Off The Post: “Expansion” Stanley Cup Final looming?.

Fans of a certain age will remember the two-decade period when the NHL’s membership was locked in at 21 teams. At the beginning of the 1979-80 season, the league took in four clubs from the defunct World Hockey Association, and would not expand again until 1991 when the San Jose Sharks were born.

This year the Sharks may advance to their first Stanley Cup Final in team history.

Their opponents could very well be their one of their expansion kid brothers, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were welcomed into the league along with Ottawa the year after San Jose’s inaugural season.

Here’s why predicts the first final in league history between two teams from the post-WHA merger era:

Western Conference Final, prediction: San Jose over Vancouver in 7.

This could be billed the “James Bond villain” series. Have you ever noticed how practically all of Bond’s antagonists have a chance to finish off the savvy spy by just shooting him, instead of placing him in an elaborate escape route? Both the Canucks and Sharks allowed their series versus the Blackhawks (first round) and Red Wings (second round, respectively, to go the distance after building up 3-0 leads.

Yes San Jose has more depleted energy, having squeaked out a win in their conference semi-final against Detroit less than 48 hours ago, while Vancouver had more time to rest, disposing of Nashville in one fewer game.

However, the Sharks’ best players have stepped up in the clutch, more so than their counterparts on the Canucks. Two weeks ago this column stated that Joe Thornton is not capable of consistent production for more than one playoff round, only to be proven wrong. Not to be outdone, Patrick Marleau silenced his critics – including Jeremy Roenick – with a huge seventh game in which he not only scored the game-winning goal, but preserved the series win with a defensive play to prevent a Detroit comeback in the dying seconds.

Conversely, the Canucks are a couple of players short from firing on all cylinders. Can you guess which two? Here’s a hint. They are brothers, who have been a step behind their teammate Ryan Kesler who all but carried the series against Nashville.

If Daniel and Henrik Sedin don’t return to their Art Ross Trophy winning form, the Vancouver club will be no match for a team as deep as the Sharks. Brian Burke, when he was Vancouver general manager, once expressed his frustrations at playoff officiating by stating “Sedin is not Swedish for punch me, or headlock me in a scrum.”

Is it Swedish for “find another gear, fast?”

Eastern Conference Final, prediction: Tampa Bay over Boston in 7.

The good news for the Bruins is that their power-play improved by 12.5%.

The bad news is, in their series against the Flyers, their efficiency with the extra man was….12.5%.

After an anemic 0-for-21 drought against Montreal, Boston clicked on just two of 16 power-plays in their four-game sweep over Philadelphia, with one of those markers coming on a 5-on-3 advantage.

That’s a fallacy that appears doomed against Tampa’s phenomenal penalty-kill, currently operating at a mind-boggling 94.4% rating (three goals against in 54 chances).

Look for the role players to be the difference in this series. None of the Lightning’s Sean Bergenheim, Dominic Moore and Steve Downie will ever be as prolific scorers as superstars Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Steven Stamkos, but the unheralded trio has been invaluable over two series. They should outduel Chris Kelly, Brad Marchand and Rich Peverley.

Injuries will be a key factor, especially if Boston’s Patrice Bergeron is out for any length of time. Conversely, Simon Gagne’s return to the Tampa Bay Lightning will provide another weapon in the Lightning arsenal.

Report card:
First round, 5-3
Second round, 1-3
Overall, 6-6

*** wishes a happy birthday to a pair of hockey personalities.

Former Leafs captain Rick Vaive turns 59 today. Vaive is the only player in Leafs history to score three 50-goal seasons and currently since 10th on franchise’s all-time scoring list with 299 goals and 537 points in 534 games with Toronto. **EDIT** Vaive, who was born in 1959, turns 52 today. Sorry, Squid!

Team Canada Olympian Jayna Hefford is 34. Hefford is one of only four players to play in four Olympics for the Canadian women’s national team, earning gold medals in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Her “Links 4 Life” Golf Classic in support of the Kingston Hospital Foundation is scheduled for July 13.

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Blue And White Beat, and is a regular columnist at

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