The third-seeded Vancouver Canucks aim for a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinals, as they host the San Jose Sharks in the opener at Rogers Arena.
The 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. However, the former first- round pick did miss the final two games of the season with an undisclosed lower-body injury and Luongo will get the start in Game 1.
The 27-year-old Schneider 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 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.
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.
Vancouver doesn'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.
The sixth-seeded Sharks, meanwhile, will begin the playoffs on the road for a second straight season and 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.
San Jose's offense ranked just 24th with 2.42 goals per game this season. 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.
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 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, Brad 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.
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Friday at Vancouver. The Canucks were 15-6-3 as the host this season.