VANCOUVER – It was the win the Vancouver Canucks wanted to start the playoffs, but goaltender Roberto Luongo was already focusing on the next step of the journey.
Luongo made 32 saves, including a game-changing stop in the first period, as the Canucks defeated their nemesis the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 in Wednesday’s opening game of the NHL Western Conference quarter-finals series.
Luongo was both brilliant and a little lucky as a couple pucks bounced off the post. Vancouver dominated the game early, but the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks showed signs of finding life in the third period.
“It’s nice to get the win,” said a subdued Luongo in a quiet Canuck dressing room. “We know it’s a long series. We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves.
“We have a big game coming up and we know they are going to be ready to play. We have won the first game of the last two series (against them). They’re not the Stanley Cup champions for nothing. We have to keep doing what we are doing.”
Vancouver played a physical game, outhitting the Blackhawks 47-21. The Canucks took advantage of the some early Chicago mistakes to score twice in the first period.
It was the first time in six games the Canucks had won a home playoff game against Chicago. Still, there was almost a sense caution in the Vancouver dressing room.
The Canucks didn’t play their best, and expect the Blackhawks to be a lot better when the series resumes Friday night (CBC, 10 p.m. EST).
“We know we didn’t play close to our best game tonight,” said captain Henrik Sedin. “We know we can play a lot better.
“There’s not a whole lot of celebration in here.”
The win helped rid the Canucks of some playoff ghosts. The Blackhawks have eliminated the Canucks from the second round of the playoffs the last two seasons. In each of those series, Vancouver won the first game, only to be beaten in the second.
The Blackhawks dug themselves a hole in the first period they couldn’t climb out of.
“We did a few little mistakes and that cost us a hockey game,” said forward Marian Hossa.
“We have to be sharper. When the game went on we got better and better. We will take lots of positives into Game 2.”
Vancouver’s goals came from some unexpected players.
Jannik Hansen scored on a pretty breakaway after big centre Ryan Kesler had blocked a Chicago shot at the blue-line. Chris Higgins got the other goal when he deflected a Kevin Bieksa shot from the point past Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford.
“We’re able to chip in once in a while and take the load off,” said Hansen. “I had a couple of missed breakaways last year (against Chicago). It was nice to see this one go in.”
It was the second playoff shutout of Luongo’s career. It came against a Chicago team that has dented Luongo’s confidence and battered his pride in past playoffs.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” said Luongo. “We know they are going to come back stronger next game.
“We have to be ready.”
Luongo made his biggest save late in the first period. Defenceman Brian Campbell took a cross-ice pass and fired a shot at a gapping net. The big goalie, who was hanging onto the far post, extended his foot to block the shot, then flopped on the rebound.
“It was a bang-bang play,” said Luongo. “I just stretched across and was able to et a toe on it.”
Forward Alex Burrows said that stop sent a jolt of electricity through the Canuck bench.
“When you see those from the bench, it gets the guys going,” said Burrows. “We know it’s one of those nights. That he’s going to stop them all.
“He has been playing unreal for us all season long. I’m not surprised to see him win tonight.”
The Canuck netminder was busy again in the second period. He blocked a shot from Jonathan Toews, then scrambled back into position as Patrick Sharp steered a puck just wide.
Each stopped prompted chants of “Luuuu, Luuuu” from the towel-waving, sellout crowd of 18,860 at Rogers Arena.
The Canucks, who finished first overall in the NHL with 117 points, cruised into the playoffs. The Blackhawks needed a loss by the Dallas Stars on the final day of the season to back into eighth place in the West with 97 points.
Vancouver showed poise and confidence early, blistering shots at Crawford, who was making his first playoff start. The Canucks also laid on the body, mashing Hawks into the boards and leaving them flat on the ice.
“We definitely wanted to establish a physical presence,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “Their defence love to jump up in the attack and we’re going to try to make their life challenging.”
In the first period Chicago looked out of sync. The Blackhawks had trouble completing passes and couldn’t sustain pressure in the Canucks end.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville called a timeout after the second Vancouver goal to settle his team down.
“It was a tough start.” said Quenneville. “The first (period) they came at us in waves and we didn’t have a good response.
“I thought we settled down in the last 40 minutes and had some good quality chances, but not enough net presence.”
The Hawks seemed to find their game in the second period, when Luongo was called upon to make several good stops. In the third period they buzzed around the Vancouver net like angry bees.
Troy Brouwer returned to Chicago’s lineup after missing the final three games of the regular season with a shoulder injury. Dave Bolland remained out with a concussion.
The Blackhawks plan to bring a better effort on Friday.
“You never want to lose the first game,” said Patrick Kane.
“We lose tonight, maybe we put ourselves in a better position to come back and play even harder. Maybe it’s a wake-up call for us.”
CANUCK Notes: In 26 regular season starts since Jan. 18 Luongo allowed two or less goals 19 times and had a 1.76 goals-against average. …This is the fifth playoff meeting between the Hawks and Canucks but the first time the teams have clashed in the first round. Vancouver is 1-3 in those series. …In their 40-year history the Canucks have made the playoffs 24 times.