The punishment for the Vancouver Canucks failing to three-peat as the top regular-season team in the NHL is a lesser first-round opponent compared to the previous two seasons.
Granted, that’s not to take anything away from the San Jose Sharks of 2013. They’re a formidable opponent. But last season the Canucks ran into the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings, who became the best puck-possession team in hockey after their Jeff Carter acquisition.
In 2011, the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks somehow managed to get into the 8-seed, despite having a plus-33 goal differential that was third in the conference and sixth in the NHL.
In San Jose, the Canucks face their weakest opponent in three years, but on the surface, not a pushover. They were sixth in the NHL in score-tied shot differential after 48 games but have improved since the deadline.
While Sharks general manager Doug Wilson was viewed by many media commentators to be a “seller” at the trade deadline, after shipping out Michael Handzus, Doug Murray and Ryane Clowe, it’s worth noting that those three were some of the worst Sharks for pushing the play forward when on the ice.
Sharks blog Fear the Fin posted its weekly “Score-Adjusted Fenwick” rankings on Sunday, a ranking system that weights teams’ shot differentials based on different score stats (up by 1, up by 2, tied). The Sharks were ninth, one spot ahead of the Canucks. Blogger Patrick D. noted that the Sharks had “the third best change in SAF since the deadline” and to not “forget that last year’s Stanley Cup winners also featured such a streak.” (The Kings traded away black-hole defenceman Jack Johnson for dynamo Carter.)
So while the Sharks come into the postseason with a pedestrian 5-5 in the last 10 games, that’s not particularly what counts. Typically, Cup winners have worse records in their last 10 games than they did in the first 72 — likely because they sat stars or played their last few games to avoid injury, when the games stopped meaning something.
So the Sharks have been playing well. They’re in fine form and have a goaltender who will likely be in the top five in Vezina Trophy voting. For the second straight year, the Canucks will face a scary good low-seeded team.
How are the Sharks built?
Like the Canucks, it’s presumed the Sharks think analytically and outside the box when putting together the roster. Like the Canucks, and unlike the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, good regular season teams who suffered post-season defeats, they haven’t torn apart their roster, which still has excellent veteran players in Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle.
Like the Canucks, they’ve also had trouble scoring this season, and have had to rely on goaltender Antti Niemi to play like a Vezina-calibre goaltender to make the playoffs. The Sharks were 27th in the NHL in shooting percentage at 5-on-5 this season at just 6.6 per cent. For three years or so, they’ve been going down that defensive route as Thornton and Marleau enter their twilight years.
Thornton led the team in points, but had his lowest per-game rate of his career. He’s played lately on a second line with T.J. Galiardi and converted defenceman Brent Burns. Since the switch, Derek Tanabe of Fear the Fin notes, the Sharks’ goals per game increased from 2.16 to 2.66.
Where they differ from the Canucks is that coach Todd McLellan prefers to match power-on-power, while Alain Vigneault likes to match his players based on the faceoff. It’s tough to say how McLellan will answer Vancouver’s top two lines — the Canucks have yet to play the Sharks with either Ryan Kesler or Derek Roy in the lineup.
“If [the Canucks] can match Roy and Kesler against Thornton I think they’ll be able to win that matchup,” suggests Tanabe, although during the Canucks’ lone home effort against the Sharks this season, the Canucks were able to avoid McLellan’s preferred Marleau-on-Henrik Sedin match.
Wisdom is that if Marleau and the Sedins score in even numbers, which is likely, Vancouver has a slight advantage if they play a loaded second line against Thornton. Unless his shooting percentage explodes in the series, the Canucks could score a few crucial goals in that matchup — enough to win the series. It would then hinge on hoping that the Joe Pavelski or Scott Gomez lines don’t get going offensively.
On defence, the Sharks have been known to use Brayden Irwin and Dan Boyle with the Thornton line to get them going offensively, and recently their shutdown unit has been Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. It’s worth noting that Vlasic, who has played with both Braun and Jason Demers this season, has done great with either one. He’s listed at sixth in NHL shot differential at behindthenet.ca among top pairing defenders this season, and was eighth last season.
Tanabe notes that the Sedins could make quick work of the Sharks if Vigneault manages to get a lot of ice-time against Scott Hannan and Brad Stuart, a notably slow third pairing who are poor in possession statistics.
It should be a very tactical series. Each team has four usable lines and lack depth on defence. The Canucks should have an edge in forward matching, but ultimately this could be decided by goaltending, more reminiscent of the Canucks’ 2007 series against the Stars than a repeat of the explosive five-gamer the teams played two years ago.
Both McLellan and Vigneault take heat for their inability to win in the playoffs. It’s inevitable that one of the two will face a second straight season of not getting out of the first round.
Fans and media usually demand a sacrificial lamb in such instances, and I’d hope that Doug Wilson and Mike Gillis, two general managers in the game I respect for their patience and desire to not make a rash move at the wrong time, will have better sense than to let outsiders dictate how they run their organizations.
Cam Charron was an original member of the Legion of Blog. He gets inside the numbers for the White Towel.
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