Alex Burrows may have shot the final arrow into the heart of the St. Louis Blues
in the opening round of the NHL playoffs, but Willie Mitchell
was a big reason the Vancouver Canucks
are enjoying a well-earned week of rest.
With less than 30 seconds to play in the first overtime of Game 4, Mitchell slapped a Blues pass intended for Jay McClement out of the Vancouver end and down the ice.
Burrows read the play and raced into the St. Louis zone. He beat defenseman Barret Jackman to the loose puck, then snapped a shot through the legs of Chris Mason from the lower right circle to give Vancouver a 3-2 victory and a series sweep.
Burrows was the hero after scoring his second goal of the game. Mitchell's game-winning assist flew under the radar, the same way the offensive contribution from Vancouver's defense did all season.
The Canucks won 45 games in capturing their second Northwest Division title in three seasons, and in all but two of those victories a Vancouver blueliner picked up at least one point.
That productivity continued against the Blues as the defense chipped in with a pair of goals and nine assists -- 36 percent of Vancouver’s offense.
“The games are so tight that we need our Ds and we mentioned that before the start of the last series,” Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said.
Vancouver’s top six defensemen all had at least one point in the series against the Blues. Sami Salo led the way with four points despite playing only three games.
That performance was a continuation of the regular-season balance on the back line. Vancouver's defense increased its offensive production by 50 points over last season, and the Canucks were one of only three teams in the NHL with five defensemen with 20 or more points.
Kevin Bieksa led the defense in scoring and was sixth on the team with a career-high 43 points, Alex Edler wasn’t far behind in seventh with a career-best 37 points, Mattias Ohlund (25), Sami Salo (25) and Mitchell (23) were the others with 20 or more points.
"There are a lot of different guys that contribute," Bieksa said. "It’s not just when one or two guys are on the ice which makes it hard for the other team to defend because we’ve got a lot of guys who can shoot the puck back there.
"There’s six of us that move and shoot the puck extremely well and when there are two guys out there every shift that can do that, it is tough to defend, especially for third and fourth line players."
The offence by committee approach isn’t new to the Canucks; scroll back over the last few years and no single defender jumps out as a threat.
Players like Ed Jovanovski, Nolan Baumgartner and Brent Sopel had their moments in the offensive spotlight, but when healthy, the likes of Ohlund, Salo and Bieksa are consistent contributors.
The Canucks got only 116 points from the back end in 2007-08. A big reason for the improved production this season has been improved health: The Canucks' top-six defensemen missed only 31 games, a far cry from the 164-man games lost last season, an NHL high.
"Staying healthy has been huge, pretty much all year we’re had our top seven defensemen healthy at any given time," Bieksa said. "It certainly helps out when you get into a groove and play with the same guy and you’re in a routine like we were."
Added Ohlund, who broke the franchise career record for scoring by a defenseman this season: "I think the fact that were healthy is the simple answer, but having said that I do think that in a lot of games we’ve found a way to have a bigger part of the offense."
The Canucks were 43-20-3 this season when a defenseman found the scoresheet and 22-7-0 when one scored a goal. They are 6-0-0 when Ohlund scores this season -- and 39-6-2-2 during the last five seasons.
"There’s six of us that move and shoot the puck extremely well and when there are two guys out there every shift that can do that, it is tough to defend, especially for third and fourth line players." -- Kevin Bieksa
"I’m just a part of a solid defense, and I do what I can to score," Ohlund said. "We have quite a few guys who can play on the power play and be a part of the offence and that’s so important, especially in the playoffs."
Vigneault couldn't agree more.
"I think that's the strong suit of our D core, that group of six is good offensively and defensively," he said. "We might not have the Niedermayers or the Prongers, but that group of six, when it's healthy, is one of the best in the league."