Now is the time for long beards and numerous overtime periods. It is the time for parties and pump-up videos and visions of that shiny silver trophy being lifted over our heads. It is the time for communities to come together, dreams to be broken and history to be made. Ladies and gentlemen, it is now time for the real hockey season to begin. Welcome to the playoffs.
“Now the fun starts. This is the exciting part of the season, something we’ve all been waiting for,” Henrik Sedin told Canucks.com. “Not only the team but I think the city, so it’s going to be fun.”
Last year, during their 40th anniversary season, the Vancouver Canucks made an unforgettable, but unsuccessful playoff run all the way to game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. This year, they once again have a chance to win hockey’s greatest prize, and after winning the President’s Trophy for the second year running, the Canucks will face off against the LA Kings in the first round.
Now California and Hollywood beckon as these two teams meet for the fifth time in the post-season. The Canucks have been fairly successful against the Kings this season, with a 2-1-1 record, despite scoring fewer goals than LA (seven goals for the Canucks versus nine goals for the Kings). Roberto Luongo was in net for each of these games, one of which was a shootout loss. As well, the majority of the goals scored by the Canucks were not put in the net by the Canucks’ top scorers. Instead, players such as Manny Malhotra, Andrew Ebbett, and Aaron Rome contributed to the score sheet.
One of the reasons why the Canucks struggled to score against the Kings is because the Kings have some of the best defending and net minding in the league. They finished the season second overall for fewest goals against with 170, and this could pose a challenge for the Canucks.
Jonathan Quick has somewhat been for the LA Kings what Miikka Kiprusoff has been for the Calgary Flames. He has been outstanding this season, leading the league in shutouts with 10. The 26-year old has played an incredible 69 games this season, not receiving as much rest as Luongo or Cory Schneider. Despite that, he has posted the best statistics of his NHL career so far.
The other factor posing a threat to the Canucks in the Kings’ end is their defencemen. The Kings have ex-Canuck Willie Mitchell as well as Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov and Rob Scuderi. The Canucks are almost in the same position they were in against the Nashville Predators last year in the second round. Nashville was known for their solid defence and good goaltending and the Canucks were supposed to struggle with their defensive play. It definitely looked like they were for the first few games, until they figured out how to get past Pekka Rinne and went on to win the series in six games.
When the Canucks played the Kings in round one of the 2010 playoffs they beat them in six games as well. The Kings held a 2-1 series lead until the Sedins, along with Mikael Samuelsson, changed the way the table titled. But right now the status of Daniel Sedin is a mystery and Samuelsson is no longer a Canuck, having been sent to Florida in the trade to get David Booth.
So how can the Canucks succeed against a team with such tight and consistent defence? Most importantly, they need their top scorers and offence to show up. After coming off a 41-goal season and undergoing shoulder surgery, Ryan Kesler has scored 22 goals this season, and has been inconsistent and often invisible. Kesler led the Canucks out of the Nashville series in 2011, and he needs to return as the superhero he was then.
Playing on the same line as Kesler, David Booth will be making his NHL playoff debut. He will hopefully put his offensive abilities and speed to use, and prove that he really did deserve to win the Canucks’ “Most Exciting Player” award.
Then there are the Sedins. Nobody knows whether Daniel, who leads the Canucks in points against LA this season, will return in time for the first round to start. He has not skated or played since March 21st. However, the Canucks went on a seven game winning streak right after his injury and Henrik has been able to produce points while playing with Alex Burrows, Maxim Lapierre and Andrew Ebbett. Whatever happens with the stars of the team, the Canucks need each and every forward, either on the first line or the fourth line, to show up and produce something, and they have shown that they are capable of this through that seven game winning streak.
“They are similar to the Sharks to be quite honest,” Kings’ head coach Darryl Sutter told CBC. “They have really good offenses, really good powerplays. We’ll have our hands full.”
Now for the other end of the spectrum – the Canucks’ defence. The Kings have many good players who have the ability to score, such as Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar. However, they have not showed up much this year, ranking 29th in the league in goals for with 188, compared to the Canucks’ fifth place 241 goals.
The Canucks should not be concerned about goaltending. Luongo is ready to play, and if something happens, Schneider is prepared and more than capable of stepping in. With one of the best goaltending tandems in the league, the Canucks should focus more on their defenders.
It is unlikely that Keith Ballard will return in time for the playoffs, but the team has found a strong and steady defenceman in Chris Tanev, who will play in his second NHL post-season. Alex Edler, who ended off the season with a very strong game against Edmonton on Saturday and experienced his first ever NHL All-Star weekend this season, is more than capable to perform. Dan Hamhuis, though quiet at times, has proved his defensive capabilities, and inconsistent Kevin Bieksa always seems to show up and find the stanchion at the right times. The other two defencemen the Canucks have ready to play are veteran Sami Salo and Aaron Rome. Of course, Andrew Alberts is still there if needed as well.
The Canucks’ defence has struggled at times. They have made simple, positional mistakes, and have surrendered too many odd-man rushes. But at the same time, the city of Vancouver has seen these players do so much more. Bieksa and Hamhuis were one of the league’s top shut-down defence pairings last season, so what happened?
“There’s been times throughout the season when we haven’t been there mentally,” Henrik told the Vancouver Sun. “And it’s tough to win games that way.”
Both LA and Vancouver have their strengths and weaknesses, and the Kings could prove to be a big threat for the Canucks, but this team has all the skill needed to win; they just need to prove it and execute it.
Samuel Pahlsson summed up what this series could look like nicely for Canucks.com: “They’ve played a defensive game all year but they’ve struggled a bit offensively. Will it be a low scoring series? That’s possible. We’ll see what happens. Whatever it takes as long as we get more goals than them.”
So hold on to your hats and prepare for a storm. The LA Kings are coming to town on Wednesday, and this series could be a rough one – but do not press the panic button yet.