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Canucks search for right identity going into playoffs

Tuesday, 04.23.2013 / 12:08 PM
Kevin Woodley  - NHL.com Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- Six games in with the Vancouver Canucks, Derek Roy was asked if he had been able to figure out his new team's identity yet.

There was no hesitation.

"A lot of puck possession, where the other team is trying to take it away from us all game and we are keeping it, we're moving, skating, our [defensemen] are active," Roy told NHL.com after the game-day skate Monday morning.

It sounded great, but it was hard to believe Roy, acquired from the Dallas Stars at the NHL Trade Deadline, was talking about the same Canucks team that had been outshot 17-2 in the third period by the Detroit Red Wings two nights earlier.

"Since I've been here I've seen some really good periods of it and I've seen some not-so-good periods," Roy said. "We need to build that game up to playoffs so it's not like a light switch we're looking for."

Ten hours later, after Roy's seventh game with the Canucks turned into their most complete effort of the season, handing the NHL-leading Chicago Blackhawks a 3-1 loss to clinch a fifth-straight Northwest Division title, it was a lot easier to see that identity.

"That's more like it," Roy said.

The Canucks spent most of the night attacking a Blackhawks team that had spent most of this season dominating opponents in the other end. Vancouver used its speed to get in on the forecheck, creating scoring chances and establishing a physical presence that has been missing on most nights this year.

Vancouver came in waves at times, with Daniel and Henrik Sedin cycling the puck deep for long shifts in the Chicago end, and a new-look second line with Roy in the middle, Kesler on the right wing and Chris Higgins, back after missing six games with a knee sprain, generated odd-man attacks off the rush.

"From the first shift we were focused on getting the puck deep and forechecking the right way, and that's key for our team," said Daniel Sedin, who had a goal and an assist in the win. "We have good skaters, this is how we have to play."

That it hasn't been on display nearly as often this season as it was when Vancouver won the Presidents' Trophy each of the past two has been a function of several factors. Having only two established NHL centers before Roy was added and Kesler returned soon after from a pair of injuries is a big one.

Injuries aren't the only reason, though.

Vancouver was missing three regulars on defense, including its only two right-shot defensemen, Kevin Bieksa and Christopher Tanev, against Chicago. Yet they outplayed the usually dominant Blackhawks with 20-year-old Frank Corrado making his NHL debut as a top-four defenseman 10 days after his junior season ended, and Andrew Alberts and Cam Barker, spare parts most of the season, together as the third defense pairing.

The difference was also about execution from top to bottom in the lineup, start to finish of the game, something that has also been missing on too many nights. It was, said captain Henrik Sedin, the main topic of discussion during a players-only meeting after a 5-1 loss to the Dallas Stars and before the game against Detroit.

Without everyone on the same page, it's hard to maintain an identity Higgins characterized as "a very aggressive, hard-skating team."

"A style that has gotten us a lot of success in the past," Higgins told NHL.com.

There have been times the Canucks adopted a more conservative approach, in part because of injuries, but that's not what they want in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"It's a system where everyone has to be aggressive," Higgins said. "If there is one person that's not aggressive it changes the whole look, so it's just about the five guys moving as one, playing as a five-man unit. All it takes is one guy not playing the right way. If you have four guys playing the right way and one guy a step or two behind, or a step or two ahead of the play, it changes everything."

So too, it seems, could the addition of Roy.

With Higgins back after showing a lot of chemistry in three earlier games with Roy, most expected the Canucks to play them together on a third line. Instead, coach Alain Vigneault moved Kesler, a Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's top defensive forward in 2011, to the wing on a loaded-up second line, seemingly abandoning the balanced attack that had been part of that missing identity.

After lamenting a lack of legitimate NHL centers most of the season before adding Roy, the Canucks put two of their best on the same line.

"I'm having issues finding nine forwards I can depend on," Vigneault said before the game against Chicago. "Those top-three lines, we have tried a number of different scenarios. We have three games left here to figure it out."

They've got two left now, starting Thursday against the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks, but a loaded second line looked good against Chicago, creating a couple of 2-on-1 rushes among a handful of grade-A scoring chances.

Loading up another unit behind -- and taking some scoring pressure off -- the top-line Sedin twins may be the best option for a team that was limited to one goal in three straight games before Monday's win clinched a fifth straight Northwest Division title. Or the Canucks could go back to playing Higgins and Roy on a third line, with Kesler again anchoring the second line.

"It's developing," Kesler said of chemistry with Roy and Higgins. "If we stick together the next couple of games we'll see if we can develop it a little more."

The final decision may even depend on their first-round playoff opponent. But as the Canucks continue to tinker so late in a season that has seen them adopt a defense-first posture at times, at least they have their identity back.

Now they just have to keep it for more than one game.

"That's the way we need to play to be successful," Kesler said.

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