Northwest: Canucks offense faces challenge in first round

By Blake Benzel

 

Photo: The Vancouver Canucks hope Ryan Kesler has more of this kind of success against the Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Quick in the first round of the 2012 NHL Playoffs (courtesy of

Bob Frid/Icon SMI)

Some divisions have a wealth of teams heading into the playoff race, but not the Northwest, which has seemingly decided for quality over quantity. The division has just one representative in the playoffs this season, but that one representative just happens to also be the winner of the NHL's President's Trophy, the Vancouver Canucks.

Below is a preview of the Canucks opening-round playoff series agains the Los Angeles Kings.

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings

The Vancouver Canucks once again are heading into the postseason as the odds on favorite to come out of the Western Conference to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals, thanks to a second straight President's Trophy for the league’s best regular season record.

With that record, however, comes a heightened expectation for the team – especially given the fact that they came within one game of the Stanley Cup last season.

The Canucks’ power play is one of the best in the league and it will be getting even better, with star forward Daniel Sedin expected to return for the team’s series opener. Their defense is certainly above average, with solid two-way players such as Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa, and they now have the same experience that the Pittsburgh Penguins had the season prior to winning their Stanley Cup – making the dance with tremendous expectations, only to be turned away disappointed.

For the Canucks’ forwards, the most important thing will be to get all four of their lines going. They’ve got the ability for all of their lines to chip in and, against a stingy Kings defense, that will make the Canucks even harder to stop. Their top line is going to get their goals, so the key to the Canucks’ offensive success is going to be the second line. If they can find a way to get Ryan Kesler, David Booth and Mason Raymond going during the series, they’ll be exponentially more difficult to stop up front, which will make life easier for the rest of the Canucks' forwards.

On the surface, their defense is also unbelievably deep – something that really hindered the Canucks last season, especially when Hamhuis went down with an injury and Aaron Rome was suspended for his hit on Nathan Horton. With their top-four consisting of Edler, Bieksa, Hamhuis and Sami Salo, they could be as good as any top-four in the league. Where the Canucks’ defensive unite shines, though, is the rest of their defensive unit. Chris Tanev has used a strong sophomore performance to make his way into the top-six, while Keith Ballard is having a rebound season after a poor campaign last year, and looks to be on schedule to return in the first round. Add in Rome, gritty defenseman Andrew Alberts and the young power-play specialist, Marc-Andre Gragnani, and you’ve got a defensive unit that is as deep and skilled as any in the league.

As is always the case with the fickle fans of Vancouver, goaltending will be a hot issue this postseason, especially given that the Canucks will be lined up across from white hot goalie, Jonathan Quick. Everything is pointing to Roberto Luongo starting Game One, but don’t be surprised if we see a platoon situation in net for the Canucks, or even see Cory Schneider win the job if head coach Alain Vigneault doesn’t like what he sees with Luongo.

At the end of the day, this series could be a trap series for Vancouver. Their offensive depth has been struggling lately, so going up against a team whose defense and goaltending is as stifling as the Kings’ could be an issue. The question marks in net will remain, regardless of how well Roberto Luongo plays, but they will be even larger if Jonathan Quick starts to steal the show in the first round.

Ultimately, the series is going to come down to the performance of the Canucks’ offense and their ability to spread the wealth past their top line. If they can do that, it could be another steady march to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Northwest Division Notes

The Northwest Division has three teams in the draft lottery this season, with just one with any shot at the first overall pick and with the Washington Capitals gaining Colorado’s pick because of the trade for Semyon Varlamov. Calgary (0.5%), Minnesota (4.7%) and Edmonton (18.8%) are the three teams with a shot to win the lottery, but Edmonton remains the only team able to land the number one pick.