VANCOUVER, British Columbia – When Daniel and Henrik Sedin streak down the ice, exchanging crisp passes in a display of their jaw-dropping offensive creativity, it’s easy to forget the Vancouver Canucks were the NHL’s best defensive team this season.
When Boston’s top line presses the attack, changes styles on the fly and comes up with yet another clutch postseason goal, it’s tough to remember the Bruins are nearly as stingy on defense as the Canucks.
The Stanley Cup finalists are reminding the entire NHL that elite defensive teams don’t have to fall into the trap – or any other defensive scheme that results in boring hockey. Defense can also be a natural outgrowth of a commitment to goal-scoring, Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said.
“Who says you have to do one or the other?” he asked.
In Game 2 tonight, the Canucks will continue their quest to show it’s possible to win a title without retreating into a defensive shell, while Boston will look to build on a quietly impressive offensive season – except for that slumping power play – a club without a big-name scorer.
Both teams proved their approaches work in the series opener. Vancouver’s 1-0 victory was hardly a boring defensive game, with 12 power plays, numerous tantalizing scoring chances and an edge-of-the-seat intensity before Raffi Torres’ winning goal in the final minute.
Vancouver scored more goals (3.15 per game) and allowed fewer (2.2) than any team in the NHL during the regular season, while Boston was fifth in goals and second in defense, giving up just 2.3 goals per game. Even after managing just one goal in their last two playoff games combined, the Bruins are outscoring Vancouver in the postseason with 3.05 goals per game, compared to the Canucks’ 2.68.
Canucks general manager Mike Gillis decided to build an aggressive, high-scoring team behind the Sedins from the moment he took over for the fired Dave Nonis in 2008. The former Bruins forward knew he needed a special defensive corps to do it – and it had to be eight or nine men deep.
“We got focused on defense initially,” Gillis said. “I spent three years trying to get the best defense we could assemble so we could play any style of game. We wanted puck-moving defensemen who could join the rush. That was the style of game we decided upon. We went about trying to find those players that could complement it.”
Coach Alain Vigneault then implemented a system that relies on steady defensemen creating chances for the offense.
“This team was built on our depth on the blue line,” said Christian Ehrhoff, the Canucks’ aggressive, puck-moving defenseman from Germany. “That’s what we have, eight guys deep. We can take advantage of it in the playoffs, because some teams like to get very conservative. We keep playing aggressive hockey, keep attacking, and it works for us.”
Boston doesn’t share the Canucks’ overall aggression, and the Bruins can fall into a defensive shell when necessary. They didn’t have a scorer in the NHL’s top 25 during the regular season, but their top line is emerging as one of the best in hockey during the postseason with David Krejci setting up Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton.
There’s one last key factor in this scheme: top-notch goaltending.
Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas are two of the league’s top three goalies, if being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy indicates anything. Both are experienced veterans at the close of outstanding individual seasons, further cementing their reputations.
Luongo, who tied for the NHL lead with 38 victories, won a gold medal for Canada in last year’s Olympics, while the late-blooming Thomas already has a Vezina on his mantle. Both have thrived under the burden of hefty contracts and high expectations, giving their teammates the confidence necessary to be creative.