Monday May 10th, 2010

It's just as well that Roberto Luongo lost his bid for a second career playoff shutout late in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks, because a whitewashing might have given the impression that the play of the beleaguered netminder was the reason the Vancouver Canucks live to fight another day.

And that's just not the case.

That's not to say Luongo wasn't good. In fact, after wisely refusing to be baited by comments from coach Alain Vigneault and teammates like Shane O'Brien, Luongo let his play do the talking. It was a steady, if unspectacular, performance in which he was as good as he had to be, especially in the first period when he made 10 of his 29 saves.

Luongo maintained control of the bottom half of the net -- something he failed to do during his previous two starts -- refrained from coughing up rebounds into the slot and kept his focus on the puck instead of the bodies that occasionally crashed his crease.

He gave his teammates something he hadn't since the opener -- a chance to win -- but he wasn't the difference maker as he was in Vancouver's Game 1 win in Chicago.

No, the credit for this one belongs to his battered, bloodied defense corps.

What a night for that group at both ends of the ice, starting with Christian Ehrhoff's game-changing goal in the first minute of play -- you can't overstate the value of an early tally in a do-or-die contest--through the physical sacrifices of Sami Salo and O'Brien.

Then there was Kevin Bieksa's goal, his first of two on the night. The unlikely offensive catalyst spotted an opening in the neutral zone and jumped into the play, leading to a two-on-one break alongside Kyle Wellwood. After taking a sweet pass in the slot, he waited out Niemi, showed backhand then went forehand to slip a little wrister along the ice and under his glove. It was a thing of beauty, completely unexpected, and it took the wind out of the sell-out crowd at the United Center. By the time he bolstered the lead midway through the second on the power play, it was clear that things were going Vancouver's way.

Remember, this is a guy who had just three goals in 55 games this season. And that meant the Canucks counted three goals from the blueline after getting just two through the first four games.

And not to gloss over the scoring heroics, but their effort was even more impressive in their own end. The situation might have been desperate, but they sure didn't play that way. Instead, the Canucks backliners offered their smartest game of the postseason. Gone were the stupid penalties that helped the Hawks blow them out in Games 3 and 4. This time they were patient. They were smart. Their passes hit the mark. They read the play flawlessly, and they made the changes they needed to make to counteract Chicago's strengths.

For example, the Hawks got bodies to the net, but traffic wasn't as big an issue as it was during the blowouts in Vancouver. Part of that was Luongo's mental adjustment, but there was also a change in the approach of the defenders. They were more aggressive pushing back the point of attack, but when Chicago did get men down low they avoided engaging the bodies of the interlopers and negated their sticks instead. The approach kept the Hawks off the board until a spectacular deflection by Jonathan Toews late in the contest broke that shutout bid.

And the Canucks sacrificed the body. Salo was lost late in the first period when he absorbed the brunt of a Duncan Keith slap shot squarely in the midsection.

He was taken to a local hospital for evaluation, and while the team offered no official word, there were early reports that he suffered testicular damage. Expect to hear more on Monday.

The bench got even shorter in the second when O'Brien earned a deep, gushing wound to the forehead courtesy of a Dustin Byfuglien high stick.

Dominating the Blackhawks without Salo was amazing enough. Doing it when they were down to four defenders (does Andrew Alberts really count?) illustrated the group's remarkable resolve.

But as good as they were, the grim reality is that the Canucks still find themselves facing two more must-win contests. This one won't mean much if they can't muster the same level of composure for Game 6.

They know that Chicago will make adjustments of their own before Tuesday night. And they know they might be without Salo.

But they also know that Luongo can outshine Niemi. They know they can beat the Hawks with smart, disciplined hockey.

If they can put it all together, they might just earn one more trip to the Windy City.

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