CHICAGO – Roberto Luongo was ready from the instant the first puck dropped. He put last year’s playoff debacle at the United Center behind him, established his presence early and helped the Vancouver Canucks win their semifinal opener.
Luongo had 36 saves, and the Canucks scored two momentum-shifting goals?one late in the first and one early in the second?to rout the Chicago Blackhawks 5-1 Saturday night.
After clinching its opening-round series against the Kings last Sunday, the Canucks were raring to go. Luongo made 17 saves in the first period to set the tone.
“It was nice to start that way. No doubt about it. That being said, it was only one game,” Luongo said.
“I haven’t played in a week, so it was nice to get that kind of work early in the game, to get that comfort level back right away. After that I felt like normal.”
Luongo gave up seven goals in his previous playoff appearance at the United Center a year ago when Chicago beat the Canucks in the clinching Game 6, including three to Patrick Kane. Kane netted another goal Saturday night during a two-man advantage early in the third, but it came after the Canucks were already ahead 5-0.
Luongo said last year’s debacle that left him in tears didn’t play a part in his performance and didn’t make this win any more meaningful.
“Nothing, Nothing to me,” he said. “We’re here to win four games. We’re not here to win one. There’s no satisfaction for me personally.”
The Canucks stunned the Blackhawks with two goals in less than a minute?Mason Raymond scored with 10.5 seconds left in the first period, and Henrik Sedin made it 3-0 just 32 seconds into the second.
“What hurt them was obviously that last goal at the end of the first period and that first goal at the beginning of the second period,” Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. “That took maybe a little bit of momentum away from them.
“The difference probably in tonight’s game was we were able to finish and they couldn’t finish,” he added. “Our goaltender shut them down and we were able to get to theirs. … They had some Grade A chances and our goaltender bailed us out.”
Christian Ehrhoff, Kyle Wellwood and Michael Grabner also scored for the fast-skating Canucks against rookie goalie Antti Niemi, who faced 25 shots and was pulled after two periods with Chicago trailing 5-0. Cristobal Huet came on in relief.
Game 2 is Monday night in Chicago.
After the Blackhawks failed to clear the zone to start the second, Niemi stopped Henrik Sedin’s shot, but Daniel Sedin retrieved the puck, went around the net and flipped to his twin brother, who was open for the score early in the second.
“They were sloppy plays,” Chicago’s Duncan Keith said of his team’s inability to clear pucks away from Niemi. “It can’t get any worse.”
Keith said the Blackhawks weren’t able to use their biggest weapon?speed. And their strong puck possession game struggled against the Canucks.
“We’ve got a fast team. We’ve got speed, but for whatever reason we weren’t moving out there,” Keith said. “We didn’t use any of it.”
Vancouver made it 4-0 with a power-play goal when Wellwood poked in a shot after Steve Bernier’s attempt hit the post and went under Niemi’s pad. Grabner scored his first career playoff goal and put the Canucks up by five later in the period.
With the clock running out in the first, Niemi blocked Ryan Kesler’s shot from the side. The puck ricocheted to the top of the left circle, where Raymond had plenty of time to wind up and rip a shot past the goalie with 10.5 seconds left, giving the Canucks a 2-0 lead.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said he didn’t blame the loss on Niemi and wasn’t concerned how it would affect him.
“He’s fine. He’s got a great disposition,” he said. “We anticipate him moving forward and getting ready for the next game.”
Ehrhoff had the Canucks’ first goal at 13:51 of the first when his slap shot from the right point eluded a screened Niemi.
Moments later, Luongo stopped a breakaway attempt by Kane, one of several fine saves he made in the first when Chicago had two power plays.
Luongo’s kick save on a shot by defenceman Brian Campbell helped foil an early power play for Chicago, one that came 1