When the 2011 NHL Playoffs began, the Vancouver Canucks were widely favored to win the whole thing. Now they're here in the Western Conference Finals, but they didn't have the easiest of time getting here, like most figured they would. Their quarterfinal series against the Chicago Blackhawks went the distance to game seven, and going into said game seven, they didn't have any momentum going their way and in fact, most figured they were going to blow it. They gritted through it, and faced the Nashville Predators in round two. It wasn't the easiest of times in that case either, but they definitely powered through with less difficult than round one.
Now they're taking on the San Jose Sharks, a team who faced a very similar road in getting to this point, winning a mostly-comfortable series 4-2 over the Los Angeles Kings in round one, then struggling mighty against the powerhouse that is the Detroit Red Wings in round two, dropping three-straight games after a 3-0 series lead, only to win it in game seven on the back of a Patrick Marleau goal.This marks the second straight western conference final for the Sharks, though fans would sooner rather forget the 2009-2010 campaign, in which they were swept by the aforementioned Blackhawks (en route to their eventual Stanley Cup win) in four games.
Back to who indeed was favored to win - most had the Canucks as the most likely, with the Washington Capitals second most likely. Safe to say at this point that the Capitals won't be winning anything this year (perhaps a round of golf?), but what about the Sharks? They were right there rated as the third most likely to win it all, and according to Vegas, it was a pretty good chance. But the perception regarding the Canucks by Vegas and the general population was and is still very fair: they're, on paper, the strongest team left in the playoffs, and this is very likely an uphill battle for the Sharks.
An uphill battle that they feel like they can win, because at this level, there are no weak teams. The Red Wings were a team that nobody would have been surprised to see win the Stanley Cup when it's all said and done. The Kings would have been a mild surprise, but the young talent on that team is unquestionable, and the Sharks had two very hard-fought series' with which to battle-test themselves.
It was an entire season of battle-testing for San Jose, who suffered multiple lows to go with the highs, unlike past seasons in which they dominated on their way to a number one seed. They fought out of the third seed at the end of this regular season, and now they'll fight uphill once again, taking on the first-seeded Canucks. So if we see a game seven this time around, it will be played in Vancouver, not San Jose.
The Sharks will have all kinds of weapons to contend with, the least of which isn't Roberto Luongo, who is one of three finalists for this year's Vezina Trophy. They're no stranger to strong goaltending at this point, with Jonathan Quick of the Kings and Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings both turning in very respectable performances just about every time out., but Luongo at his best is clearly a cut above the both of them. Unfortunately for Vancouver, Luongo hasn't been at his best in these playoffs, but he sets up a good parallel with Sharks' goalie Antti Niemi. Both players turned in below-average starts in the first round of the playoffs, and then both were virtually unstoppable in round two.
Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin have received an otherworldly amount of flack for their performances in the postseason, and they haven't done anything this year to change that. However, the Canucks are getting closer, and the dangerous duo could easily switch on at any moment and be a force against the Sharks. For now, San Jose needs to keep their eyes on Ryan Kesler, who had five goals (two game-winners) and eleven points in the series against the Predators.
However, San Jose is not without weapons on their own, on top of the aforementioned strong goalie play from Niemi in round two. Joe Thornton is really rising to the occasion and playing some of the best hockey of his career, while Patrick Marleau may or may not capitalize on his game-winner in game seven against the Red Wings. With him, you never really know. Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe continue to be relentless in their pursuit of the puck, and nobody on the team is really playing badly by any stretch of the imagination.
These are the number one and number two seeds, the titans of the Western Conference and probably the entire NHL. The winner of this series stands a very good chance of winning the cup entirely, and one of these two teams will be able to shake off the perception of postseason choking. What has happened in the regular season has never been a good indication for success in the playoffs when it comes to these two clubs, so game one will tell us an awful lot.