Off And Running
After 60 minutes of playoff competition, there's no reason yet to doubt the Vancouver Canucks are the favourites to win the Stanley Cup this spring after being the NHL's best team during the regular season.
In a 2-0 victory in Game 1 against Chicago on Wednesday night, all the elements were there for the Canucks: excellent, 32-save netminding from Roberto Luongo, a take-charge first period, better depth than the opponent and a physical, aggressive style without the self-defeating nonsense of other years.
Someone may beat the Canucks in these playoffs and deny them the Cup.
But they appear to be a team unlikely to beat themselves this time.
Sure, the defending champion Blackhawks are, really, the defending champs in name only. On an opening night of generally tepid playoff competition - only Washington-Rangers was really a tight one - the Hawks seemed almost surprised to be a participant in the first period after backing into the tournament on the weekend.
Basically, half the team that won it all last spring has moved on, and in Game 1 against Vancouver, it sure looked like the Hawks have been reduced to a one-line team, with Ryan Johnson, Ben Smith and Jake Dowell not supplying a whole lot of experience or productivity up the middle behind captain Jonathan Toews. Having Troy Brouwer get in Luongo's space isn't the same as having Dustin Byfuglien crashing the crease, and the Hawks don't have an energy player like Ben Eager to run around and terrorize the Vancouver defence.
Toews, Pat Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp were played to near exhaustion - all played more than 20 minutes - and after that first period, they actually helped the Hawks play to even terms against the Canucks in a game that was surprisingly open at times. In fact, had Luongo not made a spectacular right toe save against Brian Campbell late in the first period, the game might have proceeded differently.
As it was the Hawks did spring to life in the second, but Luongo made 15 saves. Vancouver, meanwhile, got those two first period goals from depth players Jannik Hanson and Chris Higgins on a night when the Sedin twins were mostly held in check.
Vancouver will take that winning formula every night. This team has matured, and doesn't necessarily need the Sedins to be terrific to win. While a little sketchy defensively in the second, the Canucks had the upper-hand physically all night and in the third didn't go into a defensive shell but kept pushing.
With Dave Bolland out, and with Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd elsewhere, the Hawks didn't have that annoying, chattering third line to throw out and irritate the Canucks, and generally speaking the game didn't include the roughhousing and chippiness that typified many of the post-season matches between the two clubs over the past two years.
Chicago was in the game, however, and the best news for the champs was that rookie goalie Corey Crawford played well with 31 savesl, and didn't look nearly as nervous or uncertain as he had in losing Game 82 against Detroit on the weekend.
The bad news for Chicago was that Vancouver didn't really show any weaknesses. We'll see if any emerge in Game 2.