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San Jose Sharks right wing Devin Setoguchi (L) celebrates his game-winning goal with team-mate Ryane Clowe during overtime of Game 3 of the NHL Western Conference semi-finals hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings in Detroit, Michigan May 4, 2011. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Rebecca Cook/Reuters

It was moments after the San Jose Sharks had escaped with their playoff lives in a memorable seven-game series against the Detroit Red Wings, and Ryane Clowe was sitting at his locker, pondering the task that lay ahead.

He missed the sixth game of the series with an undisclosed upper-body injury and his availability for the deciding game Thursday was in question right up to puck-drop. But the team's leading postseason scorer was there. And afterward, seemed no worse for wear.

Clowe is a big-bodied catalyst for the new-and-improved Sharks and, along with rookie Logan Couture, provides the sort of offensive depth that wasn't there before when all the pressure to produce fell on the Big Three - Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. And while Thornton had an excellent series against the Red Wings, Marleau was held off the scoresheet until the final period of the final game and Heatley was simply a complementary player on the Clowe-Couture line.

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Increased depth is the primary reason the Sharks believe this year will be different from all the others, when their Stanley Cup runs would grind to a halt in the conference final. It happened last year, at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks in four games.

"Maturity," Clowe said, when asked what was different about the Sharks, circa 2011. "Last year, even though we lost to Chicago, we felt we made a good step there. This year, I think the first thing everybody points to as a difference is our depth. I feel like we've got real good depth - and you need depth against that team - that and leadership. In the big games, you like your best players to be your best players and I like what's happened in the first two series."

The Sharks met Friday, but didn't practice, to review the game plan against their next opponent, the Vancouver Canucks. Head coach Todd McLellan suggested the challenge would be slightly different from the one they faced against Detroit.

"They're a more physical team," McLellan said. "They're more about running over you and then getting the puck. When you get to this stage, the goaltenders are all elite. Obviously, [Vancouver's Roberto]Luongo has really found his game. They have some depth on their team. They have four lines that they're comfortable with and will continue to roll. They also have a lot of confidence.

"Every one of the teams now that's in the final four has had to play a seven-game series, so anybody coming through that has got to feel pretty good about their game because they've all experienced it."

McLellan's starter, Antti Niemi, was the 'Hawks goalie of record last year when the Canucks were bounced by Chicago in the second round. Niemi has not lost an NHL playoff series in his short career (6-0) and was asked if last year's victory over Vancouver mattered to him.

"For sure, it gives me confidence that we are able to do it," he said, "but of course, it doesn't guarantee anything."

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The soft-spoken goalie was then asked if he might even be in the Vancouver players' heads a little bit: "I hope so, but it's going to be a new series, so … I think it just gives the confidence that we know we can do it."

Fatigue may be a factor in the early stages of the series for the Sharks, given Vancouver has been off since last Monday. However, centre Joe Pavelski suggested: "There's no part of the process that involves taking a deep breath now.

"We have to take care of our bodies, obviously. It gets tougher. We only have a few days to get ready. The other team's been sitting around, watching, probably itching to play, so when we get there, we have to make sure we're ready at the drop of the puck."

After the game Thursday, McLellan stressed he'd instructed all of his players to go out and try to make plays against the Wings, even if they resulted in mistakes. The implication was paralysis would be the one thing that kept the Sharks from moving on - too much time spent back on their heels rather than pressing forward to create chances.

As the No. 2 seed in the conference and playing a team that finished 12 points ahead of them in the regular-season, McLellan also installed the Canucks as the favourites in the series.

"It'll be interesting because we'll enter a series as an underdog," he said. "That doesn't happen very often. There'll be a little pressure taken off us and we can go play free."

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Clowe, incidentally, wasn't talking about the details of his upper-body injury, noting with a laugh: "All I can tell you is, it's not getting any lower."

But he sounded as if his availability was no longer an issue.

As for adjustments they may make, Clowe put it this way: "Playoffs are funny because you tinker stuff game-to-game. But Vancouver? They've played 13 games like we have and they were in the same position, [up 3-0 in a series and still being pushed to a Game 7]and they found a way to win, which says a lot about their team. I think it's going to be a hell of a series.

"I like the fact that we're actually starting in Vancouver. Sometimes, it's good to go on the road and try to steal a couple."

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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