VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Is Brent Burns the "X" factor for the Sharks in their opening round playoff series?
"I think it's two great teams playing against each other," Burns said here Tuesday when asked the question. "That other kind of stuff is for you guys to do and decide."
All right, then. I will decide. He is.
Everyone loves to say a team has an "X" factor because no one quite knows what an "X" factor is. But it sounds dangerous and important and vaguely sinister.
If you list those adjectives, then also throw in "hairy" and "big" and " frenzied," well, that pretty much fits Brent Burns. So I unilaterally declare him to be the "X" factor when the Sharks begin their best-of-seven against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night.
Burns' story is familiar to Shark fans by now. However, for those just coming to the party, here's the summary: Burns began the season as a defenseman, the position he's played in the National Hockey League since 2005. But with the Sharks sucking wind and parched for goals back in March, coach Todd McLellan had the brainstorm to move Burns up front and have him play forward.
For those unfamiliar with hockey, it was a little like taking a 6-foot-5, 225-pound linebacker and converting him into a running back -- at about 100 mph, because hockey moves so fast.
The lineup switch turned on an offensive faucet. Burns, lined up alongside center and captain Joe Thornton, scored five goals in his first nine games at forward. Other Sharks seemed to absorb and amplify the mojo. More goals occurred. The team won nine of its next 13 games.
Burns' downhill go-the-net style was gorgeously unruly and effective. Sometimes he tried to skate through a defender. Sometimes he went all elbow-tastic with opponents in front of the goalie. Thornton is best at describing what it's like to be on the ice with Burns.
"It's pure craziness out there," Thornton said the other day. "He's very raw at it. But when I heard about the move to forward, I actually thought it would work because we'd seen how skilled he was. Nobody can get the puck off him. And he skates so well. It creates a lot of chaos out there."
Here's why all of this might matter more than usual against Vancouver, especially early in the series: The Canucks might need time for the proper chaos adjustment. It's not easy to counteract a line with the 6-5 Burns and the 6-4 Thornton on the same line with 6-2 energy guy TJ Galiardi.
Keep in mind that Burns' flip to the forward spot happened so late in the season that the Canucks saw him there just once, in a 3-2 Sharks victory on April 1 at HP Pavilion. Vancouver held Burns off the scoresheet in that game. But at one point, as the Canucks were occupied with Burns bedlam, Thornton found extra room and scored a goal.
Alain Vigneault, Vancouver's coach, is not unaware of the Burns dynamic.
"Him combined with Thornton on that line ... it's been real effective for them," Vigneault said Tuesday. "And a big challenge for us."
An even bigger Sharks benefit is this: By creating a line around Thornton that requires much defensive attention, McLellan has placed the Canucks in a position of choosing whether to put their best shut-down line (probably with Ryan Kesler) against the Thornton group or the skilled threesome of Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Martin Havlat. The third line, centered by Joe Pavelski, has also become more of a scoring threat.
The official Sharks stance is that Burns might switch back to defense next season. But his eight goals and 17 points in 20 games as a forward would translate to a 32-goal and 68-point season over a normal 82-game schedule. That sort of production would be difficult to discard if McLellan believes it can continue.
The "X" factor of Burns is not the only reason this Sharks team is better than last year's outfit that began the playoffs against St. Louis and lost to the Blues in five games. But if nothing else, he is going to provide more entertainment along the way.
By the time it's over, Burns might do much more than that.