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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) - The Vancouver Canucks needed a record-setting run to fight back from a January slump and clinch the Northwest Division in their final game of the season.
So what was their reward for erasing a 13-point gap and passing Calgary to claim the third playoff seed? A first-round series against the St. Louis Blues, the only team with a better record than Vancouver in the Western Conference over the second half of the regular season.
While the Canucks are 23-7-2 since February, the Blues went 25-9-7 the final 41 games, going from dead last in the west on Feb. 15 to the sixth seed with a 9-1-1 run to finish the season.
"Talk to guys who won the Stanley Cup and they'll tell you the first round is the toughest," Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell said. "That's why this is so special this time of year because every team that got to the dance is good, and it becomes a matter of the will to win, the desire to elevate your play to the next level. If you don't you're probably going home in four or five games."
The Canucks can take comfort that they're opening the best-of-seven series Wednesday in Vancouver, where they are 13-1-1 since February, including a team-record 11 straight wins.
"It s a confidence thing too, going into the playoffs knowing we battled to win a tough division," Mitchell added. "The dial is reset come playoffs, but it gives you a little extra confidence."
The Blues were saying similar things after ending their franchise's three-season playoff drought, but cautioned against putting too much emphasis on their late success.
"We don't want to start thinking we've been playing playoff games," forward Andy McDonald said. "We've been playing games we can't lose but I think the competition is going to get a lot harder."
While Vancouver's impressive second half coincided with the return of all-star goalie Roberto Luongo from a two-month absence due to a groin pull, the Blues had to overcome a long list of injuries - 461 man games in total - to key players. Top defensemen Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer remain out.
"That's probably the best job a coaching staff has done this year bringing that team into the playoffs with the injuries they've had to key personnel," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said.
St. Louis forward Paul Kariya had surgery on both hips after recording 15 points his first 11 games, but is now skating in Vail, Colo., and could be cleared to return later this week.
"Paul is not here, he's not practicing with us, and until I see him on the ice with our team, he's not part of the equation," Blues coach Andy Murray said, refusing to speculate on a possible return.
In his absence, the Blues rely on a mix of veterans like 37-year-old captain Keith Tkachuk, and talented young forwards like David Perron and David Backes, and rookies Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie, who are all under the age of 26 and among the Blues' top seven scorers.
"It's good for a lot of our young guys who don t have playoff experience to come in and play that must-win type of hockey the last three months," Tkachuk said. "Obviously it's another level now. We have a lot of guys that haven t played in playoffs yet, and that could be a scary good thing.
The Canucks aren't exceptionally rich in playoff experience either.
Veteran Mats Sundin, who signed as a free agent in mid-December, leads the team with 83 career playoff games, but hasn't been to the postseason in five years.
"This is why I played this year to get a chance to in the playoffs, there's not too many left," the 38-year-old Sundin said. "Good teams in the playoffs find a way to do what made them successful in the regular season, and do that when the intensity and the importance of the games goes up."
Notes: The teams split the four-game regular season series, including a 6-4 victory for each before their second-half sprints, and one win apiece in the final month. ... Canucks LW Taylor Pyatt hasn't rejoined the team since his fiancee, Carly Bragnalo, was killed in a car crash April 3 while vacationing with family in Jamaica. Bragnalo's funeral was Tuesday in Thunder Bay, Ontario. ... Canucks RW Mason Raymond is married to the daughter of Murray's cousin. "I always like it when Mason scores and we win, joked the Blues coach. The last time these teams met in the first round in 2003, the Blues built a 3-1 series lead before most of their top players got the flu, and they lost the series in seven games. There are as many current Canucks from left from that St. Louis team (Pavol Demitra and Ryan Johnson) as Blues (Keith Tkachuk and Barret Jackman).
|Apr 21 '09||VAN 3 at STL 2 - OT||A. Burrows|
|Apr 19 '09||VAN 3 at STL 2||S. Bernier|
|Apr 17 '09||STL 0 at VAN 3||M. Sundin|
|Apr 15 '09||STL 1 at VAN 2||S. Salo|