Sharks-Canucks conference finals preview

With the Stanley Cup playoff field down to four, here’s the breakdown of the Western Conference finals between the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks.

How they got here: The Canucks advanced by eliminating the Nashville Predators in a hard-fought, low-scoring six games. The Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead against the Detroit Red Wings but prevailed in the seventh and deciding game.

Strengths: The Canucks have been led by Ryan Kesler, who regained his scoring touch in the Predators series and is now considered an early favorite for playoff MVP. Roberto Luongo appeared far more confident in goal in the Predators series, which bodes well moving forward.

The Canucks have the advantage in special teams – entering this series with the fifth-best power play and penalty kill – and in blueline depth.

The Sharks have been led by captain Joe Thornton, who is having the best playoffs of his career, as well as energetic forward Ryane Clowe. Rookie forward Logan Couture has displayed a poise beyond his years, while winger Devin Setoguchi has regained his scoring touch. Goaltender Antti Niemi has played well between the pipes, and is coming off six consecutive series victories dating back to last year’s playoffs. The Sharks have led all playoff teams in faceoff percentage.

Weaknesses: The high-scoring Sedin twins were anything but against the Predators, with Henrik held scoreless in four of six games, Daniel in three of the six. That’s one of the reasons Vancouver has the lowest goals-per-game average of all the conference finalists. If the Sedins fail to rediscover their scoring touch against the Sharks, the Canucks could be in trouble.

Advancing to the conference final was not an easy path for either club, but the Sharks will have had less rest heading into this series. Patrick Marleau did score the series-winning goal for San Jose against Detroit but overall he’s had a quiet postseason. The Sharks also have the fourth-worst power-play in this year’s playoffs and aren’t likely to find it any easier with the man advantage against the Canucks defense.

Players to watch: Kesler will continue to lead the way for the Canucks, but they need the Sedins to pick up their offensive production if they’re to advance. Defenseman Kevin Bieksa has been a physical force on their blueline while Christian Ehrhoff has been their best offensive blueliner. Thornton, Clowe and Couture have been the offensive leaders for the Sharks, but defenseman Dan Boyle elevated his play in the Detroit series, with three multi-point games. Luongo and Niemi have had their ups and downs this spring so it’ll be interesting to see how they perform in this series.

Who will win: Neither club made it easy on itself reaching the conference finals, feeling the pressure to overcome recent reputations of “choking” in the postseason. The Sharks have the advantage in terms of conference finals experience, but the Canucks’ defensive depth and special teams should give them the edge. Canucks in six.