VANCOUVER --Roberto Luongo says he's been seeing the puck well for four months. Nothing changed Wednesday as he and the rest of the Vancouver Canucks took the first step to exorcising the demons of their past.
Luongo was staked to an early lead and he put in the work to preserve it as the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks took Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Chicago Blackhawks, 2-0, at Rogers Arena. The Canucks lead the series with Game 2 set for Friday.
It's the third straight year Vancouver won Game 1 against the Blackhawks, but history suggests it doesn't mean much. Chicago went on to win the first two series' in six games.
"It doesn't really mean anything at the end of the day if we don't win the series," Luongo said of his second career playoff shutout. "That's what it is all about. We won Game 1, which is nice, but we still have a lot of work to do and we're not going to get ahead of ourselves here."
However, this is clearly a different Blackhawks' team without some of the core depth guys like Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg that helped them win the Stanley Cup last season. It's also a different Canucks' team, one that defenseman Kevin Bieksa said is mentally tougher and is led by a goalie playing the best hockey of his career.
Luongo made 32 saves, but of note was how well he was able to see the puck. A year ago it was Byfuglien bothering him by putting his burly body in front of the net, but the Blackhawks don't have that 265-pound luxury this season and they admitted that they didn't do enough to get in Luongo's way.
"He made some big stops, there's no doubt about it," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "He's going to do that every single game, but we weren't good enough in front of him. Maybe we passed up a couple of shots, too, when we had a 2-on-1 or several opportunities like that. We've got to be better in those situations and on the power play, too. It all comes from work ethic."
As effective as Luongo was Wednesday, the Canucks deserve as much credit for the way they attacked the Blackhawks in the first period and essentially outworked them for every loose puck and every big hit. Players in both dressing rooms felt Vancouver's physicality, especially on the forecheck, set the tone for the game and was essentially the difference.
Vancouver scored both of its goals within the first 10:23 of the first. Christopher Higgins scored on a deflection from the high slot at 7:03 and Jannik Hansen scored on a breakaway just over three minutes later.
"It's playoff hockey," Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell said. "I don't think we answered the bell."
Vancouver held a 2-0 lead, a 13-7 advantage in shots on goal and a 20-9 edge in hits through 20 minutes. Sami Salo's hit on Tomas Kopecky with roughly two minutes to go in the period knocked the Hawks' forward out of the game with an upper-body injury. Maxim Lapierre and Victor Oreskovich also had some big hits.
The Canucks finished with a 47-21 advantage in the hits department. Lapierre led all players with eight.
"It was fantastic," Luongo said of the Canucks' first period. "Not only the fact that we scored, but our physical presence on the forecheck was huge. Guys had some big hits. That really set a good pace and tempo for our team."
Luongo did the rest. He made 25 saves over the final 40 minutes, but his best actually came late in the first, when he managed to cut across his crease and stick out his right toe to stop Campbell's one-timer from the left side with 1:34 to play.
Luongo thanked his size 15 skates for that one.
"There was room there, but yeah, he's a world-class goaltender that is going to be tough to beat," Campbell said. "We've got to find ways to get things past him and bear down in those situations."
Hawks goalie Corey Crawford, who was making his playoff debut, came up with 31 saves and gave up nothing to the Sedin twins, but he was beaten by a deflection and a breakaway.
To grab a 1-0 lead, Higgins first received a picture perfect stretch pass from Mikael Samuelsson and went into the zone in stride before sending the puck around the boards. Ryan Kesler knifed through the middle and dug out the puck, whipping it off the boards and up to Bieksa at the right point.
Kesler and Higgins went into the high slot and Higgins was able to get his stick on Bieksa's slap shot, redirecting the puck over Crawford's catching glove.
"Chris, Ryan and Mikael got the opportunity to play a couple of games at the end of the year and you could see there was some chemistry there," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said.
Vancouver made it 2-0 three minutes and 20 seconds later on Hansen's breakaway goal, but had Kesler not blocked Duncan Keith's shot from the high slot it never would have happened. He did, Keith eventually got it back but Samuelsson forced a turnover and the puck sprung free into the neutral zone, gliding slowly toward the far blue line.
Crawford hesitated and then chose to stay in his crease while Hansen blew by Marian Hossa and collected the puck for the breakaway. He made a move and beat Crawford over the catching glove to make it 2-0.
Crawford admitted he "second-guessed myself" because he saw a broken stick in the slot and the puck on its edge.
"(The puck) was on edge so it looked like it might have died a bit, but it didn't," Crawford said. "I didn't want to go out there and have it die on me once I went halfway, so I just decided to take the breakaway.
"He made a quick move and I thought I might have had my glove close to him enough, but he got it up pretty quick."
The Blackhawks settled down in the second period and had chances to crack Luongo, but they couldn't connect.
They couldn't all night.
"They're the Stanley Cup champs and they know what to do," Luongo said. "We've got to be ready (for Game 2)."