In control of their own destiny, the Dallas Stars failed to take advantage of their last opportunity to sneak into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and eliminate the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. As a result the Chicago Blackhawks have survived to defend their title, beginning their title-defence against bitter playoff rivals, the Vancouver Canucks.
The Canucks may have dominated the league during the regular season, however the league leaders will be forced to face their playoff demons head on, playing the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round after two season-ending series’ against the defending Cup champs.
So the question remains, do the Canucks have anything to fear in the first round versus the Blackhawks following a dominating adversity-filled season?
“This year we’ve got a totally different team, and we felt as players that we have a better team. That’s a different mindset this year,” said Henrik Sedin during a conference call with NHL Media last week.
The Canucks captain has all the reason in the world to be confident in his team heading into this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Canucks lead the league for the majority of the regular season, raising their game to win the Presidents’ Trophy and finish first in a number of major statistical categories.
The Canucks finished the regular season first overall with the most points, the best team plus/minus, the most goals for, the least goals against, the league’s best power play and second best penalty kill. What remains especially impressive is that they accomplished all that despite losing several key players due to injury for stretches throughout the season, especially on the blueline.
Heading into the playoffs the Canucks will be healthy enough to ice a complete blueline for the first time all season long. Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler, Christian Ehrhoff, Keith Ballard, and Sami Salo are scheduled to begin the playoffs together as a six-man unit, representing possibly the deepest blueline in the NHL.
While the loss of Manny Malhotra for the remainder of the season has forced the team to rely on its’ organizational depth at forward, the team has survived the regular season grind to come together for a potentially lengthy playoff push.
Matched up with their playoff rivals, the Canucks will waste no time answering the call of critics who have questioned the team’s ability to perform in the playoffs. Like the previous two seasons, the team will have to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks in order to win the Cup.
“Playing in this market, it’s not different this year than it has been in the past. Media-wise I don’t think it’s going to be,” said Sedin. “The only difference in the dressing room is that we have a better team from top to bottom.”
With Henrik Sedin taking care of the captaincy duties this season Roberto Luongo will be ready to focus specifically on shutting down the Blackhawks dangerous forwards rather than pondering the duties of a team captain, especially one facing the team that has knocked his team out of the playoffs two years running. Free of distractions outside of the crease, Luongo should be a more focussed and confident goaltender than in the past heading into this year’s playoff series with the ‘Hawks.
Luongo will also be free of a one particularly pesky distraction inside his goal crease this playoffs. After a massively successful Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, the Chicago Blackhawks were forced to trade away net presence Dustin Byfuglien last summer. Luongo’s playoff nemesis is safely stowed away on the playoff-shy confines of the Atlanta Thrashers roster.
Unlike seasons in the past, in the unlikely event that Luongo severely struggles to stop Mullet man Patrick Kane and the rest of the Blackhawks offence, backup Cory Schneider could be confidently called in to calm any potential storm in the Vancouver crease.
While any team would be sure to threaten the Canucks crease at times during a playoff series, Ryan Johnson isn’t alone in his belief that given the choice, the Canucks wouldn’t be facing the Blackhawks in round one. “I’m sure they were sitting there hoping there wasn’t a plane leaving Chicago today for Vancouver, I can tell you that much,” Johnson said Monday on ESPN 1000.
After former Canucks Shane O’Brien and Kyle Wellwood both voiced their lack of faith in their former team’s playoff hopes, it isn’t surprising to see another former Orca further stir the playoff pot. However will offering the opposition bulletin board material come back to haunt another ex Canuck, this time while on the opposing team?
Kevin Bieksa’s words to Ben Kuzma Monday didn’t seem to buy into Johnson’s comments or any other psychological advantage the ‘Hawks might have.
“We really don’t want to tip-toe around anybody and what better way to start than with the defending champs.”
Filed Under: Vancouver Canucks
About the Author: Kevin Vanstone is a long time sports fan and Canucks die hard from White Rock, British Columbia. He is currently attending the University of Victoria pursuing a Writing degree, and in his spare time writes about all things Canucks hockey as well as news and notes from around the NHL.