|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2009||[Print without images]|
Talk about two hot teams meeting in the first round.
The Vancouver Canucks have steamrolled through the NHL since Feb. 1, going an amazing 23-7-2 to close out the regular season. But they face a St. Louis Blues squad that's been nearly as good over the same stretch (21-7-6).
Both clubs are riding excellent goaltending, good special teams and balanced scoring. Neither team was expected to do much when the pundits were making predictions last September. Many had the Canucks missing the playoffs and almost all had the Blues missing the postseason.
The Blues, especially, have stunned the experts. Not only did they reach the playoffs, but they did it despite 461 man-games lost to injury. Stud sophomore blueliner Erik Johnson missed the entire season after a freak golf cart accident ruptured his ACL during the preseason. Veteran defenseman Eric Brewer and star winger Paul Kariya also have missed most of the season. But the Blues persevered, buoyed by the big contributions of rookies T.J. Oshie and Patrick Berglund, and the rock-solid goaltending of Chris Mason in the second half of the season.
2. Paul Kariya. The 34-year-old star winger hasn't played since Nov. 5 after his season was marred by surgeries on both hips. The Blues maintain hope of a possible return in the first round. Blues president John Davidson told ESPN.com via text message Sunday evening that Kariya was still doing rehab in Colorado and could be cleared "mid- to-later" this week. Adding the veteran sniper to a forward group that already includes Brad Boyes, David Backes, Andy McDonald, Oshie, Berglund, Keith Tkachuk and David Perron would make the top three lines that much deeper. And dangerous.
3. Two-line attack. Vancouver's offense took off after coach Alain Vigneault decided to split up his terrific checking-line duo of Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows around midseason. Vigneault put Burrows on the top line with the Sedin twins (Daniel and Henrik) and Kesler on the second unit with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra. The results were dramatic, giving the Canucks a two-line scoring attack for the first time in ages. If you're Blues coach Andy Murray, which Canucks line do you match up your shutdown pair with? Probably the Sedins, but that leaves the Sundin trio to do their damage.
4. The Blues' special teams. St. Louis might have an edge here over Vancouver, ranking third in the NHL in penalty killing and eighth on the power play. The Canucks were 16th on the penalty kill and 17th with the man-advantage.
5. New to the dance. It's not like either of these teams has that much playoff experience to draw upon. In fact, other than Vancouver's 2006-07 playoff foray, which included a first-round series win over Dallas, neither team has played any other playoff games since the lockout. The playoff experience, or lack thereof, cancels each other out on both sides.