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Two of the NHL's hottest clubs meet in first round of playoffs

VANCOUVER, B.C. - The Vancouver Canucks can see a lot of themselves in the St. Louis Blues.

The two teams, who will face off in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, have been the hottest clubs in the NHL since the end of January and both have similar keep-it-simple, hard-working styles when they are on top of their games.

"They play very disciplined within their system," Canucks forward Ryan Johnson, a member of the Blues for the previous four-plus seasons, said after Monday's practice. "For the amount of skill that they have, they play a very simple game and it makes them very tough to play against

"And when we're on our game, those are attributes that you see our team having so it makes for an interesting series."

That best-of-seven set begins at GM Place on Wednesday as the Canucks, with their second Northwest Division title in three years and the third seed in the Western Conference, face the sixth-place Blues.

Game 2 is Friday before the series switches to St. Louis on Sunday and Tuesday. Other games, if necessary, will be in Vancouver on April 24, in St. Louis on April 26 and back in Vancouver on April 28.

The Canucks resurrected their season with a 23-7-2 run after losing eight straight and a club-record nine consecutive games at home.

The Blues had a similar 21-7-6 sprint to the playoffs, losing only once in regulation in their last 11 games. They are 5-1-1 in their last seven road games.

"They've been equally as good as we have been." said Canucks forward Ryan Kesler, one of Vancouver's five 20-goal scorers. "We've both been tops in the league since the (Jan. 21-27) all-star break and now it's two pretty hot teams facing off against one another.

"They play everybody hard, they seem to capitalize on a lot of their scoring chances and they have a pretty deadly power play. It's going to be important to limit their scoring chances and stay out of the (penalty) box."

Keyed by Keith Tkachuk and David Backes, the Blues have the NHL's eighth-ranked power play with a conversion rate of 20.5 per cent. Vancouver is 17th with the man advantage.

The teams also bring good goaltending to the series.

Roberto Luongo recovered from a severe groin injury to finish the season with 145 minutes 56 seconds of shutout netminding as Vancouver won its last three games to vault past the Calgary Flames in the Northwest.

And Chris Mason of the Blues, who began 3-13-1 after a fall apendectomy, went 17-6-3 behind an injury-depleted defence after the all-star break.

"I've been feeling well for a while but when we play well defensively, it (goaltending) goes hand-in-hand," said Luongo, whose club was 9-12-3 when he was injured. "It makes my job easier and it gives me more confidence.

"I need my teammates as much as they need me and when we're both rolling, it's fun to play."

Blues coach Andy Murray said Mason's second-half play had a big impact on the players in front of him.

"We weren't chasing the leads," said Murray. "It allowed defensive defencemen to play like defensive defencemen and the checkers to do their job. This elevated the play of everybody else.

"You're about as good a team as your goaltender plays and Chris has played extremely well."

While Vancouver enjoyed a relatively healthy regular season, the Blues had to overcome injuries to several key veterans, especially on defence, to make the playoffs.

Eric Brewer hasn't played since January and Erik Johnson was lost for the season with a knee injury.

Forward Paul Kariya hasn't played since Nov. 5 but is getting closer to returning after two hip surgeries.

But the Blues' young players stepped up, with four of their top six scorers under 26. David Perron, with 50 points, and Patrik Berglund, with 47, are under just 21.

Tkachuk, who contributed two goals and an assist Friday in a key win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, said the club has been in playoff mode for some time and that's been good for the youngsters.

"It's been a must-win situation," Tkachuk said. "It's good for a lot of our young guys who don't have playoff experience to come in and play that type of hockey.

"You have no choice. If you don't you're going home."

The two teams split their four regular-season games, each winning in the other's building.

Two games were decided by 6-4 scores but don't look for that much scoring, said Daniel Sedin, who led the Canucks with 31 goals this season.

"It's going to be a tough, tight match-up," Sedin said. "We've got to be prepared to win games 1-0 and 2-1."

NOTES: Alain Vigneault joined Pat Quinn as the only two Canucks coaches to win a pair of division titles ... several Canucks wives and girlfriends plan to attend Tuesday's funeral in Thunder Bay, Ont., of Carly Bragnalo, fiancee of winger Taylor Pyatt ... Bragnalo died in a car crash April 3 while on holiday in Jamaica ... Kariya did not make the trip to Vancouver.



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