Battle for West is between Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks, both perennial underachievers.
Chance for Sharks and Canucks to make up for past
Flop. Failure. Disappointment. Underachiever.
The teams facing off in the NHL's Western Conference final are all too familiar with all the belittling labels used to describe their inability to break through in the play-offs. And both the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks hope this is finally the year that they can put those unflattering terms to rest. One of them will advance to the Stanley Cup finals, while the other will skate into another off-season with the familiar sinking feeling that this should have been their year.
Neither the Sharks nor the Canucks have won the Stanley Cup. The Canucks shocked the ice hockey world in 1982 with an unlikely run to the final, where they were unceremoniously swept by the dynastic New York Islanders. In 1994, they lost in a seven-game showdown against New York's other team, the Rangers.
The Canucks, who are celebrating their 40th season, claimed the Presidents' Trophy as the league's best regular-season team and hold a 1-0 lead over the Sharks going into Game 2 tonight.
They have the sublimely talented Sedin twins, the two-way force Ryan Kesler, a deep and dangerous defence corps and Roberto Luongo in net. The core has been bonded by regular-season success and play-off disappointment.
They finally beat their play-offs nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks, in a mettle-testing first-round series. They dispatched the Nashville Predators in six games in Round 2. They're one series from the final, and two series from cup glory. They know they are close, and they know they are good enough to win it all.
Standing in Vancouver's way are San Jose. The Sharks have been the NHL's poster team for regular-season success and post-season ineptitude for a decade.
The Sharks had a breakthrough last year when they reached the West final, only to be swept by Chicago. This season, they hope to reach the cup final and win it.
Joe Thornton is having perhaps his finest play-offs, and the supporting cast is contributing consistently. The critics want more from top-liners Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, but lesser lights like Devin Setoguchi, Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture have filled the void. The Sharks are led by Dan Boyle on defence and Antti Niemi, who won it all with Chicago a year ago, in net. Like Vancouver, San Jose's skill and depth is cup worthy.
Both teams have the talent to go the distance, but one perennial contender is doomed to come up short again.
This week in the NHL
Players of the week
• Ryan Kesler, Vancouver. The early favourite for the Conn Smythe Trophy as play-off MVP was in on 11 of the 14 goals Vancouver scored against Nashville.
• Antti Niemi, San Jose. The Sharks stopper did not allow his team to collapse against Detroit, providing stellar net-minding in a Game 7 victory.
• Dwayne Roloson, Tampa Bay. The 41-year-old Lightning goalie is reminding many of his 2006 form, when he led the underdog Edmonton Oilers to within one win of a title.
Teams of the week
• Tampa Bay Lightning. An unexpected play-off run continues; their winning streak is eight games.
• Vancouver Canucks. The NHL’s best regular-season team appears to be getting stronger as the post-season progresses.
Duds of the week
• Tim Thomas, Boston. The goalie’s aura of invincibility vanished in the first period of Game 1 against Tampa as the Lightning pumped three pucks past him in 85 seconds.
•Dany Heatley, San Jose. The Sharks sniper, above, has struggled to find the net in the play-offs; worse yet, he was in the penalty box when Vancouver scored the winner in Game 1.
• Boston Bruins. A 5-2 home-ice loss to Tampa was not what the Bruins wanted to begin the East final.
Games of the week
• Boston v Tampa Bay, tomorrow and Saturday. The East final heads south for Games 3 and 4 as the Lightning try to take advantage at home.
• Vancouver v San Jose, Friday and Sunday. The teams that finished 1-2 in the West battle for a shot at the cup.