While it wasn't very pretty, and the Referees were far too prominent on the night for both team's liking, the Canucks continued to do what they did in the final two games of the regular season … play a very solid team-game and get the job done.
GM Place was jacked for this one as the expectations are as high as they have ever been in this city, and some may have liked to see a little more flow to the game for entertainment value, but playoff hockey is always entertaining because every little thing matters that much more, and bottom-line is when your team wins in the post-season it's all good.
This is a marathon, but it isn't an 82-gamer … 16 wins is the goal, and they got the first one Wednesday night in a 2-1 hard-fought battle with the Blues.
After five consecutive sloppy defensive games was capped off with Roberto Luongo's out-of-this-world performance versus Calgary last week, the team rededicated themselves to what had made them successful in the past: solid 5-man team play. They knew they had no choice if they wanted to be playing into May & June, and this game was just more of what they showed as the season ended and they claimed the North West Division.
Admittedly, a little shaky to start as many home teams are in Game #1, they were unable to make much happen as passes were off and some poor decisions were made, but they consistently didn't try to do too much and instead stayed with it as they have shown for most of this year. This is a group that is resilient and has a very strong belief that if they play within the system they can come out ahead when all is said and done.
Of course a lot of that confidence stems from the fact that the guy who wears #1 on his back is there to back them up, and it was extremely obvious from the initial drop of the puck that their best player was more than ready to go.
“There is only one thing that matters to me and that’s winning the Cup. That’s all I care about.”
Those were Luongo's words after Tuesday's practice, and anyone who follows this team knows he means it. Before last night his post-season record was 5-7, but that comes no where close to telling the story how he has performed when the real season gets underway.
Those 12 games were with a team that was no where near as good as this one is; a team that had a dysfunctional Leadership group that couldn't, or wouldn't, do what was needed to be done and most definitely couldn't score enough goals to help out their goaltender.
That 5-7 career record is now 6-7 in the playoffs and his .962 Save % and 1.00 GAA last night only improved the .942 and 1.77 stats he had generated in those previous dozen games from two years ago … if you lose 7 of 12 and have stats like that, you're good, to say the least.
He finished the year with two straight shutouts after stoning the Flames and in Game #1 versus St Louis it was nothing but the same-old, same-old for the Canucks' Captain. He wasn't overly tested as the Boys did a fairly good job keeping the speedy and tough Blues to the outside, but there is little doubt that he was “on his game” and made things look easy with his excellent vision, positioning and aggressive play in challenging the shooters.
He made two great saves off of Andy McDonald and David Backes on an extended 5-on-3 in the first, and the one that got by him late in the second by Brad Boyes was very close to being the save of the year as he just missed batting it out of the air with his stick with one of his classic desperation-never-give-up-on-anything dives back across the crease.
As the title of this Blog said, I thought this was a Team-Win and while Bobby Lou was clearly the anchor for them in this opening win, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a name of any skater wearing blue who didn't contribute in some way … other than Mats Sundin who was terrible, and that's all I'm gonna say on that as long as they keep winning hockey games (in spite of him?).
Ryan Kesler, who you just know was made for the post-season, was outstanding in just his 2nd career playoff game. During the 1:42 Blues' two-man advantage he blocked 3 shots (playing all but 3 seconds of that 1:42 along with Alex Burrows and Willie Mitchell) before goading Keith Tkachuk into taking a penalty of his own. He had 6 of the team's 25 hits on the night with 3 shots, and of his just under 22 minutes of ice-time, 5:33 of that was on the PK which held the much vaunted Blues' Power play to a pedestrian 1-for7 on the night.
The Sedins were both strong on the puck and committed to not backing down from anything and played huge roles in both Canuck goals and generated numerous chances on the night with Triplet Alex Burrows, who started a little slow in this one but got infinitely better as the game wore on.
Kyle Wellwood and Mason Raymond were playing their first playoff games, and other than Wellwood having to tell Raymond which way to face when he stood up during the National Anthems (just a little bit o' pre-game jitters there Mason?) combined with a very confident-looking Steve Bernier to clearly win the battle against the highly touted Kid-Line of the Blues.
Pavol Demitra was also pretty darn good putting his obvious skillz to good use while showing that he came to play at both ends of the ice and looked energized throughout. If Demitra can play that way every night he and Kesler can make up for whatever it is that is playing between them.
On the back-end they were good but not great … Mitchell and Salo did their usual shut-down thing playing key minutes and Alex Edler looked very good to me, especially up ice.
When the Refs decided they had had enough air-time and let the teams play 5-on-5 in the final frame the Canucks took over the game completely, out-shooting the Blues 14-2 in the first 15 minutes or so, and 15-6 in the period. The Canucks are now 30-0-3 when leading after two on the year and the win puts them 14-1-1 in their last 16 games on home-ice.
Coming in St Louis had the edge in Special Team's being 8th in PP and 3rd in PK while Vancouver finished the year in the middle of the pack. However, that is a tad misleading as during the final 2 months of the year the Canucks had the 8th best power play and 3rd best PK (now 35 kills for their last 38) which helped carry them to that league-best 23-7-2 since the start of February.
Some reading all of this may think this Blogger is nothing but a huge homer making it sound like there was only one team on the ice, and to you I say, so be it. I gave tons of props to the Blues in my Series Preview Blog and them winning this series wouldn't even be a huge shock to me … they are a team that I really like that will keep this series very close the whole way regardless of how many games the eventual winner takes to get it done.
Much like the Canucks' 5-game loss to the Ducks in the 2nd round two years ago, the final score in games won won't tell the whole story. The Blues know they have nothing to be scared of against the Canucks as the chances of being totally dominated are slim to nil, even if the Canucks were to do the unimaginable and sweep this opening round series.
Every game will be like last night's, a grind to the end with hard-fought battles all over the ice, but I just think that the Canucks have such a strong belief in their Team-Game and have shown tremendous character, in what can only be described as a roller coaster of a season, that they will prevail in the end.
The Blues time will come as their young and very talented group of players grow together and learn how to win, but they are facing a very good TEAM in this series and last night was just an example of that … I fully expect the Blues to be better in Game #2, but so will the Canucks and all that will do is make it a much better game for all of us to watch.
The Grades …
A … Luongo, K
B … Mitchell, Salo, Edler, Henrik, Daniel, Demitra, Bernier, Johnson
C+ … Bieksa, Burrows, Wellwood, Raymond, Rypien
C … Ohlund, O'Brien, Hordichuk
C- … Sundin
About the Author
Written by Mark Gage