Vancouver Sun – April 12, 2011
Confident but not cocky, the Vancouver Canucks sounded Tuesday like a team determined to exorcise its Chicago Blackhawk playoff demons.
The Canucks hope to start the process Wednesday when they meet the Blackhawks in the opener of their best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final series at Rogers Arena.
“We’re a different team this year,” said Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “I think mentally we have our emotions in check and physically we are a much better team. We were the best team in the regular season and we have found our chemistry. We feel like if we play our best game we’re a tough team to beat.”
On paper, the Canucks should be regarded as the clear favourites to beat the Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Canucks finished 20 points clear of the eighth-place Blackhawks as they won their first Presidents’ Trophy and coasted to the finish line of the NHL’s regular season.
But the Canucks do have some unpleasant history to overcome against a Chicago team that has sent them packing the past two seasons.
Coach Alain Vigenault thinks his team has learned some valuable lessons the past couple of seasons and is now ready to flourish on the playoff stage.
“I think if you learn from the past there’s a good chance the future will be different,” he said Tuesday. “We think we have proven a lot of things during the regular season about some of the experiences that we have learned in the past and now it’s our turn to go try and prove it in the playoffs.”
While respectful of the high-end talent on the Blackhawks, the Canucks believe they match up well against Chicago. Offensively, the two teams are pretty much a wash. Both score lots of goals.
But the Canucks would appear to have an edge in several key areas. Defensively, the Canucks are as deep and talented as any team in the NHL. And for the first time all season, they are healthy on the back end and will start the playoffs with three formidable defensive pairings in Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler and Christian Ehrhoff, and Sami Salo and Keith Ballard.
In goal, Roberto Luongo is coming off a season he calls his best ever and will be facing a rookie in Corey Crawford.
The Canucks also seem to have a special teams edge. Both the Canucks (No. 1) and Chicago (No. 4) have excellent power plays, but Vancouver has a big edge when it comes to penalty-killing. The Canucks’ PK tied for second in the regular season, while the Hawks were 25th.
“We have been confident all year that no matter who we face we know we match up good against anybody in the league,” Luongo said after Tuesday’s practice. “What happened the last two years doesn’t translate to this year. I don’t think it gives them an advantage. It’s a clean sheet for both teams. We can’t be affected by what happened the last couple of years. That would only give us a crutch. We start with a fresh sheet, we’re confident in the guys that we have in this lockeroom. It’s just a matter of going out there and executing.”
The Canucks are attempting to keep things as low-key as possible as they prepare for the series. As crazy as it might sound, they are trying to treat these upcoming games like the 82 ones that preceded them.
“We are pretty composed,” said NHL scoring champion Daniel Sedin. “We talked a lot during the season about not getting too high or too low. It’s the same right now. We know we have a big game tomorrow, but it shouldn’t change the way we approach it or the way we play.”
“There is a little bit of anxiety and stuff for the first game, but it’s a good energy, I think, and we’re trying to make it seem as much like a regular game as possible,” added Bieksa. “We had a lot of success in the regular season and we want to maintain that and not build this up to be bigger than it is.”
For the most part, the Canucks have gone out of their way to sing the praises of the Blackhawks, repeatedly calling them the Stanley Cup champs.
But at least Bieksa was honest enough to say he still hates them, although the cast of characters has changed considerably since last season’s playoffs with the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Ben Eager, Adam Burish and Brent Sopel now playing elsewhere.
“When you put that jersey on instant hate comes into this dressing room,” he said. “It’s a team that we want to beat badly.”
Hate but respect. Bieska was quick to mention the considerable challenges the Hawks’ top forwards present.
“They have some of the best one-on-one forwards in the league in (Patrick) Kane and (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Sharp and (Marian) Hossa,” he said. “These are guys that are very skilled and they attack you with a lot of speed. It’s up to us to try and take away their speed in the neutral zone and not allow them to come flying in the zone and make moves on us. I know we’ve got a pretty good D corps, so there is going to be a lot of pressure on us to perform.”
There will be pressure on the whole Canuck team, pressure that comes with the expectations raised by their remarkable regular season. Their coach thinks they are ready to deal with that pressure and meet those expectations head-on.
“Obviously they have proven they can play on the big stage through the adversity, the challenges and the pressure that comes with winning four rounds to get your hands on the big prize,” Vigneault said of the Hawks. “We think we can do it and we are going to set out starting tomorrow to try and prove it. Our first opponent is the defending Stanley Cup champions. We worked all year long to finish first and we are getting the Cup champions. It doesn’t get much better than that.”