Canucks won't be taken lightly

MICHAEL RUSHTON, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 5:43 PM ET

VANCOUVER CANUCKS (1st seed, West)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 54-19-9

2010 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Los Angeles 4-2 in conference quarterfinals; lost to Chicago 4-2 in conference semifinals

Given their record-setting regular season and third straight Northwest Division title, the Vancouver Canucks have to feel good about their chances at capturing a first ever Stanley Cup.

Just don't tell them that the last two winners of the Presidents' Trophy haven't even made it out of the first round.

Though the same was probably said after the Washington Capitals won the award last year, or the top-seeded San Jose Sharks the season before, it is tough to see the high-powered Canucks not making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. After all, they are a team that led the league in both goals scored (262) and goals against (185) while featuring a netminder whose 38 victories were tied for the most in the NHL.

Said goaltender, Roberto Luongo, is coming off one the best seasons of his career at the age of 32. While his win total was two off the pace from last year, Luongo's 2.11 goals-against average was the best of his 11-year career and went together nicely with a .928 save percentage.

Also important was the fact that the Canucks' finished with the best record in the NHL -- as well as franchise bests in points (117), wins (54) and road wins (27) -- with Luongo starting just 60 games. That was his lowest total since making only 56 starts with the Florida Panthers back in 2001-02.

Luongo was able to get the extra time off thanks to backup Cory Schneider, who went 16-4-2 with a 2.23 GAA in 25 games (22 starts). The two shared the William Jennings Trophy as the goaltenders on the club with the fewest goals allowed and Luongo should be rested for this series.

Of course, Luongo and Schneider weren't the only Canuck players to skate away from the regular season with some hardware. Following his twin brother Henrik's lead from a season ago, Daniel Sedin captured the Art Ross Trophy with a career-high 104 points on 41 goals and 63 assists.

Henrik Sedin wasn't far behind, leading the NHL with 75 assists while finishing fourth with 94 points.

Mix in Ryan Kesler, who matched Daniel with a career-best 41 goals, and the Canucks have three snipers who can take over a game at anytime.

Though Alexandre Burrows was the only other Canuck player beside Daniel Sedin and Kesler to surpass the 20-goal mark with 26 tallies, six other Canucks skaters finished with double-digits in goals scored, including Mikael Samuelsson (18) and Mason Raymond (15).

Head coach Alain Vigneault hopes that offense will be enough as Vancouver tries to get past the Western Conference semifinals for the first time since a seven-game loss to the New York Rangers in the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals. The Canucks, though, may be at a mental disadvantage as it is the Blackhawks who have knocked them out of the semifinals in each of the past two seasons.

On the injury front, a serious eye injury by Manny Malhotra suffered on March 16 will cause him to miss the postseason, while fellow forward Raffi Torres will miss the first two games of this series as he wraps up a four-game suspension for an elbow to the head against Edmonton.

One wild card for the Canucks is the defense, which didn't feature the projected top six starters on the ice at the same time until Vancouver's regular-season finale. Christian Ehrhoff was the one constant, playing in 79 games while tying for seventh among NHL defenseman with 50 points.

The rest of the group combined to miss 137 games, with Sami Salo appearing in just 27 games. Vancouver will also have to keep an eye on Dan Hamhuis, who suffered two concussions this season. The latter kept him out for five straight contests before he returned for the finale.

Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Keith Ballard round out the unit.

Vancouver's power play was tops in the league at 24.3 percent, with Daniel Sedin leading the NHL with 18 goals and 42 points on the man advantage. The club was just as good when killing penalties, doing so at an 85.6-percent clip to tie for second-best in the league.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (8th seed, West)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 44-29-9

2010 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Nashville 4-2 in conference quarterfinals; defeated Vancouver 4-2 in conference semifinals; defeated San Jose 4-0 in conference finals; defeated Philadelphia 4-2 in Stanley Cup Finals

(Sports Network) - After last summer's roster purge, many wondered if the Chicago Blackhawks would even get a chance to defend their first Stanley Cup championship since 1961.

They did earn that chance.

Barely.

After besting the Philadelphia Flyers in last year's title round, the Blackhawks didn't clinch the Western Conference's eighth seed until the very last game on the NHL schedule. Chicago had a chance to punch its own ticket to the playoffs, needing just a point versus Detroit on the final day of the regular season on April 10.

However, the Blackhawks lost and had to wait until later that night for the result of the Dallas Stars-Minnesota Wild matchup. A regulation or overtime win by the Stars would have put Dallas in the eighth spot ahead of Chicago, but the Blackhawks lucked out when the Wild skated to a 5-3 victory.

Having won the Central Division a season ago, the Blackhawks finished third with 97 points, 15 off their pace from 2009-10. That isn't a huge surprise given that salary cap concerns caused Chicago to move multiple players off its championship-winning roster during the offseason.

Jettisoned were the likes of forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and John Madden, defenseman Brent Sopel and rookie goaltender Antti Niemi. Byfuglien matched Patrick Sharp with a team-leading 11 goals in last year's playoffs, while Versteeg added 14 points.

Niemi, meanwhile, came out of nowhere during the regular season to become the No. 1 goaltender and went 16-6 with a 2.63 goals-against average and two shutouts in the postseason. That success, though, forced the Blackhawks to let the restricted free agent walk following arbitration.

Now Chicago pins its hopes on another rookie goaltender in Corey Crawford, who outplayed free agent addition Marty Turco to make 55 starts during the regular season. He went 33-18-6 with a 2.30 GAA in 57 total games.

Head coach Joel Quenneville may be able to rest easier knowing he has Turco and his 47 games of playoff experience as a backup.

As for what is left of last year's title team, few can do better than Chicago's core of Sharp, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Toews, who led the Blackhawks with 76 points this season and picked up his game toward the latter stages of the campaign. Chicago's captain led all of his team's forwards with a plus-25 rating to go along with 32 goals and 44 assists.

Kane, who scored the Cup-clinching goal in overtime of Game 6 against the Flyers last year, topped the club with 46 assists and was second with 73 points, while Sharp, recently returned from a knee injury, led all Blackhawk players with 34 goals.

Hossa was fourth in both goals (25) and points (57), while Bryan Bickell and Troy Brouwer added 17 goals each. The heavy-hitting Brouwer missed Chicago's final three games with a right shoulder injury and is questionable for the opener of the series, while center Dave Bolland is getting close to returning from a concussion suffered on March 9.

Chicago, which ranked fourth in the league with 258 goals and a 23.1-percent rating on the power play, got solid offensive contributions from Brent Seabrook (48 points) and reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith (45 points), with each blueliner ranking in the top 20 among NHL defenders in scoring.

Defenseman Brian Campbell is also coming off a solid season, leading the Blackhawks with a plus-28 rating.

Chicago will need to stay out of the penalty box in this series after ranking 25th on the penalty kill (79.2 percent) during the regular season.

MATCHUP

It has taken six games in each of the past two seasons for the Blackhawks to knock the Canucks out of the postseason, but Vancouver held a slight 2-1-1 edge in the regular-season series this year.

Crawford didn't get much of a look at the Canucks, starting just one game and winning it with 26 saves on 27 shots back on Nov. 20, a 7-1 Blackhawks rout in Vancouver.

Though Toews and Kane combined for just three goals and three assists in this year's season series, the duo was deadly in the 2010 semifinals. Toews notched four goals and eight assists, including a hat trick in Game 4, while Kane had three goals and five helpers.

The opposite was true for the Sedin brothers, who combined for a mere three goals and seven assists in the playoff meeting. Daniel Sedin was limited to just a single goal, but had a pair of scores and three assists in the four meetings this season.

Luongo was tagged for a 3.52 GAA in last year's playoff series, but got that down to 2.18 in this four meetings in 2010-11. He is 13-9-1 with a tie and 2.25 GAA lifetime against the Blackhawks in the regular season.

Chicago and Vancouver have met two other times in the postseason in addition to their 2009 and 2010 semifinal bouts, and the Blackhawks own a 3-1 edge all- time against the Canucks in the playoffs.

The Blackhawks have had the Canucks' number as of late, but this Vancouver team will give Chicago all it can handle in Round 1. Both teams can score a ton of goals, but the Canucks have played better in their own zone and are finally healthy at the blue line.

Chicago can't take too many penalties and allow Vancouver's top-ranked power play to be a difference maker, while the Canucks have the experience edge in goal. Having a rookie goaltender didn't hinder the Blackhawks much last year, but Chicago will quickly learn that it is no longer 2010.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Canucks in 6


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