NHL playoffs preview: No. 3 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 6 San Jose Sharks
By Allan Muir
Jan. 27: Sharks 4, Canucks 1
March 5: Sharks 3, Canucks 2 (SO)
April 1: Sharks 3, Canucks 2
Sharks: D Jason Demers (lower body, day-to-day)
Vancouver's keys to victory
Does this team want Alain Vigneault to be back behind the bench in 2013-14? Because another first-round loss probably means his time in Terminal City will end. Although the Canucks fell to the Cup champs each of the last three seasons, there's a sense that they had a little more to give each time. It's critical that they find that extra kick this year, especially on a power play that has, surprisingly, been one of the league's worst. That onus typically falls on the Sedins, and they'll have to be at their best, but the difference makers could be the secondary scorers. When the Canucks bulldozed their way to the finals in 2011, Ryan Kesler was behind the wheel. When he plays his physical, confrontational best, he's as much of a handful as any player in the league. Trade deadline pickup Derek Roy adds speed and creativity to the mix, but he needs to find a level of consistency he hasn't hit this season. With free agency beckoning, he'll be motivated to make an impact. There's also no telling if No. 1 goalie Schneider will be available after suffering "a body injury" last week, and Vigneault wasn't prepared to name a Game 1 starter after Saturday night's regular-season finale. "If Schneids is healthy he's going to play," Vigneault said. "If he's not, we have total confidence in Roberto [Luongo]." Apparently Vigneault had conveniently forgotten about the seven goals Bobby Lu had just allowed to the Oilers.
San Jose's keys to victory
The Sharks haven't forgotten the crushing disappointment of their five-game loss to the Canucks in the 2011 Western Conference final, and the long-simmering desire to avenge that defeat should make San Jose a testy bunch. The Sharks come into the series playing some of their best hockey of the season, finishing on a 12-5-1 kick powered in large part by the play of Antti Niemi. Though he doesn't get much attention, he may well be the best goalie in the postseason. More to the point, he's 3-0 against the Canucks this season, with a .943 save percentage and a 1.63 GAA. He's a difference maker who has also had success against this team in the playoffs, knocking off the Canucks as a member of the Hawks in 2010. What's more: Don't overlook the potential impact of deadline acquisition Raffi Torres. The Canucks have withered under the constant badgering of super-pests in the pasts, and ol' friend Raffi knows better than most how to get under the skin of the Sedins.
San Jose in six: In a pick 'em series, I always look to the team with superior goaltending and special teams. The Sharks have the edge in both, which will be enough to carry them to the second round. MORE PREP: Staff picks | Upset alert | Key storylines | X-factors | Power Rankings | Schedule