Published May 15, 2011
| National Hockey League
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Vancouver hasn't been here since 1994. San Jose was here just last season, but it didn't even win a game.
The 2011 Western Conference Finals begin Sunday (8 p.m. ET, CBC, VERSUS, RDS) with plenty of questions surrounding these two powerhouse squads that are known more for underachieving at this time of the year.
Here are six that should be answered after Game 1:
Will the Sedins be the Sedins everyone recognizes?
Henrik and Daniel have struggled in these playoffs, particularly since Game 4 against Chicago. They finished the Nashville series with only 7 points and a minus-10 rating. They're each minus-8 for the postseason. Henrik is also believed to be playing with some type of injury, though he says he's healthy and ready to go for Game 1 against the Sharks.
Chances are the Sedins will find more room to operate in this series than they did in the previous two only because they won't be facing a shutdown defensive pair. When Nashville coach Barry Trotz moved his best duo and arguably the best pair in the NHL, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, over to check Ryan Kesler, the Sedins did find some more room and were able to generate some chances.
Against the Sharks they're going to have to make good on those chances, but they also have to be responsible defensively because San Jose is going to try to shut down the Sedins by keeping the puck away from them. They can't let that happen. They have to hold the puck in the zone, play with it and, with the help of Alex Burrows, put the biscuit past Antti Niemi.
Can Patrick Marleau ride the momentum wave of his series-winner against Detroit into Vancouver?
Marleau didn't record a point in the Detroit series until the 12:13 mark of the third period in Game 7. His goal wound up being the series-clincher, so not only did it get him off the schnide, it also was a huge moment in the Sharks' season and arguably in Marleau's excellent career.
But, as big as that was, Marleau can't wait that long to produce against Vancouver. The Sharks are going to need a lot from their top line of Marleau, Joe Thornton and Devin Setoguchi -- and they can't have one of those guys be a passenger.
Marleau has only 6 points in 13 playoff games this season, but he was San Jose's best player in the Conference Finals against Chicago last season with 5 goals and 1 assist in just the four games.
Which goalie bends first?
San Jose's Antti Niemi has won six straight playoff series since making his Stanley Cup debut last April with the Blackhawks, and he just made 38 saves to beat Detroit in Game 7. Roberto Luongo looks about as comfortable and confident as ever in the net even though he has shown a soft goal can beat him.
It's hard to say that either team will be able to break the other goalie, but one of them will give up the first goal and one of them will lose the first game. It's too hard to predict now who will do that because both of them have been pretty rock solid of late.
Luongo has won five of seven starts and has allowed only 12 goals in the process since being benched to start Game 6 against Chicago. He's found his game and he finished the Nashville series with a 1.63 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. Niemi had a 2.36 GAA and .931 save percentage against Detroit.
Can the Sharks defense control the Canucks' top forwards?
The Canucks have to look at San Jose's defense and say, "That's where we have to take advantage." The Sharks do not have a shutdown pair.
Dan Boyle is without question the Sharks' No. 1 blue-liner, but he plays a different type of game and is not at all consumed in a shutdown role. He can definitely beat Vancouver with his skating, passing and overall offensive skill, but the best thing the Canucks can do against Boyle is hold the puck in the zone and make him play defense.
Douglas Murray is Boyle's partner, so he has to stay back and cover most of the time when his partner joins the rush. He's a heavy hitter.
Jason Demers and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have been good in the playoffs, but neither is an intimidating presence the likes of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Brent Seabrook or even the diminuitive yet speedy Duncan Keith. Ian White and, Niclas Wallin are, like Demers and Vlasic, a solid pair but not one that will put much fear into the Sedins, Burrows, Kesler and Co.
How does Alain Vigneault deploy Ryan Kesler?
With Games 1 and 2 on home ice, the Canucks coach should be able to get the matchups he wants. The question is, what does he want? Vigneault is not going to divulge his gameplan in the media, so we'll have to wait to find out if Kesler is used against the Setoguchi-Thornton-Marleau line or if he's used against the second line of Logan Couture with wingers Ryane Clowe and Dany Heatley.
Kesler was a two-way force against Nashville and a defensive force against Chicago. He insists he isn't changing his style regardless of who he's matched up against, but he will definitely face a sterner test in this series against the Sharks bigger and more offensive forwards than he did against Nashville's plodding and smaller group.
Will Jumbo continue to be a two-way force?
Thornton's defensive game has clearly improved and his offensive game has not necessarily suffered either. He has 2 goals and 9 assists in the playoffs, but he's being recognized more for the little plays he's making with his stick and his body that either bump players off the puck or knock the puck away from them to start the Sharks' offense going the other way.
The last thing Thornton can do in this series is get all consumed with offense again and forget about his defensive responsibilities. Odds are he won't because the Canucks have enough firepower in their forward group to burn Thornton and the Sharks if that were to happen.
With a big series at both ends of the ice, Thornton might not only get to his first Stanley Cup Final, but he could be the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as well. There's so much on the line here for Jumbo Joe.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl