VANCOUVER — Henrik Sedin knows what’s coming. It’s hard to miss Jumbo Joe Thornton.
“I’m not saying I won’t fight him,” the Canucks captain said with a smile Tuesday. “We’ll see.”
The last time the Canucks faced the San Jose Sharks in the playoffs, Thornton made a declaration of war on the opening faceoff by offering to fight Ryan Kesler, who declined. The Canucks overcame the act of aggression that characterized a Sharks’ team almost as tough as it was talented and won the National Hockey League third-round playoff series 4-1 in games.
But a lot has changed in two years and, especially, the last month for the Sharks.
They’re not quite as tough nor as reliant on Thornton as they were.
With Game 1 of the teams’ first-round series on Wednesday night, Kesler may be deployed to shut down sizzling centre Logan Couture, leaving Sedin to face Thornton head-to-head.
“We’ll have to wait and see what happens,” Thornton said when asked upon his arrival in Vancouver if he would make the same invitation to Sedin that he did to Kesler. “They obviously beat us two years ago. Or is it three years ago now? Two? Their team has changed a little bit and so has ours.”
The Sharks have changed more.
Gone is a little of the size and a lot of toughness the Canucks had to cope with two years ago. Two of the biggest pieces, literally and figuratively, were winger Ryane Clowe and defenceman Douglas Murray, sold off a week apart before the NHL trading deadline on April 3.
Clowe and Murray were heart-and-soul players, the kind of springtime warriors teams try to add for the playoffs. The Canucks made a pitch for Clowe, who was traded instead to the New York Rangers. A week earlier, San Jose general manager Doug Wilson ransomed Murray to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Both players were in the final year of their contracts, so the moves were based on economics.
But the deals had the potential to puncture the heart of the Sharks.
Instead, remarkably, it made them better. They are less rugged, even with San Jose’s acquisition of former Canucks’ battering ram Raffi Torres, but quicker and more balanced after coach Todd McLellan remade his forward lines.
“Record-wise, we certainly have been (better),” veteran defenceman Dan Boyle said. “Stuff happens. We just started playing better as a team. (Brent Burns) going up front and Joe Pavelski getting his own line, it created a little more balance.
“We lost two physical guys. But we picked up Raffi. I just think maybe last year, if our top line didn’t get it done, we weren’t finding ways to win. The last 15 or 20 games, we’ve had three lines going or maybe four.”
With the trade of Murray a turning point, the Sharks went 12-5-1 the last five weeks of the regular season.
“Quite frankly, our team blossomed after those moves,” McLellan said. “And it’s not because we lost those people. They were very important. But other people stepped their game up. We became a little quicker and played a certain way.”
Pavelski centres the third line. The 6-foot-5 Burns was moved semi-permanently from defence on to Thornton’s wing. Couture centres Patrick Marleau and Martin Havlat on the top line.
The Sharks’ attack no longer revolves almost entirely around Thornton and Marleau, and that’s a good thing because Thornton has just six points — all assists — in his last 12 games and Marleau only one goal in 16.
Once regarded as a player suited only for the regular season, Thornton’s fierce play the last few playoffs has remade his image. But Marleau, who went pointless in the Sharks’ five-game opening-round loss to the St. Louis Blues a year ago, still needs to address his.
“Anybody who doesn’t have a ring on their finger has something to prove when it comes to playoffs,” McLellan said. “That’s not just the San Jose Sharks. And if you have one (ring), you want two. So Patty Marleau does have something to prove. So does the rest of our team. For us to have success, there’s no doubt, talking about Joe and Patty, they have to perform the best that they can. But the other players, the way we play our team now with four lines, they all have to produce. We are a committee team. It’s as simple as that.”
But the Sharks are still identified with Thornton and Marleau, and the clock is ticking on the 33-year-olds to do something in the playoffs for a team that has left more on the post-season table than anyone in the NHL the last 10 years.
San Jose has been to three Western Conference finals since 2003, losing all of them, and last year’s five-game exit from the Stanley Cup tournament was the quickest in franchise history.
“You’re only as good as your last playoff series,” Boyle said. “The reality is you only get certain chances. You’re not going to play forever. And as a team, if you don’t win, guys go. If we don’t win or make a run at this thing, other guys are going to go.”
Some are already gone.
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