Goaltending key for Canucks
On paper, there appears to be very little separating the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks as the NHL clubs set to begin their clash in the Western Conference semifinal Thursday night (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 8:30 p.m. ET) at GM Place.
Vancouver finished only four points behind Chicago and spilt the regular-season series two games apiece.
The Canucks outscored their West foe 14-10 while the Blackhawks had a 125-110 edge in shots.
Yet for all the similarities in statistics, the edge at the most important position should favour Vancouver.
That's because the Canucks have all-world Roberto Luongo manning the crease.
When completely healthy, Luongo, who missed 28 games in the regular season because of a groin injury, is regarded by many as the best goaltender in the NHL.
His first-round performance against the St. Louis Blues did nothing to give contrary opinions any ammunition for rebuttal.
When the dust settled following the Canucks' sweep of the Blues, Luongo finished the four contests ranked first with a 1.15 goals-against average and a .962 save percentage. He stopped 126 of 131 shots, highlighted by a scintillating 47-save performance during Vancouver's 3-2 overtime win in Game 4.
"I don't know how you get much better than this, to be honest," said Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell. "What makes a lot of great players great is their mind. I think Roberto's mind is a real strong asset for him. He's mentally tough and never thinks a guy is going to beat him."
Aside from Luongo, the long rest — the Canucks have been off since April 22 — has served the team well. Mitchell missed a few practices with "body soreness," and Mats Sundin skipped the last two playoff games with a lower body injury.
Ailing defenceman Sami Salo participated in his first full practice on Monday. He skipped Vancouver's finale against the Blues with an unspecified problem related to either a lower-body injury or general body soreness.
All three are expected to play in Game 1.
"We have to make sure we get ready and get the intensity and get our team ready to play like we did against St. Louis," said Sundin.
Chicago finished off the Calgary Flames in six games on Monday night, a contest that saw goalie Nikolai Khabibulin make 43 saves.
The Blackhawks also present a major problem for Vancouver in terms of speed and scoring ability with players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Brian Campbell supplying the offence.
"They have their energy line, and they have defencemen that join the rush a lot better than St. Louis did. We are going to need our four lines," said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault.
Another area of concern should be Chicago's sizzling power play. The Blackhawks buried Calgary in the first round with seven power-play goals on 24 chances (29.2 per cent).
Fans shouldn't expect a feeling-out process that sometimes occurs at the beginning of a playoff series.
The last time the clubs met, which the Canucks won 4-0 Canucks in Chicago, the game featured a third-period brawl.
"This is another team we don't really like," said Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa. "They are a hard-working, physical team. It will be a battle. There will be a couple of scrums in this series. It will be entertaining for everyone."
With files from the Canadian Press