The West’s top-seeded Vancouver Canucks are set to face-off against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Finals in under an hour. Both teams have had to play one series that needed seven games to decide the winner. Both teams have had outstanding goaltending throughout the playoffs. Canucks’ superstar netminder, Roberto Luongo finally ousted the Chicago Blackhawks from the playoffs for the first time in three years. Sharks’ Stanley Cup winning netminder, Antti Niemi has continued to dominate between-the-pipes throughout the postseason in a similar fashion as he did for the Blackhawks last year in an effort that resulted in hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup when all was said and done.
These two teams are four wins from advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals. Goaltending has been a theme for both teams, and it will continue to be a theme throughout this series. Roberto Luongo has won a gold medal at the Olympics, but he has never come close to reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. The guys in front of Luongo have aided him throughout the regular and postseason, but Luongo has continued to stand on his head for his team with the exception of a couple of games in round one against the Blackhawks.
Antti Niemi has stood on his head all playoffs for the Sharks. The guys in front of him have provided him with enough help in order to get to the Western Conference Finals. Niemi is emotionless on the ice. He has the ability to forget about a goal and bounce back immediately. Watch him play, and you will notice how spectacular he is at making the second, third and, when necessary, the fourth save in a series of shots just like he did for the Blackhawks last year.
Goaltending will be a must for both teams, but no matter how many saves each goalie makes if the guys in front of them don’t score the respective team will not win. If either goalie gets settled in and focused early it will be tough for either team to score. That’s why it’s a must that the guys playing in front of the netminders need to play smart, play hard and play every shift like it’s their last.
Aside from creating as many scoring opportunities as possible this series between the Sharks and Canucks is going to be decided by the mental part of hockey; stupid penalties are a no-no. Both teams average nearly thirteen-and-a-half penalty minutes per game. The Canucks have the advantage on the power play and the penalty kill. The Sharks have the advantage for goals per game, and the Canucks have the advantage for goals against per game. At this point in the season none of these statistics matter.
The Canucks have the tendency to lose their heads when times get tough on the ice. If Luongo is not protected in front of the crease and the action is limited he has been known to let the game turn more mental than physical. The Canucks skaters are the same way. They have been known to find themselves in the penalty box for retaliating.
When it comes to the mental aspect of the game Antti Niemi is the complete opposite of Luongo. Niemi removes himself from any altercations in front of the net after the whistle. He does not let the lack-of-play from his players affect his mentality during the game. He focuses solely on his job at hand, and that is stopping pucks.
This series will be as physical as any series that has been played throughout the playoffs. Big bodies will be skating hard, and the wood will be laid on a regular basis. But cooler heads will prevail just like they have been all postseason long.
With that being said…Sharks in 6.
History will be made.