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For the first half of Game 1 in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, the parade to the penalty box seemed like it would never end. Maybe the players were a little jumpy, and maybe the refs were too. Sure, you can't argue with the high-sticks. And Burrows deserved the extra two minutes at the end of the 1st. But the goalie interference penalty to deny Vancouver its 2nd-period 5-on-3 was a terrible call, and there were a few others that were pretty chintzy. Like a couple games in the Sharks' series, the refs seemed like cops at the end of the month trying to make their quota. And when you get a slew of penalties, you also get increased embellishment and too many scrums after the whistle. The result of all the penalties was that Boston's anemic power play proved itself anemic. Zdeno Chara was left alone in front of Luongo and it's anyone's guess why Claude Julien is choosing to use him there instead of on the point, where his 100+ mile-per-hour cannon should do a whole lot more damage. But Julien has obviously tried Kaberle and Chara together, and with Kaberle as the quarterback, the clear strategy would be to play a forward high on Chara and back right off Kaberle — whose shot wouldn't scare Betty White. If I were Julien, I'd put Chara and Seidenberg together on the point, but what do I care? So long as Boston is struggling, I applaud the strategy. As for Vancouver, they had their share of power-play chances too, and their execution was the one aspect of their game that looked rusty after the eight-day layoff. No doubt the power play will be sharper on Saturday, but the good news is that Luongo was razor-sharp and is now 8-1 in his playoff career in Game 1s, including three shutouts this year — against Chicago, Nashville, and now Boston. Vancouver was also the better team at even strength, which is where Boston wants to play. Given Vancouver's power play prowess and Boston's disjointed execution over the past several months, the Bruins want to play 5-on-5, where they had the best even-strength goal differential during the regular season and so far in the playoffs. But it didn't look like it last night. In the opening minutes of the game, Vancouver had three B-grade scoring chances that Tim Thomas turned away before the penalty parade turned the game into a special teams' battle. Then, once the refs put their whistles away in the 3rd period, Vancouver once again proved to be the better 5-on-5 team. Of course, it was only Game 1, but Vancouver was faster, hit more, made better passes, and turned the puck over far less than the Bruins. The Canucks outshot Boston 14-10 in the 3rd, which doesn't sound particularly dominant, but Vancouver doesn't tend to fire the puck on net from anywhere. Like Detroit, they are a puck possession team, and they're perfectly content cycling the puck and passing it around until their opposition starts running helter-skelter so they can expose the opening. In the 3rd, Burrows had a golden tip-in attempt on a tic-tac-toe play initiated by the Sedins; Hansen had a breakaway; Lapierre had a beautiful re-direct; Edler hit the under-side of the crossbar; and then with 18.5 seconds to go, Torres finished off a gorgeous 3-way passing play for the Game 1 winner. Kesler started the play by spinning across the blue line, retrieving a loose puck and firing a cross-ice pass to a wide open Jannik Hansen. Hansen looked to be loading up a wrist shot as he moved into the slot, but as Chara slid to the ice, Hansen slipped a beautiful pass under Chara's falling body to Raffi Torres, who was charging the net. Thomas, whose great strength and weakness is his willingness to skate way out of his crease to challenge shooters, was caught in no man's land when the pass went through. Torres had an easy tap in. It may only have been Game 1, but it was an ugly, chippy, Bruins type of affair that Vancouver pulled out, proving once again they can play any style of game and win. Chara and Seidenberg played a lot and played well, and Tomas Kaberle moves the puck smoothly, but like the series against San Jose, Boston's blue line looks pretty thin. Johnny Boychuk, Adam McQuaid, and Andrew Ference are serviceable defensemen, but they offer precious little in terms of offense, and collectively, they looked too slow to deal with Vancouver's team speed and precise passing. So while the Sedins had their chances, and so did Kesler's line, Vancouver's best line was Lapierre's — a fact that has a lot to do with who they were playing against. Torres had the winner, Lapierre was buzzing all night causing havoc in the offensive zone, and Hansen was the best Canuck on the ice. Just like the regular season, Hansen has been Vancouver's unsung hero throughout the playoffs, and he always seems to step up and play his best when Kesler and the Sedins are held in check. Last night, he was clutch in setting up the winner, but he also had three shots on goal and a few bone-crushing hits. For some, the story of last night's game was the great goaltending of Luongo and Thomas, the poor power plays, the injury to Hamhuis, or the Burrows bite on Bergeron. And those are all valid storylines — especially the superlative goaltending battle. But with 10 hits between Lapierre, Torres, and Hansen, Vancouver's 3rd line set the physical tone, exposed Boston's thin defense with their speed, and then sealed the deal with a Sedin-like bit of magic in the dying seconds of the game to open the scoring.
The unbelievable news of Manny Malhotra’s return to the Canucks’ lineup will be a major x-factor in the Stanley Cup Finals. When you listen to him deal with the media, the guy oozes class, professionalism, and positivity. In the two-and-a-half months since his injury, he has dealt with two major eye operations and faced the fear that his hockey career was potentially over and that his vision may never fully recover. Despite the gravity of the injury, Malhotra remained directly involved with the team — going on road trips, being present in the locker room, and working on faceoff techniques with his fill-ins: Maxim Lapierre, Mason Raymond, and Cody Hodgson. And when Henrik Sedin accepted the President’s Trophy, what an emotional moment it was to see Manny emerge and accept the trophy alongside the Canucks’ captain. And now he’s back. Naturally, Alain Vigneault is remaining discreet about how Malhotra will fit back in to the Canucks’ lineup, but you’ve gotta think he’ll be there, centring either the third or fourth line. Bringing a guy like Malhotra into the Canucks’ dressing room is where Mike Gillis deserves a tremendous amount of credit. Signed very early in last summer’s free-agency period to a 3-year $7.5-million contract, some observers thought it was a lot of money for a third-line guy with limited offensive potential. But $2.5 million to Malhotra is the luxury Gillis could afford by maintaining a very balanced salary structure since taking over the ship three years ago. With cap hits of $6.1 million for each Sedin, $5.3 million for Luongo, $5 million for Kesler, and an incredibly deep blue line with six guys each making between $3.1 million and $4.5 million (Hamhuis, Ballard, Bieksa, Salo, Edler, and Ehrhoff), Gillis has refused to invest too heavily in one guy, knowing that depth throughout the lineup is far more important than putting all your eggs in one basket the way Washington has with Ovechkin or New Jersey did last summer with Kovalchuk. Of course, long-term injuries to Salo, Burrows, Edler, and Malhotra helped the Canucks retain their tremendous depth (while even adding to it with the shrewd deadline acquisitions of Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre). But Gillis, along with capologist Laurence Gilman, must be applauded for remaining patient and not dealing anyone until it became an absolute necessity, which it never did. So now that Vancouver has made it to their third Stanley Cup Final in the 40-year history of this franchise, Malhotra’s return adds yet another chip for Vigneault to play against the Bruins. All season, Malhotra has been a leader on and off the ice. Every Canuck fan knows that much, and if you’d forgotten, his recent press conference to discuss his return told you everything you need to know about Malhotra as human being. When asked what he learned about himself and his teammates by enduring such a severe injury, Malhotra choked up a little in discussing the family environment the Canucks have built over the past few years, and as an outside observer to that family, the bond has never seemed stronger. Here it is in Malhotra’s words: “We talk about our team concept all the time…We have a real family environment around here…Obviously, we’re here to win, we’re here to play hockey. But more importantly, the level of care we have for each other in the room and the importance we put on our personal health and the health and well-being of our families really came first and foremost. Right from ownership to management, coaches, teammates, and even players around the league. GMs, coaches I’ve never played for expressed their best wishes and thoughts just for my health, and you really put things into perspective. And like I said, we’re here to play hockey, we’re hockey players, but at the end of the day the level of respect that we have for one another as friends, husbands, brothers, fathers — that really came to the forefront for the last couple months.” Once you get past the miracle of Malhotra’s return and you consider things purely from a hockey perspective, you remember what a solid player he is, and how much pressure he takes off Ryan Kesler to be the shutdown guy. To be sure, Kesler will likely be playing against the Krejci, Lucic, and Horton line for much of the series, but as Malhotra gets more comfortable on the ice, you can expect to see him taking more key draws (especially in the defensive zone, in the closing minutes, and on the penalty kill). Throughout the regular season, he was a rock on the third line between Torres and Hansen. He has size, speed, and smarts, and even if Lapierre starts the series on the third line, if things go well for Malhotra, it seems pretty likely that he’ll return to his regular spot, which should alleviate the need to have Kesler’s line playing the shut-down role all the time. Against Chicago and San Jose, Kesler’s primary focus was shutting down the Toews line and the Thornton line respectively. But against Nashville, when there was no dominant player to contend with, Kesler was free to roam and he turned in a dominant offensive performance. If all goes well, we may see that same Kesler in the finals against Boston, and that may prove to be Manny’s greatest contribution.
With most teams in the NHL you can point to one player on the team who is the face of the franchise. The Capitals belong to Ovechkin, the Penguins belong to Malkin, the Islanders are Tavares' and the Kings are Kopitar's. The list goes on but the point is most teams have one face, one super star that either makes or breaks the team based on how they play. With that concept in mind, these Canucks once were Luongos. The face of the 2006-07 franchise-record-49-Win Canucks, was Luongo. He won his first career playoff series single-handedly, and lost his second career playoff series single-handedly. Since then this team has evolved around a core group of players that are a combination of to tier forwards, rock solid blue liners, a passionate goalie and a desire to win. That being said, this season has exemplified one thing in particular: The Canucks don't have one leader, they play as a team. This year's Canucks define exactly what a team should be and that's been the story all year. I can remember just how many times over the years I've said, "We need secondary scoring, the top lines are in a slump", and the Canucks haven't had the depth or talent to pull it off. When you look at this year's team, secondary scoring was at one point the only reason we didn't tank. Through the Canucks injury problems all year, through the slumps, and the highs and lows, there has always been someone to step in and take over. In one particular game it was Ryan Johnson and Tanner Glass against the Avalanche resulting in Johnson's first multi-point game of his career, in another it was Mason Raymond who decided to go on a streak. When the Sedins came back and the Canucks needed to turn things around Burrows took over, but post Olympics it's been Kesler who's carried the team. With the Sedins in a pre-Olympic slump as a result of a snubbing Samuelsson has stepped his game up. What's even more impressive is that Samuelsson has stepped his game up during the Canucks most critical point in the season. Between Henrik's offensive outburst, Burrows' nose for the net, Samuelsson's response to the snub, Raymond's breakout year and Kesler's ascent to the next tier of forwards, it's no surprise that this team doesn't have one singular face. This team has learned to find a way to win. What's more important, and most important is they've found a way to win without having to rely on Luongo to perform near miracles on an almost nightly basis. The Canucks chemistry is at an all time high and with the number of players having career years what makes this year's edition of the Vancouver Canucks unique is their ability to step up individually and carry this team when it needs someone to take the reigns. The most perfect example was Samuelsson and his second period hat trick against the Avalanche, but in the streaks various different Canucks players have thrown together it's clear that when there is a hole in the offense or defense someone steps up. On a blue line that has struggled from the get go and had to give more responsibility to the likes of everyone's favourite Canuck Shane O'Brien, Christian Ehrhoff has come in and stepped up. The German Olympian who is having an outstanding year on the blue line has scored key goals for the Canucks on several occasions this season. Heck, even O'Brien has buttoned down and become a responsible defenceman. While he might have the odd defensive breakdown, he's strayed from racking up the penalty minutes and he's stepped up to the increased responsibility as the Canucks infirmary tries to spit players out as fast as they come in. This year's Canucks are not defined by one player but by many. They're not defined by one success story, and the story around this year's team has not been about individuals. It's been about a team that's had to come together over the adversity of injury, the obstacle of the NHL's longest road trip, and the sportsmanship of a game which saw players go from teammates to rivals and back to teammates in the span of two weeks. This year's Canucks are defined by their city, their fans, and their desire to win. This year's Canucks are defined by a coach that's on the verge of being a miracle worker, and players that buy into the team picture. This year's Canucks are defined by players that step up when they have to, not when they're called out to. This year's Canucks define what it means to be a team.
<img src="http://cdn.nhl.com/canucks/images/upload/2009/11/nov1709_chbsmall_smallt.jpg" class="imageFloatLeftFramed">This team is not big, it's not tough. It's turned into a skilled team that needs to out skate and out work it's opponents to win versus out thugging them. We don't have a lot of grit but the grit we have does the job, which is why I can't for the life of me figure out why Kesler's game as of late has changed. If anyone's noticed Kesler lately his play's turned from skilled play-maker into skilled pest play-maker. He's getting in places he's not supposed to, and he's even trying to start fights. The Canucks have a boat load of players that can drop the gloves and the third and fourth line are all gritty enough to take a swing at the other player. We've seen Hansen, Hordichuk, Glass, Johnson and Rypien drop the mitts and chuck knuckles, so I've been having a hard time trying to come up with a reason for Kesler being the target. If you notice night in and night out he gets run more than any of our other top six forwards and as a result he's getting his face in places that we don't need him to. He's a top play-maker, and he's a vital part of our offence which at times (as we all know) sputters, but lately I've seen a shift in his play which can only be described as Burrows-esque. He's getting heated and fiesty and it's a side of Kesler we haven't really seen, but also a side I don't think we need to see. The more he perpetuates the badass image he's portraying right now, the more he's going to get run. It's like he's saying "I'm rugged and strong and I'm ready to show it". In the last handful of games there have been at least a couple of times he's taken extra long to get up from a hit and I don't see any other top six forwards take the beating he does. He's crucial to the penalty kill, our second line, and our offense would struggle if we lost him because we certainly don't have an abundance of secondary scoring. I just see the path he's going on leading to injury. When the team has so many other players that can run their trap and take the heat for it and get into those dirty places, Kesler doesn't need to play Sean Avery. If he does it's going to come back to hurt him and to hurt this team. Kesler's a top play-maker, he's a recognized player in the league and he doesn't need to create a reputation. He's established his reputation as a skilled offensive and defensively responsible forward. Adding a dose of pest to his game in my mind only lowers him to a level he's far above. I'm just trying to figure out where this came from because it's a totally different dimension of Kesler. It has its pros in short doses, but night in and night out is just a recipe for disaster. <img src="http://cdn.nhl.com/canucks/images/upload/2009/11/nov1709_mozy_small.jpg" class="imageFloatLeftFramed">Richard Loat writes for Canucks Hockey Blog and is a fan of the underdog – first Bryan Allen, then Alex Burrows, and now Jannik Hansen. His passion for the Canucks led to the Canucks Hockey Blog and a lot of #Canucks tweets on his Twitter account.