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The Toughest Task Yet

by Tony Khing / San Jose Sharks
The path to winning a Stanley Cup is never easy. Just look at what the San Jose Sharks have been through in the first two rounds of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.


The Western Conference Quarterfinals vs. Los Angeles featured a memorable four-goal comeback and three overtime games – including the series decider. The semifinals vs. Detroit saw San Jose win the first three games, lose the next three and win Game 7. Let’s also not forget that six of the seven games were decided by one goal.

Ryan Kesler (right) with Dan Boyle.
Now, the Sharks will play in their second straight Western Conference Final. This year’s opponent, the Vancouver Canucks, won the Presidents’ Trophy for having the best regular season record. They feature some of the National Hockey League’s most powerful forwards in twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. (NOTE: a look at the Canucks and a review of the season series vs. San Jose follows this story.)

Like the Sharks, Vancouver’s path to the conference final wasn’t easy. They eliminated Chicago, last year’s Stanley Cup Champions, in seven games of the quarterfinals and needed an overtime goal from left wing Alexandre Burrows to win the series. Then in the semifinals, the Canucks and Nashville played five one-goal games with Vancouver winning in six.

“They have a tremendous amount of confidence having played through some tough series,” Coach Todd McLellan said. “They’re the favorites. We’ve got to play to the underdog role a little bit. It will allow us to play free. We’re looking forward to the challenge because it will be one heck of a challenge.”

“They’re a Presidents’ Trophy winner for a reason,” Joe Thornton said. “They’ve got great goaltending, probably the player who’s going to win the MVP this year and the Art Ross (Daniel Sedin). They’re an all-around good team.”

Vancouver Canucks' Daniel Sedin, right, and Sami Salo give up on waiting for an elevator following hockey practice in Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, May. 13, 2011. The Canucks face the San Jose Sharks in NHL Stanley Cup playoffs Western Conference finals in Game 1 on Sunday in Vancouver. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Geoff Howe)
Daniel Sedin led the NHL with 104 points, 18 power play goals and 42 power play points. His twin brother Henrik paced the League with 75 assists. Kesler had a career year with his 41 goals (shared team lead with Daniel Sedin) and a plus-24.

Besides those three, the Canucks also have Burrows (26 goals); ex-Sharks right wing Mikael Samuelsson (18 goals and 50 points), who may miss Game 1 on Sunday due to a lower body injury; and left wing Mason Raymond (five game-winning goals). However, they’re without former Sharks center Manny Malhotra (eye injury), considered as one of the NHL’s best defensive centers and faceoff men.

Defensively, the Canucks feature another former Shark, Christian Ehrhoff. He equaled a career high set last year with 14 goals and set one with 50 points. Besides Ehrhoff, the Canucks defense includes Dan Hamhuis, who’s played against the Sharks twice in the postseason with Nashville; Kevin Bieksa, who led the Canucks with a plus-32; and a pair of veterans who’ve been in-and-out of the playoffs due to injuries: Keith Ballard and Sami Salo (limited to 27 regular season games).

In the net, Roberto Luongo was second in the League with a 2.11 goals-against average and shared the NHL lead in wins with Montreal’s Carey Price (38). Luongo, along with backup Cory Schneider, combined to win the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest amount of goals during the regular season.

“All of the teams that have success at this time of the year are built through the middle. They’re extremely strong and I consider the goal as part of the middle of the rink,” McLellan said. “They have great goaltending, a quarterback or two that can really move the puck and they get through the neutral zone and into the other team’s offensive zone real quick. You have to do that using the middle of the ice.

“Vancouver is built that way,” McLellan added. “They have three lines that can hurt you in many different ways. But we feel we have a team that can match that.”

“Vancouver is probably the most well-rounded team in the League,” Setoguchi said. “You don’t finish first without having a good team. They’re going to make it tough on us and we’re going to have to step up our game a bit. We’re going to have to score some dirty goals instead of the nice passing plays.”

Vancouver Canucks' Raffi Torres, front left, celebrates his goal with teammate Maxim Lapierre during the first period of Game 5 of the NHL hockey Western Conference semifinal Stanley Cup playoff series against the Nashville Predators in Vancouver, British Columbia, Saturday, May 7, 2011. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)
The Canucks also have a noticeable snarl factor, paced by left wing Raffi Torres. Sharks fans remember Torres, then with Edmonton, for getting under the Sharks skin during the 2006 conference semifinal series, which was won by the Oilers. In addition, Burrows (77 PIM), left wing Tanner Glass (72) and center Maxim Lapierre (who led Vancouver with 80) can also aggravate an opponent.

“They have a lot of guys who stir the pot,” said Ben Eager, who played against the Canucks for the last two postseasons while with Chicago. “Pretty much when the puck dropped in Game 1, the intensity was there. You could say there was a strong hatred between the teams. I imagine it’s going to be no different in this series. It’s going to be chippy.”

“That team works extremely hard,” Setoguchi said. “We’re going to have to match their work ethic in order to get past them.”

And if the Sharks can do that, they’ll be able to make some history by reaching their first Stanley Cup Final.

TV WORTH WATCHING
Thursday night’s 3-2 San Jose win over Detroit in Game 7 of the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals was the most watched Sharks game on a regional sports network.

The average household rating on Comcast SportsNet California was 7.14, which surpassed a rating of 6.57 set last year in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals vs. Detroit.

Last night’s game attracted approximately 180,000 households for the entire game and scored a 10.13 peak rating from 8:30-8:45 p.m. (more than 256,000 households). “Sharks Postgame Live,” CSN California’s postgame show, also registered its highest rating ever with a 3.76 (more than 95,000 households).

A LOOK AT THE VANCOUVER CANUCKS

2010-11: 54-19-9, 117 points, Presidents’ Trophy winners and first in the Northwest Division

INDIVIDUAL LEADERS
GOALS: Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler (41)
ASSISTS: Henrik Sedin (75)
POINTS: Daniel Sedin (104)
PLUS/MINUS: Kevin Bieksa (plus-32)
PIM: Maxim Lapierre (80)
POWER PLAY GOALS: Daniel Sedin (18)
GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE: Roberto Luongo (2.11)
SAVE PERCENTAGE: Roberto Luongo (.928)

SAN JOSE vs. VANCOUVER IN 2010-11: 1-2-1


NOV. 26, 2010 @ VANCOUVER: Ex-Shark Mikael Samuelsson had two of the Canucks six goals in a 6-1 Sharks loss. Dany Heatley scored San Jose’s lone goal.

JAN. 3, 2011 @ SAN JOSE: The Sharks had a 3-2 lead, but goals by Jannik Hansen and Alexandre Burrows gave the Canucks a 4-3 win. Of note: the loss was the first of a season-low six straight for the Sharks. Following the end of the streak, San Jose went on to win 27 of their final 37 games.

JAN. 20, 2011 @ VANCOUVER: San Jose needed a shootout to win their lone game against the Canucks. After Henrik Sedin scored the game’s first goal, Logan Couture tied it in the middle of the second period. Joe Pavelski got the winner in the shootout. Antti Niemi made 36 saves in a 2-1 win.

MARCH 10, 2011 @ SAN JOSE: Another shootout game, but with Vancouver winning, 5-4. The Canucks had a 2-0 lead after the first period, but San Jose tied the game on goals by Devin Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe. San Jose sent the game into overtime when Clowe scored with less than 20 seconds left in regulation.

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