First-round preview: Canucks-Sharks

The San Jose Sharks still talk to this day about their bitter disappointment from losing the 2011 Western Conference finals to the Vancouver Canucks.

They felt the five-game series loss was such a misrepresentation of how close the level of play really was, and certainly there's always been the sense with Sharks players of the opportunity lost that spring in what was arguably the best shot San Jose ever had at finally reaching a Stanley Cup finals.

The way it ended hurt the most, a puck caroming strangely and bouncing right to Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa, who seemed to be the only player on the ice on either team who knew where it was and who fired off the overtime winner and series clincher under strange circumstances.

"It's a tough city to play in," Sharks goalie Antti Niemi told the San Jose Mercury News on Saturday night. "We lost two years ago and remembering those games, they were a little lucky, they got a few lucky goals. Hopefully, we'll get a few bounces this time."

Those hard feelings still exist toward the Canucks, so this should be an emotionally charged series when the two teams renew their acquaintance in the first round.

"We played against them two years ago in a very close series," Canucks captain Henrik Sedin told The Vancouver Sun after Saturday night's regular-season finale. "They are built like a lot of other teams in this conference. They are big, they have got some very skilled guys. So it's going to be tough."

1. Both teams are peaking
San Jose swept the season series 3-0, but both clubs would argue that hardly paints a picture of where the two teams stand today. The Sharks and Canucks both ended the season playing their best hockey, with San Jose ending on a 12-5-1 stretch and Vancouver going 13-4-1 from March 19 through April 22 before losing two games to close out the regular season with the division already sewn up. San Jose found its game after GM Doug Wilson shed three pending unrestricted free agents: Douglas Murray, Ryane Clowe and Michal Handzus. Although Wilson publicly talked about his team "resetting" the roster a bit with the trades -- in other words, retooling on the fly -- fact is the Sharks seemed to be a faster team after the trades, which was also a goal. In Vancouver, meanwhile, so much of the season had the media focus centered on Roberto Luongo's trade request, which, in the end, was never accommodated. Despite that drama, coach Alain Vigneault has managed to keep his players focused on the task at hand, and, in the past five to six weeks, the Canucks once again have looked like the contenders they've been for the past few years.

2. Canucks' crease conundrum
Looking back at the pre-series stories from May 2011, when these teams last met in the playoffs, it was universally pointed out that the Canucks had the edge in goal with Luongo over Niemi. Well, for starters, it's Cory Schneider now starting for the Canucks, and just as pertinent is the fact the Sharks enter this series with the hotter goaltending. Niemi has had a career year, and it will be a shock if he's not one of the three Vezina Trophy finalists. "He's been great," Sharks captain Joe Thornton told reporters Saturday night. "He's the reason we're in the postseason. When you have a great goaltender like that, you can ride him a long time." Schneider enters his first playoffs as starter, and although his regular season has been terrific, it remains to be seen how he'll react in his first taste as a postseason No. 1. Mind you, the Canucks have a heck of a backup as insurance, right? Schneider, however, missed the final week of the regular season with a mysterious "body" injury, and Vigneault couldn't confirm he'd be 100 percent ready for Game 1. "If Schneids is healthy, he's going to play. If he's not, we have total confidence in Roberto," Vigneault said Saturday night after Luongo was lit up for seven goals by the Edmonton Oilers. Wouldn't be Vancouver without goalie drama, right?

3. Additions have added up
The Canucks filled a major hole by adding No. 2 center Derek Roy before the trade deadline. He has put up six points (3-3) in 12 games with the Canucks; some games he has looked better than others. Roy looked his best when put on a line with Chris Higgins and Ryan Kesler last week. Roy was an Olympic camp invite by Team Canada just a few years ago, and it wouldn't surprise me if he made these playoffs his moment to remind people that he remains an elite player. Not getting nearly as much attention was San Jose's trade deadline pickup of winger Raffi Torres, who nevertheless matched Roy's output with six points (2-4) in 11 games with the Sharks. A year ago, Torres made national headlines for all the wrong reasons after decking Chicago's Marian Hossa in the first round with a dirty hit to the head. He's been an effective player since coming over to San Jose, and now he gets a chance to play against one of his former teams in what should be a gritty series. Look for Torres to make his mark with a big hit or two.

4. Riding the Kesler effect
The Canucks are not the same without Kesler in the lineup. The Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel) are the two most talented players on the team, but I'd argue that Kesler is the engine that makes the Canucks go when they're firing on all cylinders. When he's at his best, Kesler drives opponents crazy with bone-rattling checks, timely goals and effective shutdown checking. And when he's doing his thing on the second line, it allows the Sedins more breathing room on the top line because the opposition has more to worry about than just one line. If Kesler gets going in this series, watch out.

5. Is the window closing?
This is an interesting matchup for many reasons; one of them is that these are two franchises many people perceive as being in the final laps of their championship-contending window. Heck, Wilson pretty much said that when he jettisoned Clowe, Murray and Handzus before the trade deadline. Vancouver's management also knows it has about another year, maybe two, before it will be time to restock and reshuffle the roster. For that reason alone, whichever team loses this series will be even closer to having to make tough decisions given the disappointment of a first-round exit .

• I wouldn't sleep on San Jose -- the Sharks are playing a lot better than most people are giving them credit for. But I think the Canucks have brought the old band together for one last run, and they're playing like it. Canucks in 6