One team moves on to play another series. Another lives to play another day.
While the Vancouver Canucks celebrated their first playoff sweep in franchise history with their 3-2 overtime win over the St. Louis Blues Tuesday night, the San Jose Sharks were finally celebrating that the tide of their series against the Anaheim Ducks might just be shifting.
If there were one series that was a slam-dunk for post-season prognosticators before the playoffs began, it was the one that pitted the Canucks against the Blues. But you can immediately proceed to the front of the class and collect your gold star if you predicted the Canucks would sweep the Blues in four games, as they did Tuesday night with their thrilling 3-2 overtime win over the Blues in Game 4.
Thanks to the NHL’s goofy policy that insists on all series in both conferences being finished before the next round can begin, it might be another 10 days before we see the Canucks play hockey again. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait that long to find out whether or not the Sharks have the internal fortitude to come back in a playoff series after they played their best game in a 4-3 win over the Ducks.
The Canucks are advancing to the second round of the playoffs in large part because of the play of their best player and captain. Roberto Luongo was easily the top performer for the Canucks in the series. To be sure, he was the Canucks best penalty killer, making save after save as the Blues managed to score just once on 23 power plays in the series, including going 0-for-7 in the fourth game. Included in that was a double minor in overtime.
The Sharks, meanwhile, got themselves back into the series largely because of the play of two veteran defensemen – Rob Blake and Dan Boyle – with Stanley Cup pedigrees and the fact that their sticks and power play finally came alive.
The time off will give the Canucks ample time to heal their wounds, but it will undoubtedly also take the edge off a team that dominated at times in the first round. Mats Sundin and Sami Salo missed the fourth game of the series and Willie Mitchell was injured during the game. And there was the omnipresent fear that Luongo himself had tweaked his hip or groin, which would spell disaster for the Canucks if it turned out to be a long-term injury.
But even if it is, Luongo might have time to fully recover and still have a couple of days off. The Canucks will go into their next series with a decidedly more difficult opponent, but the importance of getting through the first round so quickly cannot be underestimated. And they did that because Luongo was an enormous difference maker against a St. Louis team that didn’t seem to have any answers for his dominance.
The Blues were much better in Game 4 than they were in the first three, to be sure, and managed to make the last game of the series one to remember. The Blues were eliminated, but they will learn from this experience and their young players such as David Perron and T.J. Oshie will carry into next season the good feelings garnered by playing and battling so well in that last game. The Blues young players were terrific in overtime and were the biggest reason why it was arguably the most exciting game of the playoffs so far. Overtimes are often death for viewers, but if they’re going to play them like that, bring it on.
The Sharks are bringing some good feelings of their own into Game 4, which they will win if the trend of home teams being unable to win continues. Home teams are 0-3 in this series so far, as they are in the Washington-New York Rangers series, part of the reason home teams are sporting only a 14-13 record so far in these playoffs.
But the Sharks will need more than that to bring the series back to San Jose tied. They did a much better job of using their speed through the neutral zone and their power play was much better, largely because if focused around Boyle and Blake bombing from the blueline rather than working the puck down low against the Ducks big defensemen.
But one thing is sure, things are just getting interesting in this series. Stay tuned.
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Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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