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Battling Through

by Staff Writer / Vancouver Canucks
Losing two of your top four defensemen is liking losing two of your front teeth - it hurts. It also makes it extremely difficult to put any meaningful bite on your opponents.

Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa spent Wednesday night in Orange County watching game one from the press box. Honda Center is nice and all, and the coffee's not bad, but the two defenders would've much rather spent an evening on the bench. And you would be hard-pressed to find a Canucks fan who wouldn't concur.

Their absence on the Vancouver blueline was sorely missed. The mighty Ducks were just like their former namesake - they ran rough shod over a depleted Canucks defense on their way to a 5-1 victory.

Nobody knows if Bieksa will return to the lineup at all in round two. And if anyone does know, they're certainly not blurting it out to the press. Officially it's the flu, or some other virus. The latest reports said Bieksa's awaiting the results of blood tests.

Salo left the ice in game seven versus the Dallas Stars after having his feet yanked out by Jere Lehtinen - and they say there's no honour among Fins. Salo was scratched moments before Wednesday's game with reported back spasms. His return seems likely for Friday's game two. Again, that's all speculation.

Veteran defender Rory Fitzpatrick and Manitoba Moose callup Alexander Edler drew into the lineup in their stead and did an admirable job, however, the loss of Salo and Bieksa had a trickle down affect on the rest of the Canucks defensive unit.

"With the guys we have now, some guys have an opportunity to have a bigger role and it's up to them to step up and get the job done," said head coach Alain Vigneault. "And the forwards, when you're missing two key veterans, you've got to do more and you've got to do it better. That's what we expect from our group."

Lukas Krajicek logged an impressive 23:47 of ice time in game one. In comparison, he only had 8:43 minutes during game seven versus the Stars. He was caught up ice on the Ducks' third goal and finsihed the night a minus one. Like everyone else, Krajicek had a tough time switching gears after defending the Stars' "attack" for seven games.

Brent Sopel played 21:14 against Anaheim - that's a full five minutes more ice than he saw versus Dallas on Monday night. He was victimized by a slick Teemu Selanne toe-drag on the Ducks' second goal. He didn't see a whole lot of Finnish puck wizards in round one either.

Willie Mitchell hit 24:44 of ice, nearly three minutes ahead of the 21:46 he logged against Dallas in the series clincher. Mitchell was a minus-one, and like everyone else in a Canucks jersey, battled to find the reserves necessary to keep pace with a rested Ducks forward corps.

"That's part of the playoffs," said Roberto Luongo. "It's a physical time of the year and intense and guys are battling injuries. We have enough depth on this team to battle through those things and play our game even though we've got a few key guys down right now."

When two valuable defensemen are lost, it's up to the entire team to pull up their boot straps and contribute to the overall defensive responsibilities of the club. That means hustling on the back-check in all three zones and winning loose pucks along the boards.

The Ducks exposed those Canucks deficiencies by capitalizing on turnovers in the neutral zone and using their size to fight harder along the walls.

"They were much better than we were in the battles along the wall," said Vigneault. "They came out with many more pucks than we did and they were able to counter quickly. They were the better team tonight."

But even though Vancouver was forced to use some of their young defenders in unfamiliar situations against some very talented Anaheim forwards, with an adjustment here and there and some more disciplined play, the Canucks can definitely hang with the Ducks.

"They've got speedy forwards and guys that can handle the puck," said Markus Naslund. "But I think if we play our game and we play it the correct way, I think we can beat them."

It'll take a bit more bite, but with some help on the back-end, the Canucks are capable.
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