The Vancouver Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings will play the fourth game of their Western Conference Quarterfinal tonight, with the Kings holding a 3-0 advantage in the series.
Considering that the Canucks finished atop the NHL regular-season standings and earned the resulting No. 1 playoff seed in the Western Conference, the results of the first three games in the series have been somewhat surprising.
Then again, literally anything can happen in the NHL playoffs.
Take Kings LW Dustin Penner—who only recorded seven goals in the regular season—and how he scored the eventual game-winner in the series opener. Even Los Angeles fans couldn’t believe his name appeared on the score sheet.
Vancouver is trying to avoid being the first post-expansion-era NHL team to win the President’s Trophy and then get swept in the opening round of the playoffs. By contrast, Los Angeles is trying to notch its first postseason series victory since 2001.
Suffice it to say that both teams will be fighting some nerves in tonight’s matchup.
Where: STAPLES Center—Los Angeles, CA
When: Wednesday April 18th, 10:00PM EST
Listen: NHL.com (NHL GameCenter application)
Key Storyline: Daniel Sedin’s status
The Canucks have felt the absence of leading scorer Daniel Sedin through the first three games of the series. Offense has been hard to come by for Vancouver, owing mostly to the loss of Sedin’s production.
Sedin has been recovering from a concussion he sustained towards the end of the regular season and hasn’t played at all in the series. But that could change by the time the puck drops tonight.
He practiced with the team on Tuesday, his first on-ice session since missing the Canucks’ last 12 games with post-concussion syndrome.
It’s a good sign for Vancouver fans, who are hoping that Sedin might make his return to the lineup and jump-start the offense. The Canucks are looking for a spark as they try to do what only three NHL teams in history have done—come back to win a playoff series after being down 0-3.
All eyes and ears will be on Vancouver head coach Alain Vigneault when he announces his team prior to tonight’s game. If Sedin is slotted into the lineup, he won’t even have to factor into the scoring to affect the game, as long as his teammates use his return as a rallying point.
In the NHL playoffs, a little extra motivation can go a long way.
What They’re Saying: Mike Richards—former Philadelphia Flyers captain and current centerman for the Kings—when asked what it takes to fight back from being down 0-3 in a playoff series: “I don’t remember that far back…I can’t let you know that mindset.”
Richards’ joking demeanor when he gave that response may have to do with him not wanting to give Vancouver any inside information on how to steal the series from his current team.
Of course, Richards knows exactly what it takes to win a series after losing the first three games—his Flyers accomplished that rare feat against the Boston Bruins in the 2010 NHL playoffs.
From the opposing bench in the Canucks/Kings series, Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo offered some thoughts on his mindset going into Game 4 after he was replaced by backup goalie Cory Schneider in Game 3: “No matter who starts, we have to be ready off the puck-drop to play our best game of the year.”
Sure, Luongo has to give that politically correct type of response, but it’s almost certain that he’ll be starting between the pipes in what is assuredly his team’s most important game of the season.
Despite some minor chatter in the media, there’s no goalie controversy for the Canucks—the team will be able to focus on the at-hand task of winning the game.
Vancouver Player to Watch: Alex Burrows, RW
Burrows leads the Canucks with one goal and 15 shots on goal in the series—with statistics like those, it’s easy to understand why Vancouver lost the first three games.
With next to no offensive production from other players, this team will continue to rely on Burrows for scoring.
Keep an eye on the right winger in tonight’s game to see if he can continue to get pucks to the net and increase the number of scoring chances for the Canucks. Without a strong showing from Burrows, Vancouver will likely be watching the rest of the playoffs from the couch like the rest of us.
Los Angeles Player to Watch: Dustin Brown, RW
Brown leads the Kings in goals (fours) and points (five) in the series—don’t expect him to slow down tonight. With the opportunity to sweep the league’s best team on home ice, the Los Angeles right winger should have another solid game.
In fact, Brown’s goal total for the series is equal to that of the entire Vancouver roster through the first three games.
Brown wears the captain’s “C” on his jersey for a reason—expect his leadership to be on full display again tonight.
Key Matchup: Vancouver’s offense vs. Jonathan Quick
The underlying trend in the series to date has been Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick’s quality of play. (Or as Vancouver fans might argue, the inability of Canucks players to create good chances against the Kings’ netminder.)
Either way, there’s no denying that in a series this tight, a hot goalie can literally be the difference between a team advancing in the playoffs or being sent home.
Quick has stopped 111 of the 115 shots he’s faced over three games, and he hasn’t shown any indication that he’s ready to take a night off. With Quick so locked in, the Kings have a good chance to complete the sweep of the Canucks tonight.
The key to this game will be whether Vancouver can make Quick truly earn the victory; most of the shots they’ve aimed at the Los Angeles goaltender have been of the long-range variety, coming without any sort of traffic in front of the net.
Another important aspect of their game might be choosing to drive to the net instead of settling for shots from distance. But if they don’t change their game plan and instead remain content to shoot from the tops of the faceoff circles, they’d better be sure to get bodies in front of Quick to impede his ability to track the puck.
Prediction: Vancouver 1, Los Angeles 3
With my apologies to Canucks fans everywhere, I don’t see the Kings slowing down any time soon. Although it’ll be a hard-fought game, I expect the Kings to do just enough to pull out the win at STAPLES Center tonight.
I can see this game being a defensive struggle; it wouldn’t surprise me to see a 1-1 tie late into the third period, until a late Los Angeles goal—and subsequent empty-netter as Vancouver pulls Luongo in favor of the extra attacker—make it a 3-1 final.