Canucks vs. Sharks: Playoff preview, picks

The Vancouver Canucks for the first time in the last few years are not the Stanley Cup favourites. Will that change their fortunes?

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) San Jose Sharks

Season series: Sharks won 3-0-0

They have a history: The Canucks and Sharks are set to rekindle the playoff fire that fueled their only other postseason meeting, in the first round in 2011. The Canucks dispatched the Sharks that spring, eliminating San Jose in five games en route to the Cup final. The Sharks did not go quietly, however; Vancouver needed Kevin Bieska to score a double-OT winner in Game 5. Agitator Raffi Torres threw some hits in that series as well – but this time he’ll be wearing a giant fish (instead of a giant marine mammal) on his chest.

For the Canucks to win: They need to score more frequently. As great as team MVP Cory Schneider has been, the Canucks – who averaged a 19th-best 2.54 goals per game and ranked just 22nd on the power play — will need to generate steady offence from a group that is getting accustomed to heading into the postseason with home-ice advantage. Vancouver must relish in the pressure being off them (and on Chicago) and get off to a 2-0 start, considering they’re going up against the NHL’s best home team. While the deadline addition of Derek Roy helps, Ryan Kesler must remain healthy and effective if the Canucks are to erase last spring’s nightmarishly quick exit. Ditto Kevin Bieksa, who missed 12 games this season to injury but, when available, logs more ice time (21:56 per game) than anyone on the club not named Alex Edler.

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For the Sharks to win: They must steal home-ice advantage and not let go. The Sharks love their own tank (17-2-5 at home) and are better at both of the special-teams battles than the Canucks, ranking among the NHL’s top seven in both the PP and PK. Unlike Vancouver, San Jose has put all of its stock in one goalie, Antti Niemi, who earned 24 of its 25 Ws and gave up some of its size to the East through deadline trades (Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray). Joe Thronton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture can all create offensively, but that’s about it. The Sharks can’t afford for a couple of them to be off their game.

Matchup to watch: Face-offs. Winning 53.4 per cent of its draws, San Jose is the best face-off team in the West. Vancouver, who lost 104 of 181 set-pieces to the Sharks during their season series, ranks 25th overall in the category. In what looks to be a tight series, those third-period face-offs could decide a winner.

Big question: How badly will Cory Schneider need to falter for Alain Vigneault to turn to his other No. 1?

Best bet: Canucks in seven.

Hockey Central insider predictions

Chris Johnston: Canucks
Mike Keenan: Canucks
Nick Kypreos: Sharks
Brad May: Canucks
Doug MacLean: Canucks
Scott Morrison: Sharks
John Shannon: Canucks