This weekend, the Vancouver Canucks will embark on a path towards potential redemption. After a heart-wrenching series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Conference Semi-Finals last season, the Canucks are back at it again and will face the Hawks in the second round for the second year in a row.
The Canucks were a confident bunch last year at this time. Coming off a four-game sweep of St. Louis, and with veterans Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra skating with Ryan Kesler, the Canucks boasted two legitimate scoring lines for the first time in a few years. Those strong suits built confidence in the Canucks' ability to handle the upstart Chicago Blackhawks, an up and coming young team who was supposed to be ‘just happy’ to be in the second round. Three and a half games into the series, that appeared to be the case. The Canucks had Chicago on the ropes. Up two games to one in the series and leading 1-0 late in game 4, the Canucks were poised to return to Vancouver up three games to one, with three chances to close out the series – two of those on home ice. Instead, an unfortunate giveaway led to a Chicago goal with about four minutes left to play. The Hawks rallied and won in overtime, tying the series at two.
The Blackhawks then took a hard fought game 5 and a tremendous game 6 with more twists than a pretzel. The Canucks' defense was exposed as being slow and Roberto Luongo looked very human as he gave up 7 goals in the deciding game.
According to the Canucks, things will be different this time around. But, are they better than last year?
Offensively, this Canucks' team might even be more confident than last year. Henrik Sedin won the Art Ross trophy, and his brother Daniel had a career year despite missing a quarter of the season due to injury. Alexandre Burrows potted a record 35 goals, while newcomer Mikael Samuelsson had 30, and Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond also hit the 20 goal mark.
Such production – with nearly six 25 goal scorers – helped the Canucks to the top of the Western Conference in terms of offensive production. They also demonstrated an ability to come from behind and win 12 games during the regular season when trailing after two periods, and a memorable two games in the first round series against the Los Angeles Kings. The ability to come back in games may mean that will not have to fear running and gunning with the Hawks as much as they did last year when their approach was to play a stifling defensive game that worked until the dam burst with four minutes left in game 4 last year.
The Canucks top line remains intact from last year, but was more successful and has another year of experience under its belt. The second line forfeits experience with the loss of Mats Sundin, but gains speed and a proven winner in Mikael Samuelsoon. Kesler and Raymond have also matured into bonafide scorers in the league, and can shut down opposition scoring lines at the same time.
The Canucks third line of Pavol Demitra, Kyle Wellwood and Steve Bernier was a difference maker in the Los Angeles series. If they can keep their level of play up, they will be tough to handle and will provide the Canucks with a more robust attack. Lastly, the fourth line will have a bit more speed and skill on it this time around. Whether it’s Jannik Hansen, Rick Rypien, and Michael Grabner, or inserting Tanner Glass at some point, the line is fast into the zone, fore checks well, defends well, and can pot a goal or two.
On defense, the Canucks generated more goals from the blue line than any team in the league this year. Newcomer Christian Ehrhoff led the way with 14 tallies as part of 42 the Canucks defense corps had as a whole.
Discussed frequently, the Canucks’ slower defense corps was exposed by a speedy young Chicago team. Mattias Ohlund and Willie Mitchell especially looked older and out of place (Look no further than Patrick Kane in game 6 dancing around Ohlund). The big Swede signed with Tampa Bay in the off-season, and Willie Mitchell has battled post-concussion symptoms since January when Evgeni Malkin hit him into the boards from behind. Mitchell does not appear to be anywhere near ready so the Canucks will continue to be without his services.
To compensate for losing Ohlund and to address the lack of mobility on the back end, the Canucks nabbed Christian Ehrhoff from the cash-strapped San Jose Sharks, and Ehrhoff has simply been a revelation. One of the best skaters in the NHL among defenseman, Ehrhoff has helped the Canucks exit the zone, make a good first pass, and join the rush, leading to his 14 goals on the year. His solid shot has also improved the Canucks powerplay, as the opposition must respect the shot from the point, even when Sami Salo is injured.
The rest of the defense largely remains the same. Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Alexander Edler and Shane O’Brien all return for this year’s match up.
The loss of Willie Mitchell will hurt the Canucks this year, but the hope is with Ehrhoff and Edler taking Ohlund spot and Mitchell’s additional minutes, the Canucks should be able to escape their zone a bit more easily, evade the forecheck and keep the play moving towards Chicago’s end.
The problems for the Canucks game may be on their defense however as they do not appear to have the tremendous depth they had hoped for from day one. They would be well served by having Sami Salo stay healthy, and for Shane O’Brien, Kevin Bieksa, and either Aaron Rome or Andrew Alberts to play as well as they can. If not, the Chicago attack may expose their lack of depth as a result of Mitchell’s injury.
Overall, the improvement in mobility and experience versus the lack of depth is probably a trade-off, but when you consider that Salo missed some time and others were banged up, this year’s version may be better than last.
In goal, the Canucks still enjoy the services of Roberto Luongo. Luongo’s struggles against Chicago later on in the series were well documented, as have his struggles at points throughout this season.
However, it should not be forgotten that Luongo single-handedly got the Canucks defeated Dallas in the opening round a couple of years back, including a 72 save performance in that series. He then backstopped the Canucks to a close fought series with a tired and overwhelmed Canucks squad against a rested, eventual cup champion Ducks team.
Even last year, Luongo was simply lights out against the St Louis Blues in the opening round, boasting the best save percentage of any goaltender. He allowed only 5 goals in 4 games, including a 1.16 GAA and .961 Save Percentage.
Luongo, like the rest of the Canucks, has unfinished business and should play well. His gold medal victory with Team Canada gave him some great experience and he has too much pride to not show up in this series. Whether or not Patrick Kane and the Hawks have anything to say about that, time will tell.