Hockey

Canucks in tough with the Blues

The Canucks could have made it easier for themselves.

With a win in the final game of the season against the lame duck L.A. Kings, the Canucks would have faced either the Minnesota Wild or the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Instead, they lost and will now have a much harder row to hoe when they face the St. Louis Blues.

"We choked," said Canucks captain Markus Naslund following the team's 2-0 loss to the Kings. "But we're going to change that. We're going to play a lot better in the playoffs. I can promise you that."

The Canucks better follow through on that promise because they will be facing a healthy Blues team that is hungry for playoff success after a string of post-season disappointments.

The Blues became a lot stronger recently with the return of all-star defenceman Chris Pronger, who missed most of the season recovering from knee and wrist surgery.

Pronger only played in the last five regular season games. However, he appears to have made a full recovery, notching a goal and three assists in his short time back.

In March, the Blues also got left-winger Keith Tkachuk and centre Doug Weight back from injuries. Weight, who missed 10 games as a result of a facial injury, has seven points in his last six games. Tkachuk has three points in three games since returning from a wrist injury.

The Blues also have firepower in right-winger Pavol Demitra, the team's leading scorer, and defenceman Al MacInnis, second in team scoring.

"They do have a lot of depth on their team," Cancucks defenceman Ed Jovanovski told the Vancouver Province. "But I think as long as we're concentrating on playing solid defence, we can't concern ourselves with what they throw at us."

Despite getting healthy at the right time, the Blues have been mediocre of late and are 3-5-2 in their past 10 games. The team's goaltending situation is also suspect. The Blues have used seven goalies this season and have a 2.58 goals-against average (GAA).

Veteran Chris Osgood, who was acquired by the Blues at the trade deadline, has not shown that he is the guy who is going to take them to the Stanley Cup finals. He has a shaky 3.05 GAA in nine games and a miserable 4.70 GAA in his past four.

Vancouver, meanwhile, has seen the emergence of Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi as NHL superstars. Both players had more than 40 goals and 50 assists in the regular season and finished in the top five in the NHL scoring race.

The one-two combination will be key to the Canucks success in the post-season. Other impact players will be defenceman Ed Jovanovski, who provides both toughness and offence, and centre Brendan Morrison, who has 71 points on the season.

The acquisition of scrappy winger Brad May at the trade deadline will add some grit to the team.

Like the Blues, the Canucks are a little suspect between the pipes. First-string goalie Dan Cloutier has a 2.42 GAA in 57 games this season. While in past years that would have been considered good, in today's goal-starved NHL it might not be good enough to win the Cup.

The Blues intend to make things as tough as possible for Cloutier.

"Our focus isn't to try and rough him up but we need to create some traffic because no goalie likes that," said Blues centre Tyson Nash, who was assessed a goalie-interference penalty in a 6-4 win over the Canucks on March 18 in St. Louis.

"He's a physical goalie trying to make a name for himself and it's huge in the playoffs to get in his way so he won't see the puck."

The Canucks, who were 2-1-1 versus the Blues this season, get home ice advantage in the series, which begins Thursday at GM Place in Vancouver.

"We have something to prove," Naslund said Wednesday. "We haven't gone past the first round in a long time and that's something we want to get done."