VANCOUVER – The Chicago Blackhawks exposed some glaring weaknesses last spring when they eliminated the Vancouver Canucks from the second round of the NHL playoffs in six games.
The Vancouver defence lacked speed, wasn’t physical enough and had trouble moving the puck out of the Canucks’ zone. Vancouver also was short on depth and veteran poise among its bottom six forwards.
Mike Gillis, the Vancouver general manager, went to work retooling his club and put together a team that enjoyed the best season in franchise history. The Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy for having the best regular-season record, led the NHL in goals scored and collected the Jennings Trophy for least goals allowed.
Vancouver’s success is built around a back end that controls the play in the Canucks’ zone. The defencemen have the mobility to bring the puck out of their own end, allowing the Vancouver forwards to use their speed to set up scoring plays.
The Canucks plan to use the same blueprint for a successful run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Why change?” captain Henrik Sedin said after the Canucks held a spirited practise Monday at Rogers Arena. “We’re built this way to play this way.
“If you look at the teams that have won it in the last couple of years . . . they stuck to their system and have been strong defensively. That’s how we are going to play.”
The Canucks open the Western Conference quarter-finals Wednesday against Chicago (10 p.m. EST, CBC). Game 2 will be played Friday before the series returns to Chicago for games Sunday and Tuesday.
Vancouver fashioned a 54-19-9 record for 117 points with a team that combined goal-scoring punch with solid defence and one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in Roberto Luongo. The Canucks were also resilient, refusing to buckle when a string of injuries tattered their lineup.
Vancouver also excels at special teams. The Canucks had the league’s top-ranked power play and third best penalty killing.
“We’re not going to change a whole lot,” said forward Alex Burrows, who missed the first part of the season recovering from shoulder surgery. “We’re going to focus on what we have to do to be successful.
“That’s playing the right way, making sure we are playing well defensively and making smart plays through the neutral zone. We want to get pucks to the net and have good special teams.”
Adding defencemen Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard made the Canucks more physical. That has made life miserable for opposition forwards looking to park in front of the Vancouver net.
The transition game has improved with forwards able to take crisp passes on the fly to start a rush.
The Canuck defence is one of the deepest in the league. Christian Ehrhoff had 14 goals and 50 points this season. Kevin Bieksa finished the year plus-32. Hardnosed Alex Edler might be the club’s best all-round defenceman. Sami Salo brings veteran experience and a howitzer of a shot.
Up front, the Canucks have two lines capable of giving goalies fits.
The top line is led by NHL scoring champion Daniel Sedin, who collected a career-high 41 goals and won the Art Ross Trophy with 104 points. Twin-brother Henrik centres the line and led the league with 75 assists. Burrows works the corners and scored 26 goals in 72 games.
Second-line centre Ryan Kesler had a career-high 41 goals. He is a big body that can be physical on both the power play and penalty kill. Forward Mikael Samuelsson can be a streaky scorer who had 18 goals while battling a leg injury. He also won a Stanley Cup ring with Detroit.
Signing centre Manny Malhotra and rugged forward Raffi Torres as free agents gave Vancouver a solid third line. Malhotra took all the key defensive faceoffs. Torres and Jannik Hansen banged along the boards and contributed some goals.
The season-ending eye injury to Malhotra has created a vacancy the Canucks are struggling to fill. Torres will miss the first two games of the playoffs due to suspension.
Mason Raymond finished the season as centre on the third line. The Canucks have called up centre Cody Hodgson, a former first-round draft pick, and big winger Victor Oreskovich from the AHL Manitoba Moose to start the playoffs.
Hodgson could centre the third line with Raymond moving back to his more natural spot on wing.
An improved defence will take a lot of pressure off Luongo to win games himself. He enters the playoffs rested after carrying a reduced workload this year and also without the burden of being captain.
“I’m feeling really good,” said Luongo, who finished the season tied with a league-high 38 wins and second with a 2.11 goals-against average.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing all year. I will work hard and stay focused and play the same as I have been doing in the games the last four months.”
Having Cory Schneider as a reliable backup meant Luongo appeared in just 60 games. That’s the least he’s played in any season he wasn’t hurt.
Schneider also gives the Canucks a feasible option if Luongo is hurt or not playing well.
For all the personnel changes the Canucks made this year, coach Alain Vigneault believes the team’s biggest improvement might be mentally.
“We’re a more mature, more experienced group,” said Vigneault. “We have learned from our past successes and our past failures.
“It’s a hard working group of players that really prepares themselves well. For most of this year, the No. 1 character that we brought was our worth ethic. I expect that to be a big part of us having some playoff success.”