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Royal Blueline

by Kyle Harland / Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks may have squandered an opportunity to grab first place in the Northwest Division after a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild Friday night, but they have to be happy with the performance of their blueliners.

The core four of Willie Mitchell, Sami Salo, Alexander Edler, and Kevin Bieksa put up the same type of effort as last year’s defense squadron that gave the Canucks their identity – an identity that was largely responsible for a second round playoff push that few people saw coming.

“It was a defensive battle,” said Trevor Linden. “From our standpoint, we did a lot of good things. We executed the type of game we wanted to execute.”

They played the right game plan, but the Canucks still let in two goals. That being said, it’s hard to say how deserving the Wild were of those markers, the first one in particular. That came off of a Brian Rolston slapper that was sailing five feet wide, but deflected off of Willie Mitchell and past Roberto Luongo.

The Wild's second goal came in the third period after Pavol Demitra intercepted a neutral zone pass and set up Branko Radivojevic for the conversion.

“They got really lucky on the first goal and really that was the difference in the game right there,” said Roberto Luongo, who had no chance after the puck caromed off of Mitchell. The Canuck tender said that sort of goal is all you need in tight Northwest Division games. “You get a lucky break that could be the difference.”

Mitchell can hardly be blamed for the bad bounce. And even if he could, he made up for it in the rest of the game. He logged 30:46 of ice time, the most amount of time he’s played in a single regular season game over the last two years, exemplifying the leading role he plays on the team’s backend.

As usual, he made a number of strong plays, including breaking up a rush with the two most dangerous Wild players, Demitra and Marian Gaborik. As Demitra cut wide on the rush, Gaborik got open on the other side of the net. Demitra threw Gaborik a pass that would have been a tap-in, but Mitchell laid himself out on the ice to intercept the pass and prevent the goal.

He was also a force on the penalty kill, playing 8:03 of the Wild’s 9:10 spent with the man advantage. And, by the way, if you were wondering whether that full face-shield was bothering him, it’s probably pretty safe to conclude with a solid “no.”

Altogether, the Canucks defense allowed just 21 shots. Only seven other times this season have they shut down their opponent to 20 or fewer shots.

“We only gave them five shots in the second and five shots in the third, and they’ve got some offensive potential on that team,” said an impressed Alain Vigneault. “I might say we played better tonight than we did last night.” In that game, the Canucks won 4-1 against the Edmonton Oilers.

At the other end of the rink, the Canucks only goal came from a defenseman, Sami Salo. He notched his sixth goal of the season on the power play to cut the Wild lead in half to 2-1.

The rest of the Canucks defenders contributed offensively as well, as nearly half of the Canucks’ shots – 15 of 31 – came from their blueliners.

Of course, in the end, the Canucks missed out on a valuable two points.

“We seemed to do the right things, we just didn’t get the job done,” said Trevor Linden. But the loss came courtesy of a bad bounce, some odd penalties, a hot goalie at the other end of the rink, and probably some unhelpful astronomical alignment.

It’s unlikely for those forces to converge often, and when the Canucks defense performs as they did against the Wild Friday night, there aren’t many games they’ll lose.


1 – regulation loss (Friday night’s to Minnesota) in the last ten games at home

70 – points on the season for Henrik Sedin

30:46 – ice time for Willie Mitchell, leading all skaters

8:03 – time played by Mitchell against Minnesota’s power play

9:10 – time spent on the power play by Minnesota

The Canucks’ offense was deserving of more than one goal with 31 shots. But the combination of a hot Niklas Backstrom and not quite the perfect offensive finishing touch left them with a single goal.

A solid defensive performance kept the Wild shots to 21, but the effort was marred by a third period giveaway in the neutral zone that led to the game winner by Branko Radivojevic.

The Canucks took too many penalties for the second night in a row. The difference on Thursday night against Edmonton is that they were still able to win.

The Wild scored the all-important first goal on the power play, albeit on an unlucky bounce off of Willie Mitchell. They finished 1-for-6. The Canucks were able to pull within one goal with Salo’s blast on the power play, going 1-for-4, but it was too little, too late.
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