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Had you stood in front of a group of knowledgeable hockey people on the night of January 31st and boldly predicted a Vancouver-St. Louis match-up in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there’s a pretty good chance you would have laughed out of the room. There’s even a possibility someone would have called the authorities to haul you away. |
On the final night of January, the Vancouver Canucks appeared to be in a freefall after eight straight losses and with just one win in an 11-game span. At 22-20-8, Alain Vigneault’s club had sunk to 11th in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference while the St. Louis Blues were 20-24-4 and buried in the basement looking up at the other 14 teams. And even as late as February 14th – not even two months ago -- when the Canucks were ninth and the Blues 14th, the chances of the two teams hooking up in the first round of the playoffs were remote at best.
But after each squad finished the year with identical 1-0 wins in Denver over the weekend, the Canucks and Blues are indeed first round foes after tearing up the NHL over the final 60 days of the season. The Canucks closed out their schedule going 23-7-2 over their final 32 games while the Blues were 20-7-5 in that same span. And when the final push was on, the Canucks went 6-2-1 over their final nine games while the Blues cruised with a staggering 9-1-1 record over their last 11 contests.
As far as their head to head match-ups went this year, the teams split things right down the middle each winning a pair of games – one at home and one on the road – with the Canucks outscoring the Blues 15-14. St. Louis did have an edge on the power play in the season series going 5/19 (26.3%) with the man-advantage while the Canucks were 3/14 (21.4%).
Goaltending is sure to be one of the hot topics heading into the series with both Roberto Luongo and Chris Mason riding personal hot streaks into the post-season. Luongo blanked the Blues on March 19th -- one of four shutouts he recorded in his final 12 starts of the season. Luongo returns to the playoffs for the second time in his career – he was sensational in the spring of 2007 posting a 1.77 goals against average and a 94.1 save percentage in 12 games against Dallas and Anaheim.
Chris Mason is making his second NHL post-season appearance after going 1-4 in five games in 2006 with the Nashville Predators. But the former Prince George Cougar puck stopper has been in the pressure-cooker of playoff style hockey for two months now and has been as busy as any goaltender in the league lately making 33 straight starts and appearing in the Blues last 38 outings. So he’s been both busy and good – one of the biggest reasons the Blues qualified for the playoffs.
Mats Sundin skates in the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2004. He has 83 games of playoff experience under his belt getting as far as the Eastern Conference Final with Toronto in 1999. If he wants to be a part of a deep run this year, he’s going to have to find a way to produce for the Canucks. Of Sundin’s nine goals this season, only two of the came on the road – although they both came in the same game February 10th against Chris Mason and the Blues at Scottrade Center.
One area the Canucks appear to hold a wide edge on St. Louis – at least on paper -- is the offence they get from their defensemen. Kevin Bieksa led all blueliners in this series with 11+32=43 in the regular season followed by Alexander Edler who had 10+27=37. The Canucks had five defensemen with 23 or more points compared to just one (Carlo Colaiacovo with 3+27=30) for the Blues. And when you add it up, the top six Canuck blueliners combined for 35+128=163 on the season while the Blues top six chipped in with 12+87=99. The Canucks were 22-5-2 this year in games in which they got at least one goal from a defenseman.
The Canuck penalty killers are going to have to be wary of Brad Boyes (16) and Keith Tkachuk (14) who combined for 30 power play goals on the year. By comparison the top Canuck scorers with the man-advantage were Ryan Kesler and Kyle Wellwood who both scored 10. The Blues finished the year with the fifth best power play on home ice (23.5%) and tied for the third-most power play goals at home (44).
The Canucks should feel confident in the face-off circle after finishing the year fifth in the league in that department winning 51.9% of their draws. The Blues were 20th overall, although in terms of percentages they weren’t that far behind at 49%.
Statistics can certainly identify trends and point to areas where one team might have an edge over the other. But the way the Canucks and Blues have been playing for months now, there is very little to choose between the clubs. And starting Wednesday, the only numbers that really matter will be the ones on the scoreboard at the end of each game and which team can get to four wins first.