It's not easy to turn a boisterous, sold-out United Center into a building that could be mistaken for a library packed with students studying for a final exam, but the Vancouver Canucks did just that Saturday night in Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinal series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
After a scoreless 13 minutes at the outset, the Canucks blitzed goaltender Antti Niemi for five goals in the next 22:30 of game time on their way to a 5-1 blowout and 1-0 series lead.
Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo
made 36 saves and kept the game scoreless during the early part of the first period when the Blackhawks mounted their only sustained attack while the game was still within reach. He stopped 17 shots in all during the first period -- a complete turnaround from his last playoff game in Chicago, when he was beaten seven times in the Hawks' series-clincher last spring.
Vancouver received goals from all four lines. Mason Raymond, Henrik Sedin
, Kyle Wellwood, Michael Grabner and Christian Ehrhoff
scored for the Canucks and sent Niemi to the bench in favor of Cristobal Huet to start the third period. Niemi stopped just 20 of 25 shots to take the loss.
"If you're going to have success in the playoffs, you need balanced scoring," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "We got scoring tonight from different people. We needed that, and our guys have got to continue to do that for us."
Patrick Kane made the final score a bit more respectable with a 5-on-3 power-play goal early 2:07 into the third period. But that was nowhere near enough to keep the Hawks from dropping their fourth consecutive series opener. Vancouver won Game 1 for the seventh time in its last eight series.
Luongo was at his best during the first 20 minutes. He came up with a toe save on defenseman Brian Campbell on a shot that looked so much like a goal that the post-goal spotlight at United Center prematurely illuminated Luongo's crease. Later, a point blast by Campbell caromed off Luongo and directly to Kane, who missed the open net on the short side.
Vigneault dismissed any concept that Luongo's strong showing exorcised any demons from his nightmare last spring.
"It's one game," he said. "Roberto, like the rest of our club -- we want to win more than one game. We needed to focus on tonight, we focused on that and we'll turn the page and focus on the next one."
However, Vigneault did concede that Luongo was sharp.
"They came out strong," he said. "The difference in tonight's game was that we were able to finish and they couldn't finish. Our goaltender shut them down, and we were able to get to theirs. They had some Grade A chances that our goaltender bailed us out on."
The Canucks finally got their legs under them and broke through with 6:09 left in the first period on Ehrhoff's second of the postseason. His long shot was aided by the presence of Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, who screened Niemi as the shot floated past his blocker.
Raymond's goal with 10.5 seconds left in the period was a stomach-punch. Ryan Kesler
whipped a shot along the ice from the right wing boards that bounced off Niemi and into area above the left circle. Raymond, left wide-open, stepped into the puck and ripped it past Niemi to send the Canucks into the locker room up 2-0 despite being outshot 17-13 through 20 minutes.
It took just 32 seconds of the second period for the Canucks to extend their lead to three. Henrik Sedin
threw a beautiful no-look backhand pass through the legs of Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook and onto the stick of brother Daniel, who was parked on the doorstep. Niemi made an amazing save on Daniel, but Henrik made no mistake with the rebound, roofing it over Niemi's catching glove.
"That last goal at the end of the first period and that first goal at the beginning of the second period, that maybe took a little bit of the momentum away from them," Vigneault said.
The game officially became a laugher when Wellwood jammed home a rebound on a power play with 9:01 left in the second period to make it 4-0. Niemi made the save on the point shot by Ehrhoff, but Steve Bernier gathered the rebound and slid it off the post. Wellwood got the dirty goal by driving the crease, outcompeting Brent Seabrook and stashing it home an instant before the net became dislodged.
You could hear a pin drop in United Center when Michael Grabner made it 5-0 with 3:39 left in the period by converting a 2-on-1 with Rick Rypien
. After a turnover by Marian Hossa at the Canucks' blue line, Rypien flew down the right wing before feeding Grabner at the top of the crease. Grabner, a healthy scratch in the clincher against Los Angeles in the first round, tapped home his first career playoff goal.
Niemi kept the Blackhawks in it early in the first period. He made desperation saves on Raymond and Henrik Sedin
during the first 10 minutes. Both saves came off rebounds that left the net nearly vacated, but obviously not vacated enough.
But it was Huet who came out to start the third period. It marked his first appearance in a game since he allowed seven goals in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 25. He stopped all three shots he faced.
Game 2 is scheduled for Monday at the United Center, and Luongo said the Canucks can't be happy with getting a split before the series moves to Vancouver.
"It was a good start for us, no doubt about it. That being said, it's only one game," he said. "We've got to refocus right away. We know that next game is going to be even harder for us. We want to make sure we come out and execute like that again. By no means are we satisfied with one win."