CHICAGO -- Hey, Vancouver, feel free to exhale. Roberto Luongo hasn't lost his touch after all.
Vancouver's All-Star goaltender looked determined and poised and the team in front of him followed his lead in putting together their finest 60-minute effort of this Western Conference Semifinal series en route to a 3-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 on Tuesday night.
The Blackhawks will try to even up the series on Thursday in Game 4 at United Center (8 p.m. ET, Versus, CBC) before returning to Vancouver for Game 5 on Saturday.
During the two-day layoff following Chicago's 6-3 victory at Vancouver in Game 2, there was much talk about how the Blackhawks had seemingly gotten inside the head of Luongo after scoring five consecutive goals to overcome a 2-0 lead. Instead, Luongo may have the Blackhawks thinking after his near-flawless 23-save effort.
Unlike the previous two games, in which the Canucks took their foot off the pedal and allowed the Hawks to claw their way back into the game, the visitors continued to pressure their opponent while neutralizing their speed through center ice -- something they knew had to happen in order to be successful. It also helped that their white-hot penalty-killing unit was able to stifle the Blackhawks on four of five attempts, while yielding just six shots.
"It was our game plan not to feed their transition," Luongo said. "I couldn't even count the number of turnovers on my hand."
Actually, Luongo would have only needed one hand -- as Chicago forced just three giveaways the entire game as compared to 12 in the opening two games of the series. In addition to clogging the passing lanes, the stellar defensive unit blocked a series-high 21 shots despite playing without top-four defenseman Sami Salo, who was out with an injury.
"I think one of the keys for us was to be able to put in a full 60 on the ice," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. "We put a couple past them -- and when we made mistakes, Louie was there to make the saves."
Luongo was there when his team needed him most -- early in the game and late in the game. He wasn't fazed by the ice spray given him by Chicago's Ben Eager early in the second period and he received a little assistance from the goal post off a shot by Chicago's Kris Versteeg in the opening minute of the third and his team holding a 3-1 lead. Aside from that, he was cool, calm and collected.
"We kept forechecking them and playing our game," Luongo said. "We didn't sit back and protect the lead, and didn't turn the puck over. It was a solid effort."
Vancouver's Shane O'Brien and his defensive mates refer to this type of victory -- one in which they limited the Hawks to their lowest shot total of the series at 24 -- as a "greasy road win."
"We know we didn't play well in Games 1 or 2," O'Brien said. "We're a defense-first team, and we have one of the best goalies in the world backing us up. If we're able to play a tight defensive game and allow Louie to see the puck, he'll make those saves, as he did tonight."
For the third straight game, the Blackhawks spotted the Canucks the first goal -- this time by Mason Raymond at 15:34 of the opening period. In fact, the Canucks have now outscored the Blackhawks 4-0 through the first three games. It was also the fifth time in nine playoff games that the Hawks had allowed their opponent to open the scoring.
"They're going to keep playing the high-percentage game," Versteeg said. "We have to force our style on them, especially at home."
Playing the high-percentage game is just the way Vigneault wanted it.
"One thing we don't want to do is play chance-for-chance with them," he said. "They have too much skill and speed, and we just want to make the high-percentage play. When we do that and play a good puck-possession game, we give ourselves a better chance to win."
No doubt about it, the Canucks appeared to be more in their element on Tuesday, tightening up in the neutral zone, keeping most of the shots from the outside and keeping traffic away from Luongo's crease. In previous games, that wasn't the case, as the Blackhawks, in particular 6-foot-3, 247-pound Dustin Byfuglien, did a fine job of obstructing Luongo's view of the puck.
But except for Chicago's lone goal -- a power-play slapper by Brian Campbell on which Byfuglien set a screen -- the Canucks successfully denied the Hawks much room to operate in the trenches. But by that time, Vancouver already had a 3-0 lead after second period goals by Steve Bernier and Henrik Sedin.
Meanwhile, feisty forward Ryan Kesler, who had just 1 goal, 1 hit and was a minus-2 in two previous games against the Blackhawks, had his best game of this series alongside Raymond (who stepped in for injured Pavol Demitra) and Mats Sundin. He led all forwards with 22:01 of ice time on 28 shifts while chipping in with the key assist on Raymond's goal, three hits, three shots on goal and a plus-1 rating.
"I thought the three of them (Raymond, Kesler, Sundin) helped each other out there and Mats spent a little more time in offensive zone," Vigneault said. "We'd like to see them produce more offensively, but (Tuesday) was a good sign."
Vancouver left wing Mason Raymond, who replaced an injured Pavol Demitra on the club's second line with Ryan Kesler and Mats Sundin, notched his first career goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 4:26 remaining in the first period to give the Canucks a 1-0 lead. Raymond, drafted in the second round in 2005, was Johnny on the Spot when he gathered a pass from Kesler at the bottom of the left circle before roofing a shot past Nikolai Khabibulin.
Vancouver's feisty center Ryan Kesler, who entered the game with just one hit and a minus-2 rating in two previous games against the Blackhawks, was certainly playing with a purpose. In addition to logging the most ice time of any Vancouver forward (22:01) on 28 shifts, Kesler chipped in with one assist, three hits and one blocked shot. On Tuesday afternoon, Kesler predicted his team would win a close, low-scoring affair.
Of the seven saves made by Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo in the first period, the one that certainly provided the Canucks with a needed adrenaline boost came with 7:05 remaining when Chicago's Cam Barker attempted a tip-in from the slot with his team on the power-play. Luongo turned away the attempt and, just 2:39 later, the Canucks would reward him with a 1-0 lead.
The Canucks have led 14 of 21 periods during the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, including one overtime session in Game 4 against the St. Louis Blues. Only two other teams have held the lead more than Vancouver this postseason -- the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings.
Vancouver's penalty-killing unit remains white hot, denying the Blackhawks of 4-of-5 chances in Game 3 on Tuesday. The Hawks entered the game hitting at a 29.6 percent clip with the man advantage -- third best in the playoffs. The Canucks have yielded just three power-play goals on 32 chances in the playoffs. Vancouver helped its cause by blocking 19 shots for the game, including 4 by wily veteran defenseman Mattias Ohlund.