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Can Canucks' defense stop Hawks' offense?

by Staff /

The Vancouver Canucks taking on the Chicago Blackhawks will be all about strength vs. strength. Whichever team buckles first will likely be tasked with figuring out went wrong in two weeks' time.

For Vancouver, the Northwest Division champion, the key is defense -- specifically goalie Roberto Luongo, who allowed only six goals in a four-game sweep against St. Louis in the first round. Only three teams in the West allowed fewer goals in the regular season than the 220 Vancouver gave up, a number that is inflated by Luongo's long-term absence with a groin injury.

For Chicago, it is about offense. As soon as the Hawks got past the shock of being in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2002 -- and only the second time since 1997 -- the team's young guns set about strafing a veteran Calgary team. Chicago outscored the Flames 21-14, including a 9-2 margin in the final two games. The young trio of Kris Versteeg, a Calder Trophy candidate, Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews combined for 17 points in the six games, showing no fear of the game's biggest stage.

Now, however, it is a question of what that trio -- and the rest of the Hawks -- can do against Luongo, the best goalie in the first round, and the defensive-minded Canucks.

The Sedin twins -- Henrik and Daniel -- answered a lot of questions about their playoff pedigree with dominating performances against St. Louis in the first round. Vancouver's forwards combined to score 19 points in the series with the Sedins accounting for nine of them. Daniel, who had a team-high five points, had only 18 points in his previous 43 playoff games. Henrik had 20 points in 43 playoff games before getting four against the Blues.

Alex Burrows also was a revelation, scoring a team-best three goals, including a game-winner. His intensity level was hard for the Blues to counter. But this is a deep and diverse unit that can do many things. Ryan Kesler delivers the big checks, blocks shots and wins faceoffs. Kyle Wellwood and Ryan Johnson also are good in the faceoff circle and Johnson is an adept penalty killer.

The biggest question facing the Canucks in the second round is the health of Mats Sundin, who was limited to just two games in the first round because of a lower-body injury, plus the mindset of sniper Pavol Demitra, who has just one goal in his past 10 games, dating back to the regular season.

So who said the NHL's youngest team would be too fragile to continue its regular-season success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Not only did the Blackhawks receive goals from nine different forwards in their six-game elimination of Calgary, but they certainly gained valuable experience and confidence along the way.

Kris Versteeg leads the League in playoff scoring with seven points (2 goals). Versteeg's linemates, Dustin Byfuglien and Samuel Pahlsson have combined for two goals and seven points. Byfuglien, meanwhile, has also added some muscle with 23 hits to top all Chicago forwards.

Last season's Calder Trophy winner, Patrick Kane, is skating with Patrick Sharp and captain Jonathan Toews (2 goals, 6 points). Martin Havlat (3 goals, 6 points), Dave Bolland and Andrew Ladd (17 hits) have offered depth along the forward line, as have fourth-liners Ben Eager, Adam Burish and Troy Brouwer..

Sami Salo missed Game 4 against the Blues and has been limited in practice, but he says he will be good to go for the start of the second round. That's good news for the Canucks because Salo is one of the team's most well-rounded defenseman. He had a goal and three assists in three games against St. Louis.

But Vancouver’s defense is mostly about stopping the other team from scoring. Willie Mitchell is the primary shutdown defenseman and he plays almost 26 minutes a game. Mattias Ohlund and Kevin Bieksa, each with two-way player skills -- also see more than 24 minutes a game. Vancouver defensemen combined to block 24 shots in the first round

The defense may play second fiddle to the high-caliber offense, but there's no question it has been a tower of strength in front of veteran keeper Nikolai Khabibulin.

Take for instance Matt Walker, who dislocated a finger in Saturday's Game 5 and didn't participate in Monday's morning skate, but was in the lineup for Game 6. Walker has been complemented in these playoffs by the gifted Brian Campbell, who has a goal and four points.

Cam Barker, who has been paired with rookie Niklas Hjalmarsson, leads all defensemen on the team with six points (3 goals). The shutdown pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook (6 points) did an extraordinary job against Calgary forwards Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen, who combined for only five goals in their six-game setback.

Tale of the tape

HEIGHT: 6' 3" WEIGHT: 205
'08-09 Stats:
SV%: .920
GAA: 2.34
HEIGHT: 6' 1" WEIGHT: 209
'08-09 Stats:
SV%: .919
GAA: 2.33
Roberto Luongo was the best goalie in the first round of the playoffs. He got in St. Louis' heads early and never gave the Blues life. When it was over, Luongo had stopped 126 of 131 shots for an out-of-this-world .962 save percentage and a sterling 1.15 goals-against average. Luongo's performance is no flash in the pan, either. Last season, he had a .941 save percentage in Vancouver's 12-game run, allowing just 25 goals. He can steal a series at any time.

Nikolai Khabibulin certainly saved his best for last in Chicago’s opening-round win over Calgary, stopping 43 shots, including 17 in the opening period of Game 6. The "Bulin Wall" has won four of six games in the playoffs with a 2.39 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. He showed in the final two games that he can take a setback and come back stronger, plus he has a Stanley Cup on his resume.

Alain Vigneault has quietly done one of the best jobs behind a bench this season. He helped the Canucks get through a slump and injury concerns to pry away the Northwest Division crown, a triumph that allowed them to play St. Louis -- and not Chicago -- in the first round. In the playoffs, he has shown an understanding of what his team needs mentally, as well as an ability to exploit the weaknesses of an opponent through the deployment of his playing personnel.

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville did a fantastic job keeping his team upbeat and positive heading into Game 5 after losing Games 3 and 4 in Calgary. Quenneville, who went 45-22-11 after being named the 37th coach in Blackhawks history on Oct. 16, has a 46-47 mark in 10 career postseason appearances, reaching the second round seven times. His decision to stick with the matchup of Seabrook and Keith against Calgary's top line finally turned the tide Chicago's way in Game 5.

While Roberto Luongo was the unquestioned difference against St. Louis, nobody should forget the effort turned in by the team's penalty killers. Vancouver was shorthanded 24 times in the first-round series, yet the Blues managed just one goal. Yes, Luongo's brilliance explains somewhat the gaudy 95.8 kill percentage, but players like Mitchell, Kesler and Johnson were lions, as well. On the power play, Vancouver scored four goals in 18 tries (22.2 percent), not earth-shattering, but scary enough to keep the opposition from attempting intimidation tactics.

The Hawks are second to only the Detroit Red Wings through the opening round of the playoffs with a 29.2 power-play percentage (7-for-22) -- well above their regular-season percentage (19.3). The penalty-killing unit was also effective against Calgary with an 86.7 efficiency (4-for-30) in six games. The club's penalty-kill finished with an 80.6 percent efficiency during the regular season.

Mats Sundin, Vancouver Canucks -- Mats Sundin joined the Vancouver Canucks to be a difference-maker and finally get a shot at the Stanley Cup. The Vancouver Canucks greeted Sundin with open arms because they believed he could be that missing piece. Now, each side hopes that they are proven right. But first, Sundin must put aside the after-effects of his lower-body injury. If he can do that and become a dominant big man in the middle of the ice, the Canucks will be a tough out.

Canucks will win ifRoberto Luongo stays sharp after a long layoff. Luongo, on the top of his game, is a series changer following in the footsteps of Patrick Roy. His team knows that they don't always have to be at their best offensively to win a series. Luongo has enough of a sample size now to prove that he plays best when everything is on the Line. The confidence that gives his team is almost immeasurable.

Blackhawks will win if
… They continue to play fast and furious while exhibiting confidence at both ends. Few teams in the League can keep pace with the Hawks when they are using their fresh, young legs to fuel the transition game. Also, they must continue to apply the body with malice throughout their run. It wore out an older Calgary team and can do the same against Vancouver.

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