A closer look at the Sharks' first-round playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks.
THE PUCK STOPS HERE
Both teams have capable netminders, but the similarities stop there. While San Jose's situation could not be more stable -- if Antti Niemi is breathing, he's playing -- Vancouver's is far more complicated with Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo vying for starts. On top of that, Schneider is dealing with an undisclosed injury. If healthy enough to play -- and Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said he might not know that until game day -- Schneider has the better numbers, while Luongo has more big-game experience. "Whatever they do, they're not turning to a two-year rookie," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said, citing Luongo's credentials as an Olympic gold-medal winner. All true, but there's still the potential for high and distracting drama.
Both teams have players in their lineups who have made careers out of annoying the opposition -- and worse. Sharks forward Raffi Torres is an ex-Canuck with a laundry list of dubious hits on his resume. Alexandre Burrows hasn't caused quite as much damage over his career, but the Canucks' right wing did create a ruckus in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals when he was accused of biting Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron. Those two might be the headliners despite recent efforts to clean up their acts, but the undercard isn't bad either, as Sharks forward Adam Burish and Canucks center Maxim Lapierrre know how to get under the opposition's skin.
ONE MAN UP
The Sharks were among the league's top power-play teams, finishing tied for seventh with a 20.1 percent success rate. Still consistency was a problem -- San Jose started the season with a ridiculous 37.5 percent success rate the first five games, then saw productivity drop as low as 2 for 46 in one 11-game stretch in February. Considering its talent, Vancouver finished a surprisingly low 22nd in the NHL with a 15.8 percent success rate. But don't be fooled. With the oft-injured Ryan Kesler back in the lineup for the last 10 games of the season, the Canucks' power play was an impressive 8 for 33, a 24.2 percent clip.
Edge: Sharks, but not by as much as you might think.
ONE MAN DOWN
No, it wasn't perfect every night. But the Sharks got the more aggressive penalty kill they wanted after the frustrations of a 29th-place finish in 2011-12. Associate coach Larry Robinson and assistant Jim Johnson were brought in specifically to engineer the turnaround and put an emphasis on play around the net. It worked, as the Sharks improved to No. 6 in the NHL with an 85 percent success rate. That said, Vancouver was eighth, at 84 percent. And with the Canucks adding Derek Roy at the trade deadline, the gap between the teams might be narrowed.
TRYING TO KEEP THE WINDOW OPEN
Neither team wants to hear it, but there are easy-to-draw parallels between the Canucks and Sharks. The big-name players -- Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau for the Sharks, Henrik and Daniel Sedin for the Canucks -- are in their early 30s, only a year apart in age. Both teams have had a ton of regular-season success -- the Sharks won four consecutive Pacific Division titles at one point, the Canucks' current streak is at five in the Northwest -- yet fallen short in the postseason. The Sharks reached the conference finals in 2010 and 2011, but no further, stopped most recently by a Vancouver team that lost in the finals to Boston.
Edge: Canucks, for getting one big step closer to the holy grail.
BAD BLOOD BEHIND THE BENCH
Two years is a long time and maybe Vigneault has cooled off, but the last time the teams met in the playoffs he was holding McLellan responsible for a night of on-ice mayhem caused by Ben Eager. McLellan countered that the Canucks weren't in position to complain after an incident in an earlier series against Chicago. Strategically, the counter moves have already begun, as Vigneault put Roy and Kesler on separate lines this week in an apparent effort to counter McLellan's use of Joe Pavelski as a nominal third-line center.
Edge: Sharks, for getting the Canucks to make adjustments before the first puck drops.
The most interesting individual battle of the series could feature Logan Couture and Kesler, the Canucks' gritty center. Neither coach is saying, but no one should be surprised if Couture draws Kesler, who zeroed in on Thornton in 2011. That's fine with Couture. "He battles, he's a competitor, he's hard on pucks. He just makes it tough to play against him," Couture said. "I look forward to the challenge if we do happen to match up against him." Kesler took a different approach in responding to a question about Couture. "I'm not going to focus on their player. I'm going to make him focus on me." OK now.
Sharks 4, Canucks 1, Jan. 27 at HP Pavilion; Sharks 3, Canucks 2 (shootout), March 5 at Rogers Arena; Sharks 3, Canucks 2, April 1 at HP Pavilion
Summary: The Sharks had a two-goal lead in each of their three meetings with the Canucks, and special teams played a big role in all three San Jose victories. The Sharks went 12 for 12 on the penalty kill and did not take any minor penalties in their final regular-season meeting with the Canucks.
Staff writer Curtis Pashelka contributed to this report. For Sharks-Canucks lineups, go to www.mercurynews.com.