Everybody knows the story. The past two springs have looked eerily similar for the Vancouver Canucks.
May 11th. Round two. Game six. Two meetings with the Blackhawks that ended consecutive Canuck playoff runs, with nothing left but Chelsea Dagger stuck in the head of anybody wearing the Orca.
This year, the Canucks are riding high after running away with their first President's trophy in franchise history. The Art Ross finds its home on Vancouver's top line for the past two years in the form of two Scandinavian twins. Roberto Luongo is having a career year, leading the league in wins and posting a sizzling 1.86 GAA since the end of November.
This is supposed to be the year.
They've dealt with adversity in the form of a laughably banged up blueline and still managed to overcome it and now, they are dealt their kryptonite...the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.
The last thing Canuck fans wanted to see this spring was a Blackhawk team still made up of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. Not to mention their pillars on defense, BC boys Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
However, for the following reasons, this battle will end differently than the past two years. For the reasons outlined, the Canucks will prove that the third time is in fact the charm, as they will exorcise their playoff demons by getting past the Chicago Blackhawks in round one.
There's no getting around the issue that Roberto Luongo must be one of Vancouver's best players in order for the Canucks to advance.
This past regular season, he has been just that on many nights, finishing with a 38-15-7 record and a 2.11 GAA.
The past two post-seasons, however, he has been far from Vancouver's best player during those two crucial game six losses. His struggles in these two elimination games (13 GA) have been well-documented.
The Vancouver Canucks must get the Roberto Luongo who has played calm, positionally strong and solid all year in order to get past the Blackhawks.
After working with new goaltending coach Rollie Melanson on staying deeper in his net and using his size to his advantage, a much more in control Luongo has emerged. No longer does he need to dive across the net acrobatically in order to cover backdoor plays.
By using his 6'4" frame and staying inside the blue paint, Luongo is able to move around his crease with fluidity and ease.
One of the ways the Blackhawks were able to get to Luongo the past two years is their crease crashing, enabling them to knock him off his game. They were able to do this because in the past, Roberto would be well outside his crease, where he is not as protected.
These changes allow Luongo to operate inside the blue paint, where players are not able to enter and disrupt him without drawing a goaltender interference minor.
Those who point to his supposed non-ability to deal with pressure often forget both his gold medal run at the Vancouver Olympics, as well as his first playoffs with Vancouver in 2007 where he single-handedly carried an anemic Vancouver offense to the second round before being eliminated by the future Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.
In that playoff run, he posted a 1.77 GAA and a .941 save percentage, stats that are not often brought up by critics of his playoff resume.
It is due to the above reasons that I believe that Roberto Luongo will step up and make a positive difference for the Vancouver Canucks.
One of the biggest issues GM Mike Gillis targeted this summer was blueline depth. The current top four of Ehrhoff, Edler, Bieksa and Salo was already formidable, but it was clear that the Canucks needed more depth after the playoffs last year.
Missing Willie Mitchell and with Sami Salo hurting, the Canucks blueline was exposed against Chicago last year. By acquiring two more top four defensemen in Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard, Gillis tried to ensure that the team would not run out of serviceable defenseman again.
As expected, the injuries occurred, as Salo started the year on the DL, and was soon joined by the rest of the Canucks defense corps. Of the projected top six, only Christian Ehrhoff has not missed significant time this year.
In fact, that "dream six" only dressed for one game all year. Luckily for Vancouver, it happened in game 82, meaning that going into the playoffs they will have a healthy blueline for the first time all year.
Alex Edler has continued to grow into one of the best young blueliners in the league and has added a physical element to his smooth-skating style. He can make a great first pass and is arguably Vancouver's best defenseman.
Another player who could vie for that title is veteran Sami Salo. When healthy, Salo logs big minutes and is responsible in his own end. With two cannons from the point, Edler and Salo are two reasons why the Canucks have one of the league's best powerplays.
Add in Kevin Bieksa, who is experiencing a career year and is tied for second in the NHL in plus/minus, the fleet-footed Christian Ehrhoff and the two newcomers, Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard and Vancouver's top six is among the best in the league.
One thing the injuries have done is allowed Vancouver to showcase its depth on the blueline, which includes Andrew Alberts and Aaron Rome, along with impressive rookies Chris Tanev and Lee Sweatt.
It is clear that Gillis has gone great lengths to improve the back end and it will be a large factor if the Canucks hope to prevail over the Blackhawks.
Perhaps the greatest news Roberto Luongo has heard lately is that Dustin Byfuglien will not be participating in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The big man made life hell for Luongo in the previous playoff series. As I pointed out earlier, Luongo is less susceptible to crease-crashers due to his deeper play, but it certainly helps that Byfuglien will be far from Rogers Arena when the puck drops on Wednesday night.
"Big Buff" put up six points in six games, including a hat-trick in the last playoff series between the teams. For whatever reason, this guy has Vancouver's number and his presence will not be missed by Luongo and the rest of the Canucks.
Roberto Luongo put it best in his poetry segment he did for TSN earlier in the year:
"Human eclipse; Rhinoceros hips, who will laugh last when I slash your calf. Bring me peace, make it cease; Get your big ass, out of my crease."
Although the loss of Manny Malhotra puts a serious dent in Vancouver's depth, it is undeniable that their bottom six forwards have improved, while Chicago has lost key parts of their depth that was so crucial to their Cup run last year.
Raffi Torres has been an effective component on the third line, playing with Jannik Hansen. Together, they have formed an effective shutdown unit that can occasionally chip in offensively. While the tryouts for the centre to replace Malhotra's spot on that line still continue, Mason Raymond was looking good in that spot near the end of the year.
The only reason the Canucks can afford to try Raymond down on the third line is their deadline acquisitions. Chris Higgins has slotted in on the second line with Ryan Kesler and Mikael Samuelsson, giving the Canucks another big body to use.
Max Lapierre brings speed and grit to a fourth line that already features Tanner Glass. The bottom pairing has been a bit of a revolving door, with Jeff Tambellini and Victor Oreskovich, among others, fulfilling that last forward spot.
With rumours of Cody Hodgson being brought up and the flexibility the Canucks are afforded, it's clear their depth has improved since last year.
Meanwhile, Chicago has lost key contributors such as Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg. Dave Bolland's status is currently uncertain after the elbow he took from Pavel Kubina and his loss will leave a hole. Whether newcomers Michael Frolik, Fernando Pisani and Viktor Stalberg will be able to fill the void left by the aforementioned players is yet to be seen. But you'd have a hard time arguing that the Blackhawks bottom six forwards have improved.
Opposing NHL netminders have had Nick Backstrom's view all year long and for the Canucks to have success, that trend will have to continue.
Last postseason, Ryan Kesler fought off a shoulder injury that made it extremely difficult for him to perform fairly crucial tasks in a hockey game, such as shoot, pass and take faceoffs.
After an awkward collision on Saturday night in Calgary provided an injury scare, it seems that Kesler will be going into this post-season injury free and able to let his lethal wrist shot go, as he proved later in the third period of that game with his game-tying goal.
Kesler has been instrumental in the Canucks having the league's best powerplay, continually parking himself on top of the crease and providing a perfect screen. For every point he does get on the powerplay, there are countless goals where you will see Daniel Sedin firing a wrist shot past Ryan Kesler and a stunned goalie staring at nothing but Kesler's behind.
The Canucks cannot rely on just the Sedin twins to provide offense and production from Kesler's second line will be crucial.
The Selke-trophy candidate has been talked about as MVP of the Canucks this year and he will need to be just that if Vancouver is to move on.
Special teams are magnified in the playoffs, as every goal is that much more important.
Both teams have a strong powerplay, with Vancouver owning the top powerplay in the league at 24.3 percent and Chicago not far behind, ranked fourth with a 23.1 percent success rate.
The special teams discrepancy lies on the penalty kill, as Vancouver is tied for second at 85.6 percent, while Chicago has the second worst penalty kill of any playoff team. Ranked 25th in the league at 79.2 percent, this could be the difference in a tight series.
If Vancouver's top powerplay can continue to click and take advantage of one of Chicago's glaring weaknesses, it will be an enormous boost to their chances.
Seeing as how the two teams are meeting in the first round, Patrick Kane won't have enough time to grow out the phenomenal mullet he rocked in the postseason last year.
With the all important Cup winning goal, the mullet is another key part of Chicago's Cup win that they will be missing.
In all seriousness, this will be a wildly entertaining series, despite the fact there will be no hockey hair on No. 88 in red. Despite the reasons I have given, the core of the Chicago team that has given Vancouver fits is still intact and it will certainly be a test for the President's trophy winners.
Realistically, there are eight very good teams in the Western Conference that will be playing for the Stanley Cup and the Chicago Blackhawks are certainly not your ordinary eighth seed.
However, the Canucks have developed and matured over the past two years and I believe that they will be able to knock off those pesky "Hawks" and enjoy a long playoff run.