SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - The San Jose Sharks have searched for an identity on their journey through this lockout-shortened season.
Meanwhile, the Vancouver Canucks don't know who their goaltender will be Wednesday night when they host Game 1 of this series as Cory Schneider tries to recover from an undisclosed injury in time to make the start.
For the Sharks, there was the high-powered power play that helped them get off to a record-setting start. Then came an offensively challenged seven-week stretch that jeopardized their playoff chances, followed by a strong closing stretch that has the team brimming with confidence heading into the postseason.
With three potent scoring lines, a goaltender playing at the top of his game and more speed throughout the lineup, the Sharks head into the playoffs with the roster and style of play they hope can succeed in the postseason.
"I think we've got more of an identity right now," forward Tommy Wingels said. "We really do. In the past 15, 20 games we found what really made us successful and that's playing the north-south game. At times you can make great plays but at other times you just have to advance the puck. If a team is swarming and constantly hounding the puck you have to move forward."
Without the benefit of continuity in a season without a real training camp or preseason, the Sharks started fast by winning a franchise-record seven straight games to open the season that featured a 4-1 home win against the Canucks. Then the wheels fell off for San Jose during a stretch when the team lost 17 of 23 games to fall out of playoff position with just over a month left in the regular season.
The team then turned its fortunes during an impressive closing stretch to the season that was fueled by strong goaltending from Antti Niemi, a few under-the-radar trades before the deadline and the move of defenseman Brent Burns to forward.
"We feel great going into the playoffs," forward T.J. Galiardi said. "We've had some time to play with our linemates the way the lines are right now. Guys are starting to get good chemistry. We have a pretty balanced attack. Guys can't wait to get it started."
The Sharks went 12-3-1 to clinch their ninth straight postseason berth - the second longest current run in the NHL - before losing the final two games.
Vancouver won the Northwest despite the season-long distraction of whether it would deal goaltender Roberto Luongo, who lost the No. 1 job to Schneider in last year's first-round loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. Rumored trades throughout the season never panned out, and Luongo's potential final game in a Canucks uniform was a disaster. He didn't speak to reporters after allowing six third-period goals in a 7-3 loss to Edmonton.
"I was upset with myself," Luongo said after surrendering five of those goals in a 3:35 span. "It's tough to get embarrassed like that. It's happened one too many times for me.
"I was fuming. It was better for me to sit on the bus than to say some things that I would have regretted."
Schneider did not play the last two games after suffering an injury during a 3-1 win over Chicago on Feb. 22, only returning to practice Monday. He was 17-9-5 with a 2.11 goals-against average and five shutouts.
"I've felt pretty good today, on the ice I didn't seem to have any limitations doing the drills, so again I can tell coach what I want to tell him, but it's up to the coaching staff," Schneider told the team's official website after practice Tuesday. "I'd love to play no matter what, I'll probably tell coach that I want to play and then it's up to them to decide the best course of action."
San Jose has no such issues in goal with Niemi, who backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks to the 2010 Stanley Cup title. He posted three shutouts, a 1.93 goals against average and a .931 save percentage in San Jose's late 16-game charge.
The Sedin twins again will lead Vancouver's offense as Henrik Sedin finished with team highs of 34 assists and 45 points while Daniel had 40 points. The Canucks were one of two Western Conference teams - along with Anaheim - to have six 10-goal scorers, led by Alexandre Burrows' 13.
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