Almost a be careful what you wish for thing if anyone thought getting the St Louis Blues as Vancouver's 1st round opponent was better than a lot of the alternatives. If playing well going in is as important as a lot of pundits seem to think, then the Canucks will definitely have their hands full.
Of course, the only team hotter than the Blues since the All Star break is the Canucks, and when you break things down both personnel-wise and statistically, there's a lot of evidence to support a toss-up that should go a minimum of 6 games.
The Blues have a lot of great young talent and have survived an injury-riddled season to climb from 15th to 6th in the West. Every game for the last 2 1/2 months has been like a playoff game for them so even though they may have a fair amount of post-season inexperience in their line up, those kids do know what it's like to play in games that are do-or-die.
Andy Murray has done a fantastic coaching job this year guiding the Blues to a best-in-the-league second half record of 25-9-7. The best decision was sending Manny Legace to the minors and handing the job to Chris Mason who had been picked up in the off-season from Nashville for a 4th round pick.
While I'd still give the goaltending edge to Roberto Luongo, a very compelling argument can be made that it is a minimal one at best. Since Jan 19th, Mason is 24-8-6 with a GAA of 2.08 and a Save % of .924, and finished off the year very strong going 8-1-1 with a GAA of 2.10 and a Save % of .923 with 2 shutouts.
Luongo was 33-13-7 with a GAA of 2.34 and Save % of .920 and 9 shutouts, ending the year with two straight gooseggs, and 3 in his last 10, going 6-3-1 with a GAA of 2.10 and a Save % .929.
Ironically, or maybe fittingly, Luongo and Mason were just named the First and Second Stars Of The Week respectively by the NHL, so this series could simply come down to a duel of who plays better between the pipes.
Up front, again, there's a bit of a saw-off between the teams as both can boast 4 lines and a forward group that they have confidence in that contains a good mix of offensive talent, speed, size and the pre-requisite “sand-paper” style players sprinkled in that become that much more important once the playoffs get under way.
The Canucks have the edge in goals for and are a long ways ahead in 5-on-5 efficiency while the Blues have a better powerplay, although the Canucks have been looking much improved of late with the man advantage.
Defensively, again the Canucks are statistically better, but Legace was pretty much brutal in the first half of the year and Andy Murray always has a team that is defensively responsible. The second half of the specialty teams goes to the Blues when you look at the numbers; however the Canucks have improved substantially on the PK recently climbing from 25th to 16th in the last month or so.
As for the Blueliners, this is probably the only area the Canucks can claim a clear advantage in with a very deep 1 thru 8 while the Blues have had season-ending injuries to Jack Johnson and Eric Brewer. Having said that, they have more than held their own and are not to be under-estimated.
The home and away records go slightly in the Canucks favour with Vancouver having a little better road record at 21-15-5 versus the Blues coming in at 18-18-5. Playing at home, again, two very similar teams as the Canucks were 24-12-5 while St Louis was 23-13-5.
Behind the bench it's another tough one to pick as both Murray and Alain Vigneault have only one post-season series win on their resumes, and both have been known to be line-matching fanatics. However, I'll show some bias here (even though I'd give the Coach Of The Year to Murray) giving a slight edge to AV based on how he has handled this roller-coaster of a season showing strong belief in his team during the 8 game losing streak in January … I think his troops genuinely appreciated how he went about things, especially how he maintained an even keel considering many in the Media felt he was about to lose his job as every loss ticked by.
All that's left is the intangibles, a category that you can pretty much make up anything you want to suit your needs and support any case you want.
St Louis has had big and raucous crowds all year while GM Place in the Playoffs always gets ramped up huge compared to the regular season.
Both teams stood pat at the deadline when the Blues were thought to be sellers and the Canucks were thought to be buyers, and all the two teams have done since is reward management with continued strong play … clearly, both teams have confidence and believe in themselves.
As for expectations, I'd say the Canucks are facing a bigger burden in that department with pending free agents this year and next and a fan-base that is starving for playoff success, while the Blues are closer to the “just happy to be here” category, but also are in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 after making it 25 straight seasons.
The Canucks' “window” for winning is certainly closer to the down-side than the Blues, who just seem to be getting started with excellent young talent providing everything you'd need for long-term success once they grow as a group.
Pressure-wise, there's definitely more of it on the Canucks, but that can work both ways and is very hard to predict how much it can affect a team. The Canucks could either rise to the occasion or worry too much about losing and the Blues could revel in the underdog role or subconsciously think they've already accomplished more than they thought possible and not play with the urgency required over a long series.
Experience should give the edge to Vancouver in handling the expectations and that showed in how the two teams “celebrated” their final wins of the year … the Canucks were all business while the youth of the Blues was evident in the respective post-game revelations. The Canucks appear to be more of a determined team, knowing the hard work hasn't even started yet, but having said that, it all means didly squat once the puck drops tomorrow night if St Louis' younger players can handle their emotions.
As for health, the Canucks are as good as it can get with only Taylor Pyatt missing from the team while the Blues are not only missing Johnson and Brewer, but a potential game-breaker in Paul Kariya as well who played only 11 games this year before undergoing Labrum Surgery on both hips. Kariya is said to be close, however he did not make the trip to Vancouver so it seems unlikely he will make his debut until at least Game #3 in St Louis.
I think this is guaranteed to be a tough series full of close hard-fought games all the way through and I wouldn't be overly shocked if St Louis was to pull off an upset. However, the bottom-line for me is that this is the best Canucks team we have seen since 1994 and with Luongo in net, being a guy that absolutely thrives under pressure and lives and dies for success in the playoffs, I'll take my team in 6, maybe even 5 if they're really clicking on all cylinders.
Arguably the two hottest teams in the league, with the two goaltenders playing the closest to their best coming in, should make for a hell of a series and I can't wait for it get going!
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Written by Mark Gage