It's the best time of year!
After last night’s series-clinching victory over the Kings, the question that kept popping in my head was whether the Canucks are truly Stanley Cup contenders or not. In that game, Roberto Luongo looked like the goalie he should be, and the team made yet another third period comeback on the road. Was that enough to convince hockey fans that this season could be different in Vancouver?
Last spring, they swept St. Louis off the bat but couldn’t contain Chicago in the second round; it was a rather disappointing exit. This season they were the highest-scoring team in the Western Conference, yet Luongo was shaky after the Olympics. That was enough cause for concern to keep pundits from picking the Canucks to even advance past L.A.
Luongo, though, played better than I expected. Aside from the Game 3 disaster, he made a lot of huge saves. In Game 1, he swept the puck away from the goal-line in overtime; in Game 4, while trailing, he stoned Alex Frolov on a breakaway; and in Game 6, Ryan Smyth was robbed of a goal when Luongo made a crazy glove save on his back. Those are the kind of saves a team needs when hunting down Lord Stanley.
After the Game 3 loss, Alain Vigneault placed Mikael Samuelsson on the top line next to the Sedin twins. That was smart! Samuelsson has been a fixture on that line, compiling six points in the last three games. His presence has also sparked the Sedins, who were in a bit of a rut to start the series.
The penalty kill has also stepped up in the last two games after getting, well, torched. At one point in the series, the Kings struck on six consecutive power plays… six! Vancouver turned those fortunes around, though, killing off 11 of 12 after that streak. That really broke the Kings’ backs in the end. They lived off the man advantage, and the Canucks put a halt to that.
When playing five-on-five, the Canucks were dynamite in this series. They outscored the Kings 19-8 while at even strength, and the ice was tilted in their favor. That said, the Canucks’ power play was effective enough (6-for-24) to provide a perfect balance. They also received secondary production from the likes of Steve Bernier and Pavol Demitra, which will be key if they wish to advance further.
Defensively, I think they are solid enough to keep winning. Alexander Edler has really taken his game to another level, and Christian Ehrhoff has been good, too. And when Andrew Alberts is out of the lineup, it definitely benefits this blue-line.
So that brings us to the question at hand… are the Canucks a legit Cup contender? I’ll say yes, cautiously. If you ask me, their first round success this time around was more impressive than last year’s. The Blues were ripe for the picking a year ago, while the Canucks did trail in this series and ferociously fought back.
If Chicago wins tonight, the two will face-off in the second round once again. That would be the ultimate test for Luongo. We’d know a lot more about him and this Canucks team after a matchup with the high-flying Blackhawks, the ones who eliminated them last spring.
No matter who they play the rest of the way, though, Luongo will have to continue to be clutch between the pipes. They have enough firepower up front to score 3-4 goals a game, but the goal medal-winning netminder has to do his job, too. If that happens, the Canucks definitely have a chance to raise the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. But there’s a long way to go in this marathon…
Photo credit: Getty Images
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