SAN JOSE- For the second time in three years the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks will do battle in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In the 2011, the top seeded Canucks hosted the two seeded Sharks in the WCF. The then superior Vancouver team dispatched San Jose in five games.
This year the three seeded Canucks will face off with the sixth seeded Sharks in round one, and that’s far from the only difference this time around.
For starters, Vancouver isn’t as lethal on the back end without the booming shots of Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo. Furthermore, Raffi Torres, the most tenacious player on either side, has switched dressing rooms. He was a menace in that conference final, separating Joe Thornton’s shoulder in game four with a clean hit. This time around he puts the nasty in San Jose’s favor and will do it with much more offense and with much less stupidity than Ben Eager.
Now before Canucks fans go getting their panties in a bundle, Jason Garrison is a nice fill in for Ehrhoff/Salo but he doesn’t come close to the same out put.
Put it this way, it is hard to argue the Canucks blue-line wasn’t significantly stronger the last time these teams met in the postseason.
Conversely, it is also hard to argue the Sharks blue wasn’t significantly weaker in that WCF (with Niclas Wallin and Kent Huskins weighing it down). If Jason Demers is healthy enough to play, then San Jose’s defense is definitely a step improved than the one that skated the 2011 WCF.
For what it’s worth, the Sharks won all three matchups between the two teams in this shortened season. While the contests were spread out over the course of the year, all three came before the trade deadline. Both teams look a bit different since with Vancouver adding Derek Roy and San Jose adding the aforementioned Torres.
But overall, the point to be had is that these two teams are much more on an even footing this time around.
Even if Vancouver’s David Booth were to return, each team has top two lines whom you can’t really give much of an edge either way. The Sedin’s are great, and Vancouver’s second line with Roy, Chris Higgins and Ryan Kesler is solid.
On the other side, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns are a load to handle up front, and Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Martin Havlat have formed a pretty dynamic shut down/scoring line for the Sharks.
Hard to call the top two lines anything but a wash. The same goes for the aforementioned blue-lines.
Where this series will be won, is the battle between the bottom six forwards.
The third line of San Jose features Torres, Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels. Vancouver on the other hand rolls out Mason Raymond, Max Lappierre and Jannik Hansen.
Raymond and Hansen are more lethal wingers than Torres and Wingels but Lappierre can’t hold a candle to Pavelski in the middle. Overall these two lines are also pretty close in comparison. However, I’ll give a slim edge to the Sharks with the Torres factor. Wingles/Torres should wear down their Vancover opponents with their physical play.
A lot of people like to forget about fourth lines as if they are meaningless. Why this is, I don’t know. You look at recent cup winners, and they all could roll four lines consistently. They aren’t teams with a fourth line featuring Jody Shelley and his 4:45 in ice time.
When the rest of the rosters are so similar (almost forgot, goaltenders Cory Schneider/Roberto Luongo versus Antti Niemi, take your pick, coin toss there) a strong fourth line that can drive the play to the offensive zone consistently is a significant boost.
When Gomez centers that San Jose fourth line between Andrew Desjardins and Adam Burish, the Sharks fourth line has consistently been able to sustain offensive zone time.
Conversely, the Canucks will probably roll out a fourth line of Tom Sesito, Andrew Ebbett and Zack Kassian. Of the six fourth line players for both teams, Gomez is by far and away the most talented player of the group. You have to give the edge to San Jose even if you throw in the young Jordan Schroeder into the mix for Vancouver.
Even though the bottom six for both teams are close, yours truly subscribes to the theory of building down the middle and a team’s center drives the lines. Therefore, I’ll take Pavelski and Gomez driving play over Lappierre and Ebbett/Schroeder.
Therefore, taking everything into consideration from these two teams, I’m leaning towards the lower seeded Sharks. I think their bottom six forwards make the difference.
Given San Jose’s home dominance this season (including two wins over Vancouver) I see them winning all three of their home games in this series in route to a 4 games to 2 series victory.
For more on the Sharks follow Andrew on Twitter @ViewFromBensch