NHL

Another tight series ahead

Special to FOX Sports Inside Hockey, Andrew Bensch
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After a tight seven-game series concluded with a 3-2 San Jose Sharks victory over the Detroit Red Wings, the Western Conference final matchup is now set.


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The No. 1-seed Vancouver Canucks, winners of this year's President's Trophy for most points in the regular season, will take on the Sharks in an all-West Coast Western Conference battle.

When the puck drops Sunday, it will be the first playoff series between the two Western powerhouses, as they have never met in the postseason before.

And better yet, neither franchise has hoisted the Stanley Cup in their history, making it a 50-50 chance that this year's Cup will be raised in a brand new city.

As fans of the game, we all appreciate when a franchise breaks through for a first-ever championship. Regardless of the winner of this series, if said team wins the Cup final it will be quite the tremendous story in that regard. Everyone remembers the first one.

Now predicting this conference final is nearly impossible. Many believed the San Jose-Detroit matchup was as close as it gets. Most thought that series to be a coin flip, despite some of the numbers favoring the Sharks going into it.

The numbers between Vancouver and San Jose, however, are nearly identical. Both teams are in the top 10 in goals for, goals against, 5-on-5 scoring, power-play, and face-off percentages.

Vancouver lead all of the NHL in both goals for and goals against, but the Sharks weren't far off, and while the Canucks had a much wider goal differential for the season, San Jose's first-half was uncharacteristically poor.

The second half saw the Sharks take off from 12th in the conference to their second-place finish. Meanwhile the Canucks cruised at the top of the standings for nearly the entire season.

Each team has depth. The Canucks feature one of the most stout defensive corps with the likes of former Sharks defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, Dan Hamuis, Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo. Not to mention Alexander Edler is no slouch himself, despite not having the same league-wide notoriety as his more veteran teammates.

San Jose, on the other hand has established the deepest forward group in team history. Each of its top three lines can dominate a game offensively as if it were a true No. 1 line. Down the middle the Sharks are loaded with captain Joe Thornton, Calder Trophy candidate Logan Couture and underrated U.S. Olympian Joe Pavelski. Their leading playoff scorer, winger Ryane Clowe, is arguably the best in the business in offensive board work.

Both sides have goaltenders who have reach great heights in their careers. San Jose’s Antti Niemi won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks last year, and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo led Canada to the gold medal in the 2010 Olympics.

One would be making a significant stretch to say either side has a clear edge between the pipes.

During the season the Canucks earned six out of eight points in the four games against the Sharks while San Jose picked up just three. While the Canucks dominated in the first two games early (when the Sharks were struggling), the Sharks showed much more resiliency and fight back in the final two matchups.

The Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel) along with Ryan Kesler lead a Vancouver forward group that doesn’t match San Jose’s depth, but definitely matches up closer to the Sharks forwards than San Jose’s defense matches up with the Canucks’ blue-liners.

That, in part, is why it may be wise to take Vancouver in this series. Combine the stronger blueline with a vastly better penalty kill and it’s hard to make an argument for the Sharks to win. The Canucks finished third this year at 85.6 percent, third overall, compared to the Sharks at 79.6 percent (24th overall).

Then again, the Canucks' highly-rated penalty kill unit is without the services of one of it’s key assets in center Manny Malhotra. With the former Sharks player unable to play in this postseason with an eye injury, that could enable San Jose’s power play to get a key goal it otherwise wouldn’t score.

Not only that, but Malhotra is, without a doubt, the best in the business at taking faceoffs, and the Sharks were right behind the Canucks in that battle for top faceoff team in the league. With Malhotra out, that advantage could flip toward the Sharks.

There are simply too many similarities between these two clubs and any advantages one could think of for one side can be quickly canceled out by a different advantage for the other.

In this season's playoffs both teams have been forced to a Game 7 after going up 3-0, and both won their other series in six games.

It’s perfect example of a coin flip. Just so happens my coin landed on San Jose.

Prediction: Sharks in seven.

Tagged: Sharks, Canucks, Manny Malhotra

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