Talk about your comeback kids. During January, the Vancouver Canucks went winless in eight-straight games, not exactly building confidence in the fans. But over the remainder of the regular season, Vancouver lost just seven games in regulation time to not only clinch a playoff spot, but win the Northwest Division title.
Through a series of debilitating injuries and growing pains with a young lineup, the St. Louis Blues weren’t even in the playoff discussion for much of the season. But the Blues gathered steam as the season progressed, got healthy, got some confidence in those kids and battered their way not only into the postseason, but into the sixth seed in the West and a meeting with the Canucks. The Blues won 13 games between March and the end of the season to finish 41-31-10 and leave four teams that had been in playoff position – Minnesota, Nashville, Edmonton and Dallas – on the outside looking in.
The dynamic Sedin twins -- Daniel and Henrik -- are the nucleus of the offense. One of the twins led all Vancouver forwards in just about every major offensive category. In fact, the Sedins were the NHL's highest-scoring duo this season as the two recorded a point -- goal or assist -- on the same goal 57 times this season.
But the Canucks are more than just the Sedins. Five different players scored at least 20 goals, and up-and-comer Alex Burrows fell in just behind Daniel Sedin
's team-high 31 goals, scoring 28 of his own while playing a physical, two-way game that has won over the GM Place faithful. His emergence, plus the career offensive season of Ryan Kesler
, brought balanced scoring to the Canucks.
And, let's not forget future Hall-of-Famer Mats Sundin, who, though not setting the League on fire in his 41 games, can take over a game, or a series, with a combination of size and skill few possess.
The St. Louis Blues are extremely young up front, but they have some seasoned veterans to carry the load through the complexities of the team's first Stanley Cup Playoff run in five years.
The team is so young, in fact, that four of the club's top-six scorers are under 26. Amazingly, two of those six -- third-leading scorer David Perron (50 points) and fifth-leading scorer Patrik Berglund (47 points) -- have yet to reach their 21st birthdays.
Brad Boyes, 26, leads the team with 72 points, including a team-best 33 goals. David Backes, 24, sits No. 2 in both categories with 31 goals and 54 points.
Keith Tkachuk, who just turned 37, is No. 4 on the scoring chart and is a power-play menace, sporting 14 man-advantage goals. Andy MacDonald, 31, has 44 points in 46 games, coming on strong after missing half the season with injury.
Speaking of injuries, there is a chance the Blues will get veteran Paul Kariya back at some point in the first round. Kariya has not played since Nov. 5 and underwent a pair of hip surgeries.
Not a flashy group with household names, the Canucks' defense corps is well balanced in size and experience. Five defensemen recorded at least 20 points, and Kevin Bieksa
(11) and Alexander Edler
(10) reached double-digits in goals. Willie Mitchell, a nine-year veteran known best for keeping forwards off the score sheet, is having a surprising career-best offensive season with 3-20-23 and a sparkling plus-29 rating while averaging 22:54 of ice time per game, second only to Bieksa.
Two towering Scandinavians, Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo
, have plenty of offensive flair, but have given way in that department to the younger Bieksa and Edler. When the Canucks last participated in the postseason in 2006-07, Ohlund led the club with 28:18 per game and played in all situations.
Somehow, the Blues have held things together despite being decimated on the blue line this season. Eric Brewer was injured in season and has not played since December. Erik Johnson, meanwhile, missed the entire season with a knee injury.
Nine different defensemen have played at least 20 games for the Blues this season. Barret Jackman is the only member of the defense corps to remain healthy throughout the season, accumulating 21 points and 86 penalty minutes.
Carlo Colaiacovo is the only other defenseman to play more than 70 games and he leads the team's defensemen with 30 points.
But the Blues' six-man defense -- whoever the players are on a given night -- is not about points. In fact, the dozen defensemen that have dressed for St. Louis this season have combined for just 15 goals, and Jackman tops the pack with 4.
This group is more about being sound in its own end and getting the puck on the sticks of the talented forwards in transition.
Tale of the tape
G - VAN (#1)
HEIGHT: 6' 3" WEIGHT: 205
G - STL (#50)
height: 6' 0"
The last thing anybody worries about on this roster is the goaltending. Roberto Luongo
is one of the game's best. From 2003-04 through 2007-08, he played no less than 72 games a season. But thanks to a serious groin injury suffered in late November, Luongo was limited to 54 appearances, and the extra rest could work to his advantage.
With such a banged-up defense, St. Louis has had to count on quality goaltending as it made a mad charge up the standings and fought its way into the sixth seed in the West. Fortunately, Chris Mason delivered just that after the All-Star Break.
Mason is one of the best stories entering the postseason. He started the season just 3-13-1, but has been among the League's best goalies since Jan. 19, going 17-6-3 and earning five of the six shutouts he recorded this season during that span. Overall, he is 27-21-7 with a .916 save percentage and a 2.41 goals-against average.
Alain Vigneault, the 2006-07 Jack Adams Award winner as NHL Coach of the Year, has one of the best winning percentages in franchise history and two Northwest Division titles in three seasons behind the Vancouver bench. Including his previous coaching experience with the Montreal Canadiens, Vigneault is 9-13 all-time in the postseason, and 5-7 with Vancouver.
Andy Murray has been nothing short of a miracle worker in St. Louis. He joined the team early in the 2006-07 season and the Blues have improved each season since. Now, in his third season, they are in the playoffs. This is the first time Murray has been to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since he willed the Los Angeles Kings to the postseason in 2002. He missed the playoffs in his final three seasons with the Kings.
Murray has the Blues believing in his team-defense system and has convinced a bunch of youngsters that they are ready to win now.
The Canucks have not done anything special in special-teams situations, falling right into the middle of the pack. Their power play sputtered along at an 18.8 success rate. Kyle Wellwood and Ryan Kesler
each scored a team-high 10 of Vancouver's 67 power-play goals, and the unit allowed five shorthanded goals. The penalty killers were a pedestrian 80.6 percent successful.
St. Louis' combination of young skilled players and cagey veteran forwards, combined with Murray's system, makes the Blues one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament when it comes to special-teams' situations.
The power play, keyed by Backes and Tkachuk, is in the Top 10, with a 20.5 percent conversion rate. The penalty kill, meanwhile, is ranked third, killing 83.8 percent of all man-advantage situations. Specialists Jay McClement and Dan Hinote handle much of the kill up front, with Jackman and Jay McKee on the back end.
Both the PP and PK are better at home, as well. Plus, the Blues have 10 shorthanded goals this season. Mats Sundin, Canucks
-- Does the big guy have it in him to be the dominant player in this series? Though he didn't receive rave reviews for his 41-game regular season, 28 points for a 38-year-old isn't all that bad. Sundin could turn it up a notch in the playoffs where there aren't too many, if any, back-to-back games. He last played in a postseason game in 2004 with the Maple Leafs. Canucks will win if: Roberto Luongo
plays like he did in his first postseason appearance two years ago. At times during that 2007 run, Luongo seemed unbeatable -- just ask the Dallas Stars. In a dozen games, Luongo fashioned a 1.77 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage; yet he won only five games. Now, the Canucks have more firepower up front, so a red-hot Luongo has the chance to go even deeper into the playoffs.
Blues will win if:
It can maintain their superiority in special-teams' situations. There are few teams that possess either the penalty kill or the power play to run with the Blues when this team is clicking on all cylinders. In close games, special teams often spell the difference and the Blues will need to be markedly better in that area to overcome the superior skill level of its opponent.