VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks got the rematch they wanted.
The Canucks will be looking to erase some bitter memories after last year’s Western Conference semifinal loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. This year’s series could turn nasty very quickly as the two teams don’t like each other.
The Canucks are slight underdogs this year, but are a more resilient team able to overcome adversity. Vancouver has plenty of scoring power with NHL scoring leader and MVP finalist Henrik Sedin playing with brother Daniel and Mikael Samuelsson. But Vancouver’s fate still rests on goaltender Roberto Luongo wide shoulders.
The Blackhawks are a big, strong team led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. Chicago’s weakest link could be goaltender Antti Niemi who sometimes lacks consistency.
Both teams needed six games to defeat a lesser opponent in the opening round. Chicago knocked off Nashville while the Canucks overcame a shaky start to eliminate Los Angeles.
The Canucks were not a good road team this year, which could be a factor as the series begins in Chicago Saturday night.
The teams split their four meetings. The Canucks won 3-2 at Chicago and lost 1-0 at home. The Hawks were beaten 5-1 in Vancouver then dumped the Canucks 6-3 at home.
Back in October, Canuck defenceman Willie Mitchell flattened Toews with a hit that knocked the Chicago centre out of several games with a concussion. In January, Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler and Chicago’s Andrew Ladd fought. Afterwards, Kesler called Ladd a coward and accused him of breaking his nose with a cross-check during the playoffs.
At times Luongo looked very average against the Kings and allowed several soft goals. He got better as the series progressed and made some key saves to win Games 4 and 6.
Niemi had two shutouts against Nashville but has an awkward catching style and gives up some big rebounds.
The Blackhawks rattled Luongo last year by crashing his crease and distracting him.
After losing to Chicago last year the Canucks went looking for a mobile defenceman who can move the puck and score goals. Christian Ehrhoff has filled that role since coming to Vancouver in a trade from San Jose. There were concerns when Mitchell, Vancouver’s best shutdown defenceman, was sidelined with a concussion but Alex Edler has taken over.
The Chicago defence is fast and mobile. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are able to move the puck out of their own end by passing or skating.
The Sedins are the backbone of the Canuck attack. Once mainly a set-up man, Henrik Sedin has shown he can score goals as easily as twin Daniel. Samuelsson adds scoring punch and some veteran experience.
A concern the Canucks have is a lack of secondary scoring. Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and Pavol Demitra need to contribute more.
The Blackhawks will try to overpower Vancouver with size and speed. Big Dustin Byfuglien has already made a reservation in front of Luongo and it will be up to the Canuck defence to move him. Players like Toews and Kane don’t need a lot of open net to score.
Chicago has a lot of depth at forward. Last year players like Dave Bolland, Ben Eager and Adam Burish contributed.
The Vancouver penalty kill was awful in the first round, allowing six consecutive power-play goals at one point. Things improved as the series progressed, but the Canucks can’t afford to take too many penalties.
Vancouver had the sixth-best power play during the regular season. It’s most effective when defenceman Sami Salo is allowed to blast away from the point and the forwards get in front to tip pucks.
Chicago’s power play was middle of the pack during the regular season, but has enough teeth to bite. The Blackhawks penalty kill allowed just one goal on 27 penalties in the first round.
Vancouver’s Alain Vigneault loves juggling his lines. Without home-ice advantage for the first two games he won’t be able to get the matchups he wants. He can have a sharp tongue and isn’t afraid to criticize his players in the media.
Chicago’s Joel Quenneville has more playoff experience than Vigneault and won a Stanley Cup as an assistant with Colorado. He’s taken a young Blackhawk team and made them a contender.