NHL Playoffs: Canucks like new-look lines for playoff success

 

 
 
 
 
Samuel Pahlsson of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from the bench during their NHL game against the Buffalo Sabres at Rogers Arena March 3, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
 
 

Samuel Pahlsson of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from the bench during their NHL game against the Buffalo Sabres at Rogers Arena March 3, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images

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The lessons the Vancouver Canucks have learned in the NHL playoffs have been the hardest ones, the realization that in the end they didn't have the horses or the horse sense to win it all. The Canucks learned their third line wasn't good enough to compete against Chicago two years ago in the NHL playoffs, and last spring their fourth line was no match for Boston.
Hard for general manager Mike Gillis to admit. Harder to fix.
"That was one of Mike's objectives coming down the stretch and into the trade deadline," said defenceman Kevin Bieksa as the Canucks prepare to open their Western Conference quarterfinal series Wednesday against the Los Angeles Kings. "Pick up a little bit of depth and be able to manipulate our lineup a little bit more. Los Angeles is just as physical as San Jose and it's a team we have a rivalry with. We look forward to it.
"Mentally, we're a better team and I think that's the thing. With what we went through, we know how to handle the pressure and the adversity and the media and the attention. I'd like to think we're better at it."
The Presidents' Trophy winners are also better equipped for the Stanley Cup marathon because their lineup is better. You can question a power play that has clicked just 16 times since a four-goal outburst on Jan. 7 in Boston -- a paltry 16-for-120, or 13.3-per-cent, efficiency. You can question losing five of seven games during March, and losing both 30-goal winger Daniel Sedin and defenceman Keith Ballard to concussions. But that resilient eight-wins-in-nine-games finish to the season was a product of versatility. They needed to acquire Samme Pahlsson at the trade deadline to shore up the third line and take the shutdown heat off Ryan Kesler, hoping it translates into offence. They needed to add to their stable of fourth-liners, and a shoulder injury to Zack Kassian last week only emphasized what's about to occur.
"You never know what's going to happen and it usually ends up being a war of attrition in the playoffs, and the fact we feel comfortable putting a lot of guys into different positions is only a positive for us," said winger Chris Higgins, who played 2 1/2 series last spring with a fractured foot and is arguably the club's most consistent and versatile forward this season. "It's more of a calm feeling in the locker room than it was last year. We were 60 minutes away from where we wanted to be and we saw a lot of ups and downs — you can only learn from that experience."
Higgins and Maxim Lapierre were acquired at the trade deadline last season because the feeling was they would flourish in the right competitive atmosphere. It made Higgins a second-line and now a third-line fixture. It made fourth-liner Lapierre relish a chance to play on the first and second lines and finish with three goals in his last five games. And it made the Canucks realize that injuries are about learning how to survive before you excel. Talking about getting back to the Stanley Cup final is one thing. Doing it is something else.

"There was a hangover," admitted centre Ryan Kesler, who struggled after offseason hip surgery and finished with 22 goals after a career-high 41 the previous season. "It took a little bit to get going and for us to come this far with what everybody was dealing with is pretty impressive. We're the first one since the salary cap to win it [Presidents' Trophy] back-to-back and going through tough times definitely makes it sweeter. If we get everybody rolling, we're going to be good. Now the real season begins."
It begins with trying to solve Vezina Trophy contender Jonathan Quick, who led the league with 10 shutouts and a second best 1.95 goals-against average. The Kings were just 29th in offence and 17th on the power play but second in defence and fourth on the penalty kill. Higgins went to high school with Quick and knows the best way to beat him is to beat defenders and crowd his crease. The teams split the four-game season series. A 1-0 Canucks triumph on March 26 in which Roberto Luongo made 38 saves may set the playoff tone.
"They have a lot of players who can hurt you and play good defence and have a great goalie," said Higgins. "It's going to be one of those internal games you play — who can have the best net presence. It's a huge battle and to dominate that area can swing a game in your favour."
So can knowing when to do something special to swing momentum. As much as the Canucks were all over the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday — outshooting them 24-6 in the second period of a scoreless game — Lapierre drilled Darcy Hordichuk with a heavy check that saw Ben Eager and Hordichuk want a piece of the agitator. Hordichuk drew a double minor and the Canucks needed less than a minute to score en route to a 3-0 win.
"It's always on my mind," said Lapierre. "I knew I had to bring some energy. I don't know what it is at this time of the year — maybe it's because there's more sun — because I feel unreal in April and I've just got to keep going. To be honest, this is where adrenaline takes me and I really like it when there's a direct impact on every game and maybe it's because I sleep 16 hours. I just like big challenges."
Maybe Alain Vigneault put it best when comparing this team to last year.
"This group is different," said the Canucks coach. "As soon as you change an element, it's a different team but our core has stayed the same and our team is focused and motivated and ready for this opportunity. It's a battle of wills."
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Samuel Pahlsson of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from the bench during their NHL game against the Buffalo Sabres at Rogers Arena March 3, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
 

Samuel Pahlsson of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from the bench during their NHL game against the Buffalo Sabres at Rogers Arena March 3, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images

 
Samuel Pahlsson of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from the bench during their NHL game against the Buffalo Sabres at Rogers Arena March 3, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Samuel Pahlsson #26 of the Vancouver Canucks is congratulated by Kevin Bieksa #3, Jannik Hansen #36 and Marc-Andre Gragnani #5 after scoring what proved to be the game winning goal against the Winnipeg Jets during the third period in NHL action on March 08, 2012 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The Canucks defeated the Jets 3-2.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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