The Vancouver Canucks have been consistent winners of the Northwest Division over the past five seasons, but hope a new look in goal will be enough to earn them their first ever Stanley Cup Championship.
Cory Schneider, not Roberto Luongo, figures to be the guy tasked with trying to lead the Canucks to another deep playoff run. The 27-year-old came into the season as the starting goaltender, taking over for the veteran Luongo, who the club tried to trade during the offseason without success.
Schneider had his struggles early on and Luongo proved to be an outstanding safety net, but when all was said and done, the former made 30 starts to Luongo's 18 and turned in a solid campaign by going 17-9-4 with a 2.11 goals against average, .927 save percentage and five shutouts, tied for the league lead. Schneider showed solid form during a 9-2 span from March 19-April 8, allowing more than two goals only once during that run.
The former first-round pick did miss the final two games of the season with an undisclosed lower-body injury and said on Monday that he is day-to-day after taking part in a full practice.
"I'd love to play. It's the playoffs and I've felt good about how I've been playing lately," said Schneider. "This is where the fun part of the year starts is playoffs. I'd love to be able to and if we feel I'm healthy enough to play, I will."
The one area of concern for the Canucks will, of course, be experience. While Luongo has appeared in 61 career playoff games, including five against the San Jose Sharks, Schneider has appeared in just eight but has logged a 1.91 postseason GAA.
And riding Luongo never helped in the past as the Canucks have made just one Stanley Cup Finals appearance during their string of five straight division titles. That was a seven-game loss to the Boston Bruins in 2011 and Vancouver did not make it out of the first round a season ago despite a second straight Presidents' Trophy, losing in five games to the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings and beginning the transition from Luongo to Schneider.
The Canucks don't come into these playoffs red-hot either, having lost five of their last eight. That includes a season-ending 7-2 setback in Edmonton.
But it is tough to count out a team that is led by a pair of Sedins in twin bothers Henrik and Daniel. The duo now rank 1-2 as the club's all-time leading scorers, with Henrik leading the way with 792. Daniel is right behind with 758 career points.
That is also the order that the brothers finished this regular season in scoring for the club. Henrik Sedin's 34 assists and 45 points led the Canucks, while Daniel was second in goals (12), assists (28) and points (40). The brothers have also combined for 45 goals and 135 points in the playoffs.
Linemate Alexandre Burrows led the Canucks with 13 goals as the club finished tied for 19th in the NHL with just 2.54 goals per game.
However, the Canucks added depth at the trade deadline by getting Derek Roy from the Buffalo Sabres and their is hope that Ryan Kesler can stay healthy after getting limited to 17 games this year, first due to offseason shoulder surgery and then a broken right foot during the season upon his return.
Kesler and Roy could also help a power play that ranked just 22nd in the NHL this season at 15.8 percent.
Meanwhile, forward Jannik Hansen followed up a career-high 16-goal season a year ago with 10 tallies and 27 points through 47 games this season.
While Vancouver looks to find some firepower from year's past, the club was a solid defensive team and was tied for 10th in goals allowed per game at 2.40 while killing off 84 percent of its power plays to finish eighth in the league.
The Canucks added some scoring to their blue line this past offseason by signing Jason Garrison away from the Florida Panthers and he was on pace to match last season's numbers with eight goals and 16 points in 47 games this year.
Dan Hamhuis, meanwhile, added 24 points and his 23 minutes, 23 seconds of ice time per game were behind only Alexander Edler (23:50) for the team lead.
Defenseman Kevin Bieksa should also be ready to contribute after returning to play the regular season finale following a five-game absence caused by a lower body issue.
SAN JOSE SHARKS (6th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 25-16-7
2011 PLAYOFFS: Lost to St. Louis 4-1 in conference quarterfinals
(Sports Network) - The San Jose Sharks will begin the playoffs on the road for a second straight season. They hope things go better this time around.
The Sharks got off to a blazing start to this lockout-shortened season, winning seven straight to begin the campaign for the first time in franchise history. The final five wins of that streak came at home, however, and a road- heavy schedule in February put San Jose's fast start in the rearview mirror.
San Jose seemed to find its game towards the end of the season, winning 12 of its final 18, but an 8-14-2 road record is a big reason that the Sharks will start this series in Vancouver and not at HP Pavilion.
That could prove a tough hill to climb for the Sharks, who were 17-2-5 at home and didn't drop their second game in regulation as the host until April 21.
San Jose had similar success last season by going 26-12-3 at home, but it opened the 2012 postseason in St. Louis and dropped four straight to the Blues after stealing Game 1 in double overtime.
Quite a few faces remain for the Sharks, who make their ninth straight postseason appearance. The offense still runs through Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Martin Havlat, while Dan Boyle is still manning the blue line and Antti Niemi returns in net.
The Sharks did shake up their roster before the trade deadline, dealing away defenseman Douglas Murray, reliable center Michael Handzus and big winger Ryane Clowe, adding the physical Raffi Torres, defenseman Scott Hannan and number of draft picks for Murray, Handzus and Clowe.
The loss of Clowe didn't hurt the offense in terms of goal scoring, seeing as the forward had zero goals and 11 assists in 28 games before the deal.
Instead, it was the usual faces pacing San Jose's offense, which ranked just 24th with 2.42 goals per game. Thornton led the way with 33 assists and 40 points, while Couture was on pace for a third straight 30-goal season with 21 tallies through 48 games.
Marleau (17 goals) and Joe Pavelski (16 goals) were also solid contributors, but Havlat had another disappointing season with only eight goals in 40 games.
Brent Burns, though, added some surprising scoring after he shifted from defense to forward following a return from injury and he matched Boyle's 20 points despite playing in only 30 games to the former's 46.
The move of Burns to the top line with Thornton and TJ Galiardi also had a trickle down impact as it strengthened the second line of Marleau, Couture and Havlat while putting the talented Pavelski on another combination.
And of course, a team that can throw Thornton, Couture, Pavelski and Boyle at you on the power play is always dangerous and the Sharks ranked seventh in the NHL on the man advantage at 20.1 percent.
And unlike most teams that usually lean heavy on the top-two defensive pairings come playoff time, head coach Todd McLellan gets a six-man effort from his group. Boyle averaged 22 minutes and 47 seconds per game to lead the team, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic and veteran Brad Stuart averaged just over 20 minutes per game.
San Jose also ranked sixth on the penalty kill this season at 85.0 percent.
Then there is Niemi, who tied for the league lead with 24 wins and helped earn the Chicago Blackhawks a Stanley Cup title in 2010.
His two postseasons with the Sharks have not been as fruitful. Though he helped lead San Jose to the conference finals in 2011, his numbers were less- than-stellar: a 3.22 GAA and .896 save percentage.
Niemi was a bit better last season, but San Jose's offense was outscored 14-8 by St. Louis in the opening round.
The Sharks possess four players with over 100 games of playoff experience in Thornton, Marleau, Stuart and role player Scott Gomez, while Boyle and Hannan are no stranger to the second season either.
Despite a number of recent finishes near the top of the Western Conference, the Canucks and Sharks have met only once before in the postseason. That encounter did have a lot on the line as Vancouver knocked off San Jose in five games to advance to the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals.
Niemi struggled the whole series, giving up at least three goals in all five games and 20 in total, while Luongo started all five games for the Canucks and posted a 2.38 GAA.
Henrik Sedin had 11 assists and 12 points in that meeting, while Daniel added a pair of goals and four assists.
Marleau was the star for the Sharks, finishing the series with four goals and seven points.
The Sharks come into this rematch with the momentum, having swept the three- game season series. They won twice at home and claimed a shootout victory in Vancouver.
Niemi won all three games for the Sharks with a 1.62 GAA, while Schneider was charged with all three setbacks.
"Obviously, meeting in the past and being top teams in the Western Conference there's always been that rivalry," said McLellan. "But every team takes on its own personality each year. There's a new group that comes in and it's been two years since we last saw them (in the playoffs), so I don't know if there's going to be a huge carryover but the rivalry exists."
While the two clubs combined for 33 goals in their conference finals meeting, it could be defense and goaltending that defines this series. The special teams edge seems to favor the Sharks, so the Canucks will need to play smart and responsible hockey.
That shouldn't be an issue for the Sedin brothers, who thrive on making plays and not hits. Schneider also seems to be playing with confidence and home-ice should be the difference maker in this series.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Canucks in 7