Sizing Up The San Jose Sharks Potential Playoff Opponents: Vancouver Canucks

With the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche losing last night, the San Jose Sharks clinched a berth in the 2011-2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The only question that remains now us whether the Sharks will win their division and clinch home-ice advantage in the first round, and who they will play.

There are four possibilities at this point: the Vancouver Canucks, St Louis Blues, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks. Let’s take a look at what each of these match-ups could mean for the Sharks.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

When the Canucks are healthy and running on all cylinders, they are the most complete team in the Western Conference. The past two seasons they have the best record against the Sharks of any team in the Western Conference, regular season and/or playoffs. They are the fastest team top to bottom in the Western Conference, along with the Chicago Blackhawks, but unlike the Blackhawks, their speed does not come at the expense of size, grit, or defensive structure. While the Sharks are still a bigger team than the Canucks, the difference is not as drastic, and their size advantage has not been great enough the past two seasons to make up for all the Canucks’ advantages.

These advantages extend beyond the Canucks fleetness of foot. They don’t just skate fast, they play fast with and without the puck due to their high skill level.

Their top-line with the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows is as good a puck-possession line as there is in the NHL. Once they get the puck in the offensive zone, it is very difficult to get it back.

Then the Canucks bring out their second line with David Booth and Ryan Kesler, which relies more on speed, grit, and straight line hockey to beat you. Kesler has had a down year statistically after recovering from offseason hip surgery, but this is still a dangerous second line.

The Canucks third-line with Chris Higgins, Sammy Pahlsson, and Jannik Hansen is one of the more multi-dimensional third-lines in the NHL. Higgins and Hansen, especially, bring elite speed down the wings, while Pahlsson anchors the line defensively in the middle. All three are hard-working and defensively responsible, however what sets them apart from most third-lines is the offensive ability they bring to the ice without sacrificing anything defensively.

On the fourth-line, the Canucks have a lot of options. Maxim Lapierre is an underrated forward with size, speed, and some skill to boot. He had a great series on the Canucks third-line against the Sharks last season, and could move up there again if needed. When he gets his hitting game going, he can be a real force in the bottom-six. Sharks fans also know Manny Malhotra well. He suffered a terrible eye-injury last season, and although he returned for the playoffs, he has not looked the same player since, although there are signs he may be getting his game back now. At minimum he is still a faceoff specialist.

Then there’s the wild card, Zack Kassian. Acquired in the trade for Cody Hodgson, Kassian has all the tools to be a very good power-forward in this league, but looks to be lacking something at the moment, whether that’s confidence, ice-time, a mean-streak, some combination of all those things, or something else. But if he gets his game going, he could prove a match-up problem for any team’s fourth line, or possibly move up to play with the Sedins and give the Canucks a different look. The same could be said for Byron Bitz, who I believe also has the potential to be a good power-forward in this league if he can just stay healthy and get his game back to 100%. Andrew Ebbett is another option the Canucks have who brings speed and hockey sense to the fourth line. He has also shown a propensity for deflecting pucks. Whether he just got lucky a couple of times or he really has an unusual talent for scoring off deflection’s, it’s hard to say, but it’s something to watch for.

Defensively, the Canucks are also balanced and deep. They don’t have a superstar name like Nicklas Lidstrom, or a league-leading points getter from the blue-line like Erik Karlsson, but they have a handful of very complete defensemen who do everything well. It’s a mobile group with very few weaknesses. Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis make up one of the most underrated defense-pairings in the NHL, Alexander Edler is well on his way to becoming one of the best defensemen in the NHL, period, and Sami Salo is still a good two-way defenseman when he’s healthy. That’s a formidable top-four at both ends of the ice, and Keith Ballard, if he’s healthy for the postseason, is a better #5 than most teams have. Chris Tanev, Marc-Andre Gragnani, and Andrew Alberts prove good depth from the #6 position down.

On special teams, the Canucks are excellent, with both the 6th ranked power-play and penalty kill. The Canucks are also 6th in the NHL in scoring, and 4th in Goals Against Average. For the second straight season, the Canucks have performed at an elite or near-elite level in every statistical area of the game.

In goal, it would seem the Canucks hold another advantage over the San Jose Sharks, and just about everyone else, with Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. Luongo and Schneider have been about as consistently elite in net as any starter and backup over the past two seasons, while Antti Niemi has struggled this season. However, it’s worth noting that having the better goaltender does not always guarantee you get better goaltending over a seven-game series, and that Antti Niemi did have success against Luongo and the Canucks when he played behind Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on the Chicago Blackhawks. That success has not extended to his time with the Sharks, however, as the Canucks have dominated the Sharks the past two seasons regardless of who is in net.

It’s not all bad news for the Sharks. The Sharks have their own good players, and they are the bigger team, and better along the boards. The Canucks have a lot of players like Chris Higgins, Ryan Kesler, and David Booth, very balanced players in terms of having elite speed with just enough size to go along with it, but what they don’t really have is the Ryane Clowe type of player that’s all size, even at the expense of speed. The Sharks, like Clowe, will have trouble keeping up with the Canucks quicker players and pace of play, but the Canucks may have trouble battling the Sharks bigger players along the boards. Then again, Ryan Kesler isn’t exactly a poor physical specimen, either, and the Sharks’ size advantage, and what few other advantages they hold over the Canucks, have not been enough to beat them with any regularity over the past two seasons.

Overall, the Canucks are a very difficult match-up for the San Jose Sharks, as recent history has shown. Top to bottom, they are the faster, deeper, and more talented team. They are better. However, that does not mean the Sharks cannot beat them. The best team does not always win in a seven-game series. The Sharks will have to minimize all the advantages the Canucks hold over them while amplifying the few advantages of their own, and hopefully find a way to steal some games, and the series. But it goes without saying, this is not an ideal match-up for the Sharks, and I would imagine it’s one they would like to avoid in the first round.

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