It’s time for the greatest part of the season, the Stanley Cup playoffs, to begin for the San Jose Sharks. It is a time for excitement, joy, drama, hope, and heartbreak, with hopefully not too much heartbreak for all who will immerse themselves in the best sports challenge in the world.
It’s already happened in the games played yesterday. A starting goaltender, Niklas Backstrom, was injured in warm-ups for Minnesota, and a backup struggling with health problems, Josh Harding, stepped in and held the Wild all the way into overtime before dropping Game One in Chicago. In St. Louis, the two best players on the ice were involved in the game-winning play in OT: with the L.A. Kings on the power play, goaltender Jonathan Quick displayed a characteristic flaw by misplaying the puck, and Alex Steen used his quickness to get to it and knock it into the net for another game-winner in overtime in a Blues win.
The image of Quick slamming his mask-protected head against the ice in disappointment and self-loathing is one of those that we’ll remember from Day One of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, but be aware that there are many more amazing moments to come, and not just ones involving the goaltenders.
Let’s go over the series between the San Jose Sharks and the Vancouver Canucks, and promptly throw the statistics out the window. That’s Point Number 9 in former Sharks captain Bob Errey’s “16 Points for Playoff Success,” aptly selected because of Point Number 1: It takes 16 wins to win the Stanley Cup.
Errey’s points were, as legend goes, written on a cocktail napkin at a late-season “meeting” between the then-captain and some of the boys, which used to happen a bit more back in the days of old-time hockey. A two-time Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh, Errey wanted to crystallize the playoffs for a group that had never battled there before, and as history has shown, his 16 points have stood the test of time.
But, since we’ve written on that in this space before, let’s move forward and look at the Sharks-Canucks series and see how exciting it is going to be for two teams that have a healthy dislike for each other, but a corresponding enjoyment of playing against each other.
Case in point: January 27, 2013, at HP Pavilion, when the Sharks picked up a season-high 51 penalty minutes in a wild, 4-1 victory against Vancouver. Joe Pavelski scored his first 2 goals of the season, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brad Stuart anchored the defense with strong outings, and Antti Niemi made some big saves on Henrik Sedin and Alex Burrows in the first period, when the Sharks took a 2-0 lead and never looked back.
On March 5 in Vancouver, the Sharks won their only game at Rogers Arena this year, a place where they went 0-3 in the 2011 Western Conference Final round. However, this game would be regarded as an undecided affair from a playoff perspective, because San Jose won in a shootout, a state of affairs which cannot happen in the playoffs. Antti Niemi was a big part of this game, as he made 17 saves in the first period alone, and the Sharks led, 1-0, after one frame.
Back at HP Pavilion on April 1st, Matt Tennyson played in his first NHL game, and Ryane Clowe was left out of the Sharks lineup due to an impending trade with the New York Rangers that was executed soon afterward. Joe Thornton ended a 12-game goalless drought, added an assist, and was a monster in the faceoff circle, going 15-5 (75%). Antti Niemi made some huge saves in the second period, including a huge one on a breakaway just before Logan Couture’s goal gave San Jose a 3-0 lead. But Vancouver came back, getting goals from Christopher Higgins and Alex Burrows, and were scratching and clawing for a comeback all the way to the end.
While we throw stats out the window for a playoff series, the general characteristics of the regular season meetings between the Sharks and the Canucks give us a clue as to what it’s going to be like on the ice, starting with Wednesday’s Game One: it is going to be a battle between two very proud franchises, featuring clutch goaltending, good defense, and opportunistic offense. The team that gets the lead early and gets the big saves generally has the advantage. Discipline, also known as staying out of the penalty box, is also key, but killing penalties is another huge factor when they ultimately happen.
Let’s not forget that the lineups will be different than the ones that were on the ice for the three games. For instance, Ryane Clowe is a New York Ranger, Derek Roy is now on the Canucks, Ryan Kesler is back to the active list, and there is a slight question as to whether Cory Schneider is ready to return from injury for Game One, or whether Roberto Luongo will start for Vancouver in goal.
The Sharks have great balance between their four lines, and with Scott Gomez ready to return, they have someone with 99 career playoff points and 2 Stanley Cups to help where needed. The Canucks look as if they’re going to match up a line of Higgins, Roy, and Zack Kassian against what’s been the Sharks’ top line down the stretch, the Logan Couture line. Joe Thornton’s line has size and lots of trouble for Vancouver in the presence of Brent Burns, who will make life difficult for Canucks parked in front of the net and in the corners. Perhaps most importantly, they have Niemi in goal.
The Canucks have their usual goaltending drama, but remember one thing: Luongo has taken his team to Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final, and Schneider is an outstanding netminder when he’s healthy and at the top of his game. The Sharks won’t be distracted by the presence or absence of either, because both will be very good when it matters.
Dealing with the Sedin twins is always a challenge. Let’s not forget that 2011 playoff series, when Henrik Sedin scored 1 goal and 11 assists in just 5 games. Henrik and Daniel should be raring to go in this one, as will Burrows and the other high-powered Canucks forwards, who have a little more depth than they did a month or so ago with the addition of Derek Roy to the mix.
Predictions? Other than a close, hotly-contested series that should be terrific, there are none to make. But as we get ready for Game One of the series, let’s simply reprise Bob Errey’s 16 Points for Playoff Success. You can write them down on a cocktail napkin if you’d like:
Let’s go. It’s time for Game One. See you on the radio!
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