CHICAGO -- It's not easy to turn a boisterous, sold-out United Center into a building that could be mistaken for a library packed with students studying for a final exam, but the Vancouver Canucks did just that Saturday night in Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinal series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
After a scoreless 13 minutes at the outset, the Canucks blitzed goaltender Antti Niemi for five goals in the next 22:30 of game time on their way to a 5-1 blowout and 1-0 series lead. It was the seventh time in their last eight series that Canucks have taken Game 1 and the fourth straight time the Blackhawks have lost a series opener.
Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo made 36 saves and kept the game scoreless during the early part of the first period when the Blackhawks mounted their only sustained attack while the game was still within reach. He stopped 17 shots in all during the first period -- a complete turnaround from his last playoff game in Chicago, when he was beaten seven times in the Hawks' series-clincher last spring.
Vancouver received goals from all four lines. Mason Raymond, Henrik Sedin, Kyle Wellwood, Michael Grabner and Christian Ehrhoff scored for the Canucks and sent Niemi to the bench in favor of Cristobal Huet to start the third period. Niemi stopped just 20 of 25 shots to take the loss.
“Big difference tonight was we were able to finish and they weren't," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "We know Chicago has a strong team and would come hard at us. For the most part we did a good job as a team, but when we had problems, Luongo bailed us out. I think the goals right at the end of the first, and then at the start of the second took the momentum away from them. It’s only one win, and we know we need more than that."
Luongo was at his best during the first 20 minutes. He came up with a toe save on defenseman Brian Campbell on a shot that looked so much like a goal that the post-goal spotlight at United Center prematurely illuminated Luongo's crease. Later, a point blast by Campbell caromed off Luongo and directly to Patrick Kane, who missed the open net on the short side.
"It was right there," said Kane, who scored the Blackhawks' lone goal on a 5-on-3 power play early in the third period. "It’s a shot I’ve got to bury, but the puck came out so quick and it was bouncing. I think I just got behind the puck and shot it wide."
Luongo's biggest save came when the score was still 1-0. Kane had a breakaway with a little less than seven minutes left in the first, but Luongo shut the door.
"He was great for us," Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. "I think it was his best game of the playoffs. Especially in the first period when we needed him to weather the storm, he was there for us."
Raymond's goal with 10.5 seconds left in the first period gave the Canucks a 2-0 lead and sent the Blackhawks to the dressing room with far less confidence than they showed in the early going. Whatever was left of it was erased for good when Henrik Sedin made it 3-0 just 32 seconds into the second period.
"It was huge," Raymond said of his goal at the end of the first period. "We carried that in (to the locker room) and we came out with one early in the (second) and it set us up for the rest of the period."
"That last goal at the end of the first period and that first goal at the beginning of the second period, that maybe took a little bit of the momentum away from them," Vigneault said.
The game became a laugher when Wellwood jammed home a rebound on a power play with 9:01 left in the second period to make it 4-0. Niemi made the save on the point shot by Ehrhoff, but Steve Bernier gathered the rebound and slid it off the post. Wellwood got the dirty goal by driving the crease, outcompeting Brent Seabrook and stashing it home an instant before the net became dislodged.
You could hear a pin drop in United Center when Michael Grabner made it 5-0 with 3:39 left in the period by converting a 2-on-1 with Rick Rypien. After a turnover by Marian Hossa at the Canucks' blue line, Rypien flew down the right wing before feeding Grabner at the top of the crease. Grabner, a healthy scratch in the clincher against Los Angeles in the first round, tapped home his first career playoff goal.
But it was Huet who came out to start the third period. It marked his first appearance in a game since he allowed seven goals in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 25. He stopped all three shots he faced.
Afterward, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville didn't pin the blame for the loss on Niemi.
"I'm not blaming the goaltending at all," Quenneville said. "They were around the net and had second and third opportunities. That's an area we need help, and that's an area we need to be better."
Game 2 is scheduled for Monday at the United Center, and Luongo said the Canucks can't be happy with merely getting a split before the series moves to Vancouver.
"It was a good start for us, no doubt about it. That being said, it's only one game," he said. "We've got to refocus right away. We know that next game is going to be even harder for us. We want to make sure we come out and execute like that again. By no means are we satisfied with one win."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DLozoNHL
Shift of the night:Henrik Sedin's first shift of the second period was so good that he found a way to use one of his brilliant passes to set himself up for a goal. The Canucks were up 2-0 and applying pressure in the Blackhawks' zone. Sedin found the puck in the slot, feathered a backhand pass between the legs of defenseman Brent Seabrook and right on the tape of twin brother Daniel. Antti Niemi made the initial save, but Henrik stuck with it and flipped the rebound home from the lower right circle to make it 3-0 just 31 seconds after the puck dropped and jump-start the Canucks' three-goal second period.
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