VANCOUVER – It’s a label that’s been attached, maybe unfairly, to both the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks.
Both have been branded playoff underachievers—teams that put together impressive regular-season records, but fail in the chase for the Stanley Cup.
It’s a characterization the Canucks and Sharks want to shed when the Western Conference final opens Sunday at Rogers Arena (CBC, 8 p.m. ET).
“We’re a different team,” Canucks forward Alex Burrows said Friday after practice. “Every year we’ve got better and I think we’ve got more depth now and we’ve got guys who have been there before. We know what it takes to win.”
Meanwhile, Sharks coach Todd McLellan says advancing to San Jose’s first Stanley Cup final will help erase a lot of bad memories.
“As a team we’ve had some really good playoff runs and had some poor ones,” McLellan said in San Jose. “We’re no different than anyone else.
“We have this anchor that everybody throws at us either fairly or unfairly. We don’t worry about that. We’re only concerned about what we’re doing here now. We can’t change the past and the future. You have to live in the moment and react that way.”
The Canucks have won their division four of the last five years but are playing in their first conference final in 17 years. This is the first time Vancouver has advanced past the second round of the playoffs since losing to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup final.
Since he’s been hired in Vancouver, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault’s teams have twice lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion. That happened last year against the Chicago Blackhawks and in 2007 against the Anaheim Ducks.
“You can make a case that when we lost, we lost to better teams,” said Vigneault. “Once you get into the playoffs, it’s not always the better team that wins. It’s the one that plays the best on the ice.”
The Sharks recorded 100 or more points the last five years. Their only appearance in the conference final was last year, when they lost to Chicago.
San Jose defenceman Dan Boyle says you can’t change history, only concentrate on the present.
“Until you actually win as an organization, you’re always going to have that reputation,” said Boyle. “It is fair? I don’t know.
“Ourselves and Vancouver are pretty similar. It is what it is.”
Canuck defenceman Kevin Bieksa says both teams face big expectations.
“They’ve had some great regular seasons and haven’t been able to perform in the playoffs,” said Bieksa. “We’ve been out the last couple of years in the second round.
“So definitely some parallels are there.”
The Canucks had a 3-0-1 record against San Jose during the regular season, with Vancouver’s lone loss was in a shootout.
“We match up well against them,” said Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo.
“They have some great forwards, some defencemen that can move the puck and a goalie that won the Stanley Cup last year. They’re a great team.”
The Canucks expect a wide-open, free-wheeling series with plenty of scoring chances. That will be a contrast to the stifling defence and low-scoring games Vancouver faced when playing the Nashville Predators last round.
“It’s going to be different for us,” said Burrows. “They got a little bit more power offensively than Nashville did.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re strong defensively and make good reads and do the things we need to do to be successful.”
One of the more interesting matchups could see Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler, the best Canuck during the playoffs, go head-to-head with San Jose’s Joe Thornton.
Kesler can dominate on defence, but he also leads the Canucks with 15 points, including five goals, during the playoffs.
Thornton, who has just two goals but nine assists in the post-season, uses his size and strength to create space on the ice.
“He’s a big guy with really good vision and can skate hard,” said Kesler. “He’s a good player, world class.
“If I am shutting him down it’s going to be tough.”
The Canucks won their first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history this season, finishing first overall with a 54-19-9 record for 117 points.
The Sharks were second in the Western Conference with a 48-25-9 record for 105 points.
Both teams have made the playoffs harder than they needed to be.
The Canucks opened up a 3-0 series lead against Chicago in the first round, then needed a goal in overtime of Game 7 to finally finish off the Blackhawks.
San Jose led the Detroit Red Wings 3-0 in the conference semifinal, but were forced to battle to a nail-biting 3-2 win in Thursday’s Game 7.
The Canucks have been resting since eliminating Nashville in six games, but Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin doubts fatigue will be a factor for the Sharks.
“I don’t think so,” said Sedin, the NHL’s regular-season scoring champion. “They have two days off.
“They should be able to handle it. If you get a day off, you’re ready to go.”
Vigneault says an injury will keep Mikael Samuelsson from playing early in the series.
Forward Chris Higgins, who is still limping after blocking a shot with his foot, expects to play.
Questions still swirl about Henrik Sedins’ health. He did not practice with the team either Thursday or Friday but denies any injury.
Asked why he had the last couple of days off, Henrik only smiled and said: “The coach likes me.”