Darren Eliot
Monday April 26th, 2010

As they eagerly await the outcome of the Blackhawks-Predators series, the Canucks can take heart in knowing that they've advanced by virtue of several factors that weren't in evidence earlier in their series with the Kings: Vancouver's top players performed in crucial situations, the special teams delivered and goaltender Roberto Luongo saved his best for last. All bode well for the next round.

On all fronts, give coach Alain Vigneault an awful lot of credit. He didn't panic when the Kings' power play was scoring seemingly at will in the first three games of the series. He called out his top performers, including captain Luongo along with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, but did so in a positive manner. He phrased his need for them to play better, not as an exhortation, but rather as an expectation: "They've been good for us all season and I know they will rise to the occasion in the next outing," he said.

The Canucks, led by their top trio did just that. Vigneault did his part by moving winger Mikael Samuelsson to the top line with the Sedins, giving the twins every opportunity to succeed. The move worked in Game 5, as the combination exploded in the third period with three markers to secure a 7-2 win and a 3-2 series lead. Luongo made key stops at crucial times, gutting out a game that could have veered in an unfavorable direction at any point in the first two periods.

Against that backdrop, the Canucks got outstanding goaltending from Luongo in Sunday night's Game 6 clincher, especially in the first half when the Kings were at their best. He finished with 30 stops, and his desperation reverse-pivot, barrel roll glove save in the second period with the Kings leading 1-0 defined his performance.

The Canucks tied it at 1-1 shortly after "the save" on Ryan Smyth, but the Kings regained the lead heading into the third, after Drew Doughty scored on the power play. Even so, Luongo had stopped 24 of 26 shots through 40 minutes, giving his team a chance to recover. From there, the Canucks again used an explosive third period to roar to victory. Daniel Sedin scored the game-winner with a little over two minutes remaining and the penalty killers staved off the Kings' lone power play. It's worth noting that Vancouver's penalty-kill went 12 for 13 over the last three games after yielding nine goals on the Kings' first 13 power plays of the series. The Canucks also scored once on the power play to win the special teams battle in the decisive game.

In the end, literally and figuratively, it all came together, just as Vigneault confidently predicted that it would, with his goaltender, stars and special teams all rounding into top form. Now the Canucks sit poised for a conference semifinal repeat match with Chicago. Of course, the Blackhawks must yet vanquish the gritty Predators, but if they do, a Canucks-Blackhawks rematch will be the best series on the next docket.

The Canucks remember vividly the scene in Chicago last spring as they were eliminated in a wild 7-5 loss. In fact, they looked poised to take a 3-1 series lead before giving up a late goal that tied the game and then losing 2-1 early in OT. Luongo went from potential shutout to collapse. He and the Canucks never recovered, falling three times in a row in bowing out in six. In all, the Blackhawks netted 23 goals against the Canucks, and Luongo took the final game performance personally.

So, the Canucks are surely seeking a measure of redemption if they should face the Blackhawks again. As defenseman Shane O'Brien told The Vancouver Province, "I think if you ask everyone in this room who was here last year they'd tell you we'd love another shot at them. That's kind of been on our mind for a year now. If it works out that way, it's okay with us. We'll be confident against any team."

For their part, the Blackhawks seem to have a certain swagger against Luongo. Patrick Kane had the hat trick in Game 6 last year, and at the Olympics this year he had this to say about facing Luongo in the gold medal game that pitted Team USA vs. Team Canada: "I've had my luck against him personally, so he's a goalie I wouldn't mind facing."

To which Luongo responded, "If he has a book on me, good for him."

Well, Luongo backstopped Canada to gold over Kane and the Americans, but the exchange reported on February 27 by the AP is evidence that memories run long and hard on both sides. Meaning, of course, a Canucks-Blackhawks series will likely include plenty born of bad blood and a percolating rivalry.

Perfect for playoff hockey.

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