Talk about an improbable series. If you were giving odds back in late January that these two teams would be facing each other in the first round of the playoffs you would have had people lining up to take your money. Both teams were outside the playoff picture looking in at the time with St. Louis sitting in the basement of the conference and Vancouver mired in the middle of a franchise record 9 game home losing streak.
Well, over the past two months or so the Canucks and the Blues have enjoyed a dramatic turnaround and have been the 2 hottest teams in the Western Conference, surging up the standings and finishing the season 3rd and 6th in the west respectively.
To be fair to the Vancouver Canucks the 3rd place result shouldn’t come as a surprise. They are a well-balanced team on both the offensive and defensive side of the puck, and have arguably the best goaltender in the world in Roberto Luongo. It is no coincidence that their slide occurred during Luongo’s 2 month absence with a groin injury. It continued for the first couple of weeks after Luongo’s return as the star goalie shook of the rust, but once he found his game you could see his Nuck teammates visibly swell with confidence and they’ve looked like world-beaters over the past two months of the season.
The St. Louis Blues are a little more of a surprise, and much of the credit for their incredible play since the NHL all star break has to be given to coach Andy Murray. Plagued by injuries to his many of his veterans Murray called upon his young players to fill the void. He asked, and they delivered with young guns like David Backes, Patrick Berglund, T.J. Oshie and David Perron all having breakout years.
In net goaltender Chris Mason has made the most of the opportunity he was given when St. Louis starter Manny Legace went down with injury. He regained the form he had in the 2006-07 season with the Nashville Predators, and his numbers were stellar with a 2.41 GAA, a .916 save percentage and 6 shutouts. Luongo is grabbing all the press right now but Mason definitely has the potential to steal games and shouldn’t be underestimated by the Canucks.
On the Canucks’ side of the ledger obviously Luongo is the key, but even their meal ticket can’t win this playoff series all by himself. The Sedin twins have been criticized for their lack of playoff production in past years, averaging less than half a point per game in their post-season appearances to date. However, in years past they were also playing on the 2nd or even the 3rd line. This year, with more ice time and playing on the first unit powerplay their points per game average should be a lot closer to what we’ve seen from them in the regular season. Don’t forget, with all the parity in the league, the past month of the NHL regular season has been played at playoff intensity, and the Sedins certainly haven’t pulled a vanishing act like they did in late season stretches in years past. In fact, if anything their game has gotten stronger. It has been a good litmus test for them and bodes well going into round one of the playoffs.
The Canucks will also need some secondary scoring, and this will be Mats Sundin can really earn the big dollars the Canucks shelled out to get him back in December. Sundin’s appearance in the post-season will be his first since 2004 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. If Sundin can elevate his game and score some clutch goals he, along with Demitra and Kesler can take a lot of pressure off the Sedin line.
Overall I think Vancouver just has more depth at all positions to lose this series. St. Louis has been hot, and they are definitely danger, but I believe with Roberto Luongo currently playing at the peak of his ability and a healthy roster Vancouver has to be considered a Stanley Cup favorite.