Big story -- San Jose is back in the Western Conference Finals for the second straight season and third time in its history, but is looking for its first-ever win in this round. The Sharks were swept by the Chicago Blackhawks last season and lost to Calgary in six games in 2004. Vancouver is back in the conference finals for the second time ever and the first since 1994, when it reached the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Rangers. The Canucks and Sharks have never met in the playoffs.
Sharks -- They got here after blowing a 3-0 series lead to Detroit in the Conference Semifinals only to win Game 7 thanks to 38 saves by goalie Antti Niemi and the winning goal off of Patrick Marleau's stick. Marleau didn't record a point through the first six games and two periods against the Red Wings, but his goal 12:13 into the third period was the difference in Game 7.
Niemi, a Cup champion last season as the Blackhawks' No. 1 goalie, was arguably the Sharks' MVP of the second round. He put up a 2.36 goals-against average and .931 save percentage, but in Games 6 and 7 he faced a combined 84 shots and allowed only four goals. He was under siege and didn't buckle.
Niemi is 6-0 in playoff series in his career. He's the first goalie in the post-expansion NHL era to get to the Conference Finals in back-to-back years with different teams, and he's hoping to become the first goalie since 1916-17 to win the Stanley Cup with different teams in back-to-back years.
As a whole, the Sharks did not buckle in the face of adversity against the Red Wings -- and, for the first time since the Western Conference Semifinals in 2007, they are starting a series on the road.
"We'll enter the series against Vancouver as an underdog -- maybe a little pressure will be taken off us," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said.
Canucks -- Ryan Kesler's virtuoso performance against the Nashville Predators in the conference semis is a large reason the Canucks are here. Kesler was a one-man wrecking crew in the six-game series with the Predators as he was in on 11 of the 14 goals Vancouver scored, netting five of them and assisting on six. He also won 59 percent of his faceoffs, had 24 shots on goal, 16 hits and 12 takeaways. Two of Kesler's goals were game-winners, including one in overtime.
Kesler, though, was not the only star for the Canucks. Roberto Luongo had a 1.63 GAA and .933 save percentage against the Predators. He has won five of seven starts and given up only 12 goals since he was relegated to backup duty in Game 6 against the Blackhawks.
However, the Canucks know if they're going to proceed in these playoffs they're going to need more from the Sedin twins, who are tied with the worst plus-minus rating (minus-8) of any of the players remaining in the postseason. Henrik and Daniel combined for just 7 points and a minus-10 rating against the Predators. Henrik's lone goal was an empty-netter. Their linemate, Alex Burrows, had 3 points and a minus-3 rating.
Nevertheless, the Canucks still finally reached the Western Finals after losing in the Semifinals to the Blackhawks the last two years.
"The goal in the dressing room isn't to win and make it to the Conference Finals," Kesler said. "We have a bigger goal in mind. We still put a lot of pressure on ourselves and expect a lot from each other inside that dressing room. Outside, we really don't care what people think or say about us. We're focused on this series. We're focused on the San Jose Sharks."
Who's hot -- Kesler made a great case as the early Conn Smythe Trophy favorite against Nashville. He had assists on both of the Canucks' goals in Game 6. … Logan Couture has scored in four straight games for the Sharks. Devin Setoguchi scored in Game 7 to give him 5 goals against the Red Wings and 6 for the postseason. Dan Boyle had 2 assists in Game 7 and leads all NHL defensemen with 11 points.
Injury report -- Canucks forward Mikael Samuelsson suffered a lower-body injury in Game 5 against Nashville and has been ruled out for Game 1. Chris Higgins (foot) and Henrik Sedin (undisclosed) are considered to be healthy and ready to go. … The Sharks come in healthy.
Stat pack -- The Canucks have never hosted Game 1 of the Conference Finals, but then again, the Canucks have never lost Game 1 of the Conference Finals (2-0) and they have never lost a Conference Finals series. They beat Chicago in five games to win the Campbell Conference Championship in 1982 and beat Toronto in five to win the Western Conference in 1994.
Puck drop -- "The reality is we work all year long, starting day one at training camp, to get our team and our group ready to play hard, to be in the right frame of mind. Then they've got to go out and play," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "I think as staff we've done what we're supposed to do as far as getting this group feeling good about themselves, feeling good about one another. We're really confident that they can go out and get it done."