While most of the attention surrounding the Vancouver Canucks 2-0 series lead has been focused on the Sedin Twins and Ryan Kesler, there is another reason that Vancouver is halfway to returning to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1994: team depth.
Specifically, the Canucks are getting much more production from their defense and their third line of forwards than the Sharks are and as a result, have been able to head to San Jose in control of the series.
The numbers don’t lie. In the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, Canucks defensemen have three goals, 10 points and are a combined plus-eight. Meanwhile, San Jose’s six blueliners have yet to score a goal, have four assists and are a combined minus-six.
The most visible member of the Vancouver defense in Game 2 was Kevin Bieksa, who picked up a “Gordie Howe hat trick” with a goal, an assist and a fight in his club’s 7-3 victory. Bieksa also leads all Canucks defensemen with 10 hits in the series.
“Offense from our defense has been a big part of our team’s success all year,” Bieksa explained. “The three of us [Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Christian Erhoff] can jump up at any time. We have six guys that can do it pretty regularly. When you have six guys who are mobile and can skate…I think that’s dangerous for another team to defend…It’s just a matter of reading when the right time is. Last game, how the puck was chipped, it was a pretty easy read.”
Hamhuis, who leads all Vancouver defensemen with three assists and three blocked shots in the series with the Sharks was quick to credit his teammates when asked about the success of his fellow blueliners. “We’ve got a great group of forwards and they create a lot of chances themselves and make it tough for the other team,” Hamhuis said after Game 2. “I think they take a lot of the other team’s focus. If we [the defensemen] can get open, if we can see a chance, our forwards are able to find us and it just creates another weapon out there.”
“Teams play so well defensively in the playoffs,” Hamhuis added. “It makes it hard for our forwards. If we can create an extra option out there for them like Kevin did in the last game, it sometimes can create good offense.”
It hasn’t just been Bieksa and Hamhuis who have been successful for the Canucks. Five of the six defensemen have scored at least a point in the first two games of the series and five of them are on the plus side of the plus-minus rankings (with one player being even).
Depth has also been a key to the Canucks edge up front. While both the Sharks and Vancouver have two excellent scoring lines, the Canucks third line of Maxim Lapierre, Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen has scored a goal in both games while adding three assists. The Sharks third line of Kyle Wellwood, Joe Pavelski and Torrey Mitchell has yet to score and has just one assist in two games against Vancouver. Their combined plus-minus is a minus-four.
Both of the first two games were close entering the third period. The Sharks led 2-1 after 40 minutes in Game 1 while the Canucks held a 3-2 lead after two periods of Game 2. In the third period, Vancouver is outscoring San Jose 6-1 thus far in the series. That is where a team’s depth becomes most evident.
So while the Sedin twins, Roberto Luongo and Ryan Kesler may get most of the attention, there are more subtle reasons why the Canucks won the first two games. Unless the Sharks can match the output of the Vancouver’s depth players, they will have a hard time getting back into the series.