It is so tough not to get over-excited about this team right now. Yes it is only one series and yes, there’s still a ways to go. Yes they’ve made it to the second round several times in recent years and yes, they’ve gone no further. But this series has been all about the highs and lows. It’s been a roller-coaster of emotion. It started off with two overtime nail-biters, continued with a crushing loss, followed by a thrilling comeback, a blowout victory and yet another third period resurrection. As much as you’re supposed to temper your emotions in the post-season, always keeping an eye on what’s still to come… It’s hard. I rolled in the valleys and I’m rocking the peak right now. Because after a troubling start — with somewhat shaky goaltending, absolutely atrocious penalty-killing and an under-performing support staff — the Canucks turned it all around. They proved that the regular season was not a mirage — they really were who we thought they were.
This was an incredible series to watch. Game 4 was easily one of the most entertaining sporting events I’ve ever seen, and in many ways was a microcosm for the series itself. There were shades of rough goaltending by Roberto Luongo in the early-going, as he let an easily gloveable puck pop out to the slot only to be scooped into the net by (who else?) Drew Doughty. It almost goes without saying that it was a powerplay goal, as the penalty-killing woes continued. But somewhere in the second period, things began to change. Luongo began to take his game to the super-human level once more. The PK started pressing the puck instead of letting the Kings’ point-men do whatever they wanted with it. And Pavol Demitra found the Olympic form that’s been missing from his game with the Canucks. The Kings still led after two, and looked like they could take a stranglehold on the series, but Vancouver was trending in the right direction. And in the third period, they took over.
A day after Don Cherry called for him to give up the ‘C’, Roberto Luongo emphatically showed why he’s this team’s leader. With the Kings already up by one, Alexander Frolov broke in alone only to be stoned by the captain. It proved to be the turning point in the series, sparking the team up-front. From that point on, they dominated. That powerhouse offensive team that I was left waiting for after Game 3? They finally arrived, storming the Kings, and Jonathan Quick had no answers for them. Sure the Kings tied it up late to make things interesting, but I never really felt like the result was in doubt. And just like they did to close the series in Game 6, a Sedin showed up late with the game on the line to stick a dagger in the heart of the Kings before a member of the team’s other dynamic duo added an empty-netter to seal the deal.
Henrik’s goal was a moment of pure elation, and he let loose the type of emotion seldom seen from a Swede. Perhaps it’s a product of growing up in the era of Markus Naslund’s “someone just killed my dog” post-goal stares, but to see Hank explode with enthusiasm after scoring that goal was beautiful. It hearkened back to watching Ed Jovanovski pound the glass in the penalty box, except the Art Ross winner was scoring the game-winner instead sitting in the box for the season-ending goal. I simply can not say enough good things about the twins in this series.
I really wanted to meet the Kings in the first round. They were a team Vancouver should beat, but they also had a potent enough offense to really test Luongo and help him get back into “the zone”. It may have taken longer than some would like, but he did just that. After taking steps towards excellence in Game 4, he was down-right spectacular in 5 and 6. There have been times this year, and in this series, where I’ve winced every time a puck’s gone on net — a feeling I haven’t felt since the days of Dan Cloutier and Alex Auld. Times where “it seemed like every shot had a chance”. By the end of this series, Luongo looked every bit as good as he did in the 2007 playoffs, when he provided some of the best goaltending this city has ever seen. The key difference? Those performances were wasted on a team that was anaemic offensively. This incarnation seems to be able to score at will. Best of all the series went six games, allowing the team (and Luongo) to get a little rest before the second round, but not enough to lose their rhythm, as they seemed to after sweeping St. Louis last year.
It just wouldn’t be the playoffs if there weren’t unexpected heroes stepping up and delivering huge performances. In this series, Mikael Samuelsson, Steve Bernier and Shane O’Brien provided that for Vancouver. All year long Samuelsson’s valuable playoff experience has been a media talking point, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted he would do this. To put his league-leading seven goals in context, after only five games with the team, the former Red Wing had already scored more career playoff goals for Vancouver than Todd Bertuzzi ever managed to. Bernier was a playoff hero against St. Louis as well, but he penned another chapter in his folk legend this year. The much-maligned winger took literally thousands of shots on empty nets from in-close over the summer, in an effort to make that reflex part of his muscle memory. That hard work finally paid off, as he made no mistake in burying the chances he got in this series. Come to think of it, he too is now tied with Bertuzzi on Vancouver’s all-time playoff goals list. How depressing is that?
O’Brien meanwhile was the center of attention twice in this series, both for the wrong reasons: first for spouting off at associate coach Rick Bowness, then for gesturing to the crowd after a fight with L.A.’s Wayne Simmonds. Lost in all this was the way he was able to channel those fiery emotions into fantastic play. He looked like a legitimate top-four defender in this series, and his strong play went a long way in mitigating both the absence of Willie Mitchell and the continued mediocrity of Kevin Bieksa. Only once did he seem in over his head, in Game 5 where he got stuck circling down low against Anze Kopitar. Personally I’m more inclined to fault Bowness for allowing that mismatch than blame O’Brien for not being able to match up well against one of the league’s speediest power-forwards. As for the taunting that led Terry Murray to call him a clown? It may not have been the smartest move in the world, but the crowd in GM Place ate it up — as did audiences watching across the province. The bar I was at went crazy after his fight. And the real clown in this series had his shoulder dislocated in the other fight anyway.
It wasn’t all roses, however. The second line of Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond really needs to step up their game going forward. While Kesler did what he could and played quite well for the most part, he was clearly hampered by his rather ineffective linemates. I’m not convinced Burrows is fully healthy at the moment, but the Canucks will need more from him to go on a deep run. His only point of the series came in the dying minutes on an empty net, and that’s just not good enough. The third line played well enough to mask the second’s struggles (minus Kyle Wellwood, who was wildly inconsistent), but who knows if that will happen again in the next round. They have to be better.
Still, give the Kings credit. Beyond Dustin Brown’s shameless diving, they have a lot to be proud of. They pushed the Canucks harder than many thought they would, myself included. There were times where it looked like they might even win the series. What can I say about Drew Doughty other than it would be no surprise if the 20-year-old defenseman wins his first Norris in a few short months? His plus-minus is skewed by the fact that the Kings scored the majority of their goals on the powerplay, so don’t let that -5 rating fool you. He was sensational in this series, and will only get better as time goes by. Really, you could say the same for most of the Kings’ young core. If they can get better goaltending than what Quick provided them in this series, they will be a team to be reckoned with for quite some time. But not yet.
So try as I might not to get too excited… I just can’t. After this series, how could anyone?
The second round can’t start soon enough.