By Rick Morris
The first-ever all-Pacific Time Zone Western Conference Finals feature a clash of teams who came within a razor’s edge of coughing away 3-0 series leads – teams whose legacies can ill-afford playoff letdowns of such magnitude.
In this clash between San Jose and Vancouver, one team will be pronounced an overdue breakthrough and one will sift through a mortal blight on what remains of their collective self-respect.
The strangest note of the series contains a note of continuity from last year’s conference finals that goes beyond the Sharks’ repeat appearance. After Chicago was forced to dismantle all but their most important core players in the aftermath of cold hard salary cap reality following their Stanley Cup win, goalie Antii Niemi migrated to NoCal. If San Jose can make it to the Finals for the first time ever, and especially if they get their long-awaited championship, Niemi’s replacement of big-game-challenged Evgeni Nabokov will loom large – ironic, in light of the fact that Niemi was one of the less-regarded goalies in recent memory to backstop his team to a championship. His counterpart, three-time Vezina Trophy finalist Roberto Luongo, is one of the most celebrated goalies in the league and got his own big-time breakthrough when Canada won the 2010 Olympic gold medal (on his home ice, no less). But his reputation in big games is way more all-or-nothing than that of Niemi, as evidenced by his benching in the first round this year against Chicago. Both goalies are backed up by excellent defensive units, with the Canucks’ Christian Ehrhoff (who came up with San Jose) and the Sharks’ Dan Boyle anchoring their respective groups.
Up front, in a dynamic similar to the East finals where Tampa Bay is more top-heavy than Boston, Vancouver has way more explosiveness, but San Jose’s group of forwards is deeper. The all-world identical Sedin twins – a story unprecedented in sports history – boast one Hart Trophy for league MVP for Henrik in 2010 and probably another for Daniel this year. And yet, the team has won in this postseason despite their play rather than because of it as Ryan Kesler has stepped his game up significantly just when Vancouver has needed it the most. This trio, though, will be challenged to keep up with the collective output of such San Jose forwards as Patrick Marleau (execrable postseason play aside), Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Dany Heatley, Ryan Clowe, Logan Couture and Devin Setoguchi. Thornton and Heatley in particular are eager to scratch their names from the “best player never to win the Cup” list and Heatley would like to get a chance to erase the memories of his Ottawa team’s collapse in the 2007 Finals.
With Vancouver’s 1982 and 1994 Stanley Cup Finals appearances serving as the highest achievement tallied by either franchise, the hunger in this series will be off the charts. It’s worth noting that the ’94 Canucks were trying to follow the ’93 Canadiens as Canadian Cup-winners. They fell one game short in Game 7 and saw the Cup slip out of Great White North hands for what would be the longest interval in the game’s history. If you don’t think that this team is extra-motivated to be the one to end Canada’s historic shame of 17 years, think again. At a time when the Sedins are just about due to start looking like themselves, Vancouver should be able to take advantage of home ice to accomplish the task that Detroit could not in the last round and finish off San Jose to gain a berth in the Finals. I picked Vancouver to beat San Jose in the conference semifinals in our preseason guide and I see no reason to change the predicted outcome now in the conference finals. Vancouver over San Jose in 7 (picks are 7-1 in the first round, 2-2 in the second round) and Tampa over Vancouver in 6 in the Finals.