For most Vancouver Canucks, the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is uncharted territory, and the pressure will only intensify regardless of whether the San Jose Sharks or Detroit Red Wings become the opponent.
That makes for an interesting set of circumstances when it comes to Canucks defencemen Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff, who are conference finals rookies. Both are unrestricted free agents as of July 1 - in a weak crop of UFA defencemen, it must be noted - and both stand to make a lot of money this summer, be it in Vancouver or elsewhere, especially if they respond to this stage.
For some time now, it has been presumed that the Canucks will only have the salary-cap space to re-sign one of them. (Although if the spending limit rises to $62.2-million, as reports indicate, than perhaps both could fit).
The Canucks have about $44-million committed for next year. That does not include restricted free agents such as Jannik Hansen and Maxim Lapierre, nor young players who figure to make the roster (Cody Hodgson, Chris Tanev). And of course, it doesn't account for UFAs such as Bieksa and Ehrhoff.
How they perform in the conference finals, and perhaps the Stanley Cup finals if Vancouver gets through, could well determine which one stays. Canucks management put a huge emphasis on playoff pedigree last summer, when it was fine tuning the roster, and there has been little separating Bieksa and Ehrhoff to this point.
Ehrhoff put up a 14-goal, 50-point season, and he has nine points in 13 playoff games. If you believe in the Ken Holland Rule - pay for defencemen who help offensively, don't break the bank for low-point defencemen - than Ehrhoff is your guy.
He is likely to command more than Bieksa because of his point totals, but he is less responsible in his own end. Ehrhoff can score from the point on the power play, and likes to join the rush, but he is often caught in the offensive zone, and he has a strange propensity for wanting to play in the low slot or below the opposition's goal-line.
Bieksa, meanwhile, has become one-half of Vancouver's shutdown pair. He and partner Dan Hamhuis have bypassed Ehrhoff and Alexander Edler as the team's No. 1 pairing, and that has much to do with Bieksa's solid play.
At one time, the biggest knock against him was inconsistency - nobody has ever doubted the talent or ability - yet Bieksa had his most consistency season to date, if not his best offensively (22 points in 66 games). He's a right-handed shot who can play the power play - though likely not to Ehrhoff's level - and as a player who has spent his whole career in Vancouver, he might be willing to take a slight hometown discount.
The bottom line is that general manager Mike Gillis has an important decision on these two players, and the games from this point forward could well determine his choice. At the very least, they should inform his opinion, because whomever is kept, the Cup-or-bust mantra is bound to continue into next season.