Breaking down the first round match up between the Canucks and Blues the stats told us that of all the categories, it was Specialty Teams where St Louis had a distinct advantage as they had the 8th best Power Play and 3rd best Penalty Killing units in the league while Vancouver plodded along at 16th with a man up and a man down.
As you've heard in this space numerous times, stats can be very deceiving and these ones are no different as the Canucks, over the last 32 games of the year that saw them go 23-7-2 for the NHL's best record since the calendar turned to the month of February, had the league's 8th best PP and 3rd best PK … ironically, the exact numbers the Blues had for all 82 games.
Apparently, what matters most is what's happening as you enter the post-season and the Canucks special teams both climbed from the mid 20's as the season wound down, and through 3 games so far, that has proven to be true.
Last night in St Louis the Canucks scored all their goals with the man advantage while blanking the Blues on all six of their opportunities, including 2 lengthy 5-on-3's. For the series the Blues are 1-for-17 while the Canucks have gotten 4 goals in 15 tries.
Officially the Canucks were 3-for-5 yesterday, but that includes a 6-second one to end the game after David Backes decided to cross-check Henrik Sedin in the head after losing the puck in the dying seconds.
All of that is pretty impressive on its own, however when you break it down it gets even better from the Canucks' perspective.
The Blues came out flying in the first pounding the Canucks every chance they got and forcing the play with a determined forecheck that resulted in over 6 1/2 minutes of Powerplay time in the first, yet they managed only 3 shots with the extra skater(s).
They had a 2-man advantage for 1:26 when the Canucks' best PK Dman took a double minor for high sticking. Willie Mitchell again put his team 2-men down in the 3rd following Ryan Kesler to the box, their best PK forward, and once again the visitors held the home-side to basically nada.
Mitchell, who usually plays the entire PK when the Canucks are down by 2 guys had a great view of it all from the sin bin, and his role was put on Mattias Ohlund's shoulders and he, along with some great efforts from various forwards, filled in tremendously.
Willie apparently was impressed:
“We have a lot of guys who are passionate and knew how important this game was. Those two 5-on-3 kills were our success tonight in a nutshell; we found a way to scratch and claw and get it done. We’ve got a lot of character and got a lot of guys who care about our team and feel good about our team. We’re doing what it takes to win. Mason Raymond — how many times did he get in front of a shot tonight? Steve Bernier’s been terrific. Ryan Johnson, terrific. Guys are elevating their games at important times. I had a front-row seat.”
After the first period the Blues had the lead by one, but you just knew that their failure to capitalize on all their opportunities would come back to haunt them as the Canucks have repeatedly shown patience all season in sticking with their game and would feel very good about themselves escaping only down 1-0 in a hostile environment.
After the game, Ryan Johnson who was absolutely phenomenal against his former team in his former rink, said that in the first intermission they felt like they were up by 3 goals as the success on the PK had put some “jump in our stride and we knew they had already thrown everything they had at us.”
Sure enough, the Canucks came out dominating the early going of the second period and drew some penalties and scored two quick Powerplay goals to take the lead. The Blues fought back late in the middle frame and tied it on a great pass from David Perron to Andy McDonald in the slot, but less than two minutes into the third Steve Bernier put the Canucks ahead for good with the 3rd Vancouver Powerplay marker of the game.
St Louis has now had three long 2-man advantages in the series including the 1:42 they had in the first period of Game #1, and in the words of their own coach Andy Murray, have had no more than “4 or 5 chances.”
It is clear that the Blues' best players, with the noted exception of McDonald who is playing fantastic hockey on every shift, are feeling the heat. Their inexperience in the playoffs is leading to nervousness and indecision, and as every Powerplay slips by the wayside their young stars are squeezing their sticks more and more.
Conversely, one of the pre-series advantages Canucks had was experience, and that is coming through in spades on the PK … the 16-of-17 in the first 3 games (94.1%) leaves them with a success rate of 45 of their last 48 kills going back to the regular season (93.8%).
Another advantage coming into this series for the Canucks was on the Blueline, with overall skill, depth and most importantly, health. Sami Salo has been very good at both ends of the ice and his 2 points last night give him 4 in the series, and overall, the Canuck Dmen have 8 points in 3 games while the Blues have a big fat zero's worth of offensive production from the back-end.
I can't remember the stats for the Canucks when they get points from the defense, but I know the wins far outweigh the losses, and the guys back there have produced in every game so far and the Canucks are now only one game away from a sweep.
What makes this edition of Team Canuck so good is that they are a complete team with all the ingredients that has very good depth providing excellent balance at all positions, and again that, along with a strong belief in themselves and their system, seemed to be the difference on Sunday.
Just like the 3-0 win in Game #2, you would have a tough task picking anyone out of the guys who dressed last night that didn't contribute in one way or another. Maybe Jannik Hansen who was playing his first game in forever subbing in for the injured Mats Sundin, but that's basically it, and the fact that they didn't miss a beat having to move Kesler to centre to replace Sundin only proves how deep they are.
Alex Edler had a rough start to the game getting caught flat-footed at his own Blueline which resulted in a good scoring chance just 8 seconds into the game and on his second shift was the culprit behind the net (at the end of a long shift) that led to the Blues getting the first goal, but even he recovered very well leading all Canucks in ice-time (23:28).
Shane O'Brien played less than 11 minutes on the night but they were all very good ones as he had an outstanding game in all three zones of the ice, and has been good in all 3 games. I really like what he brings to this team and think he has a lot of potential to be a very good player for a long time and would be very surprised if he is not resigned this summer.
The 3rd line of Kyle Wellwood, Mason Raymond and Steve Bernier had another excellent game and has probably been the biggest difference in these teams so far. Bernier probably had his best game as a Canuck last night, while Wellwood and Raymond continue to show they are able to step up their games in this, their first chance of playing in the playoffs.
Combined, the trio now has 2 points so they're not dominating on the scoreboard, but it's not for a lack of effort as they have basically controlled the play in 90% of their shifts so far and that takes a lot of pressure off of the top 2 lines as they don't have to create all the momentum every time they hit the ice.
The Canucks are rolling 4 lines and they are all contributing.
Johnson is proving why Mike Gillis gave him a 3-year contract in the off-season as he has been very good in all 3 games and was 11-3 in the faceoff circle last night with 5:38 of ice-time killing penalties and was a key figure on both of the Blues' 5-on-3's.
Rick Rypien is showing he
is far more than just a good energy guy who can fight as he got more than few shifts with Kesler and Pavol Demitra last night and certainly held his own.
The Sedins have a combined 9 points in the series and Daniel's goal last night gives him 19 points in his last 14 games while brother Henrik's assist puts his totals at 19 in his last 13. They are leading the team offensively when it matters and they are doing it without being afraid to get their noses dirty in the tough areas of the ice.
Last night Daniel was especially very good, in a gritty way.
In the first while playing 4-on-4 he stole the puck from behind Barret Jackman with a quick burst of speed and some even quicker stick-work that led to some sustained pressure in the Blues' zone. In the second he did the same behind the net with a solid forecheck before feeding Henrik for a golden opportunity in front with a great pass. On his next shift he scored the go-ahead goal lunging for the puck in the crease with a man all over him and in third he made a very nice hit along the boards to get the puck out while killing a penalty.
No matter where you look in the Canucks' roster you find players who are stepping up and contributing, and I haven't even brought up the name Luongo and his 1.00 GAA and .963 Save % until now.
Game #4 is always the hardest to win so this series isn't over yet, but there is a special feeling about this team and a very solid Leadership Group in place, so when you look at them from any angle you have to like what you see and their chances for a long run this spring.
The Grades …
A … Luongo, Ohlund, O'Brien, Daniel, Bernier, Johnson
B … Salo, Kesler, Henrik, Burrows, Raymond
C+ … Mitchell, Bieksa, Edler, Demitra, Wellwood, Rypien, Hordichuk
C … Hansen
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Written by Mark Gage