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 defensively stingy as
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 on Saturday night, 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 –
for 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
”Even when we’re not getting rewarded, we’re out there taking
chances and trying to find ways to be aggressive and score,”
Boston forward Milan Lucic said. ”We’re not a team that’s usually
going to sit back and wait and hide. We try to make things
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’
And they’ve done it without the trap, which turned off many
casual hockey fans for life when New Jersey, Dallas and other clubs
had extensive success with thoroughly boring play in the 1990s. The
scheme still shows up in the NHL in various disguises, such as
Tampa Bay’s 1-3-1 formation this season, yet it’s no longer
considered a necessity for winning.
Vancouver has earned a spot alongside Detroit, San Jose,
Washington and Anaheim among the NHL’s most entertaining offensive
teams, but it’s not just because of the Sedin twins, who have won
the last two scoring titles and could take home back-to-back MVP
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
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.”
All that depth comes at a price: The Canucks have teetered on
the edge of the salary cap all season, often relying on perversely
timely injuries to stay under the limit on a game-to-game
That also means the Canucks are built to handle the loss of a
top defenseman. Dan Hamhuis seems unlikely to play in Game 2 after
incurring an undisclosed injury while delivering a low check in the
opener, but Vigneault has three credible options as
Hamhuis didn’t skate in Vancouver’s practice Friday at the
University of British Columbia. Andrew Alberts, a scratch in Game
1, skated with Ehrhoff, while Aaron Rome moved up to skate
alongside Hamhuis’ normal defensive partner, Kevin Bieksa.
”That’s who I think it’s going to be,” Ehrhoff said of
Alberts. ”He’s a very strong and physical defenseman, and he can
bring a strong presence to our back end.”
Keith Ballard, who’s making $4.2 million this year, also is an
option on the Canucks bench for Vigneault.
”We’ve tried to play the right way all year long, which is
having a good balance between good team defense and good team
offense when it’s time to go on the attack, when it’s
appropriate,” Vigneault said.
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 Lucic and Nathan
There’s another key factor in this scheme: top-notch
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.
”You can survive a lot of mistakes and play with a lot of
aggression if you’ve got a goalie like we do, and they do,”
Boston’s Mark Recchi said. ”Your goalie is your most important
defensive player, and Timmy makes us a lot better as a team.”
Even casual hockey fans appear to be catching on to the
excitement generated by Vancouver, Boston and the other contenders.
The playoffs’ early rounds had the NHL’s highest U.S. television
ratings since 1994, and the Canucks’ win over Boston drew the best
U.S. rating for a finals opener in 12 years – along with a whopping
5.6 million viewers in Canada, where the high-flying Canucks are
must-see TV even for Maple Leafs or Canadiens fans.
”It’s fun to play at this time of year, and hopefully it’s as
entertaining for the fans as it is for us,” Vancouver’s Ryan