Game 1 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals ended last night as the Vancouver Canucks added two goals within an 80-second span to edge the visiting Sharks, who held the lead at the second intermission, 3-2 to take a 1-0 series lead.
However, there's still a long, long series left to play as the two teams fight for a rare Western Conference title (the Canucks haven't won it since 1994, the Sharks never have), and a chance to win the first Stanley Cup championship ever between both teams.
So, what can we tell from Game 1?
Well, for one thing, it's that at least, perhaps, one-half of the Sedin twins has finally decided the Canucks' games are important enough now for him actually to try to make the difference. We know they both can—ranking first and fourth in points during the regular season is proof enough—but it was all a matter of how they would survive under the postseason pressure.
Until now, neither Daniel or Henrik Sedin had fared as well as they could, though the team, as well as fellow teammate Ryan Kesler, who currently leads all players in points for the playoffs, have survived well enough without them.
Of course, a combined eight goals and 13 assists during the two series wouldn't be much short of fantastic for most duo's, but still, it's not Sedin-like.
Last night, conversely, we saw a glimpse of the regular season version of Henrik. With an assist on Bieksa's game-tying goal and the game winner himself, the playmaker of the two brothers shone as a key part in the win.
Nevertheless, Daniel still missed his chances to make the score sheet. If the both of them can show up at the same time, the Canucks will be doubly dangerous. On the other hand, a few more forgettable performances could give the Sharks a big opportunity.
Game 1 certainly taught us how big of a factor the performances (or non-performances) of Henrik and Daniel will be in this series.
We also noticed that, while the Sharks' top guns made an unusually strong playoff performance, the depth of the team that had been their strength through Rounds 1 and 2 didn't show up. Top forwards Joe Thornton, who is tied for the team lead in playoff points but has only three goals, and Patrick Marleau, who is eighth on the team in points and has just a mere four goals, each scored one of the Sharks' two goals.
Experienced top-pairing defenseman Dan Boyle got the only other point awarded to San Jose that night.
However, a great deal of the other difference-making players who have, well, made a difference this past month were absent last night. Team points leader Ryan Clowe, Calder Trophy candidate Logan Couture, team goal leader Devin Setoguchi and two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley (with eight points in 14 games) all combined for zero points.
The rest of San Jose's deep lineup, with bottom-six forwards like Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell and mid-line defensemen like Ian White, Niclas Wallin and Kent Huskins also totaled for zero points as well as a minus-four rating and two penalties.
Can the Sharks be led by their headline players but also get a decent amount of support from the rest of their roster at the same time?
Finding that correct equation could make them tough to beat, but appearances from only one group or the other in each game will give Vancouver a big advantage.
Furthermore, Game 1 proved the importance that goaltenders will play on the rest of the series. San Jose's Antti Niemi won the Cup last year with Chicago. If he wins it again, he'll become the first goaltender in NHL history to win consecutive Stanley Cups with different teams and has managed a .912 save percentage this postseason despite a barrage on shots.
On the Canucks' side, star netminder Roberto Luongo has a 2.23 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.
Both goalies were just as solid as usual last night, as Niemi stopped 35 of 38, a .921 save percentage, while Luongo turned away 27 of 29, a .931 mark. The play of both netminders as backstops for both teams will likely be, as expected, a major factor.
We also noticed that special teams and discipline played a role in Game 1. Although neither team pulled out much of an advantage in that category—both teams struck once on the man-advantage—San Jose took five penalties (by five different players for five different infractions, nonetheless) compared to Vancouver's mere two.
While the Sharks penalty kill has held up well so far during the playoffs, as they are currently ranked seventh among the 16 original postseason teams after finishing 24th during the regular season, too much work for the unit could open up some vulnerability as they go up against a power play that is fifth among playoff teams and was best in the league during the regular season.
Of course, San Jose's man advantage team is not all that shabby either. They were ranked second in the NHL during the regular season; even though they haven't clicked so much since early April, there's always a chance they could play a big role in the rest of the series, additionally.
Whether it's special teams, goaltenders, depth scoring or high-flying stars that will end up being the X-factor for the Western Conference Finals, we saw a bit of how each matchup will play out during a well-matched, closely-played Game 1.
What will we learn from the rest of the series?
Keep watching to find out.
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