After what seemed an eternity between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, the puck finally dropped to begin the much awaited first game of the Western Conference Quarterfinals between the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks.
And it was a great game, at least from a Vancouver perspective.
Multiple Blackhawks barely escaped being leveled by open ice hits, ducking away at the last moment as the Canucks went all out to make the visitors feel unwelcome. Maxim Lapierre led the way with eight hits in only 11:52 of ice time. And perhaps more importantly, the Canucks didn't take any penalties on those hits.
The Blackhawks ended up losing two two forwards to injury due to the barrage of hits.
Right winger Tomas Kopecky only played four shifts before being rocked by Sami Salo. He left the game with an upper body injury.
Late in the third, center Ryan Johnson, a former Canuck who was on the losing end of the last two Canucks/Blackhawks series, left the game after attempting to sidestep a hit by Tanner Glass, but ending up taking a leg on leg hit.
There has not been any updates for either Johnson or Kopecky, but based on Kopecky leaving early in the first and not returning, I'd imagine he won't play on Friday for game two.
Johnson, on the other hand, is a warrior who always plays hurt and it looked like a charlie horse, so I believe he will be available to play Game 2.
The Canucks also out shot the Hawks 33-32, with both teams hitting at least 3-4 posts each. Roberto Luongo came up big with a huge shutout, while Cory Crawford was beaten twice in the first period.
On the first goal, Ryan Kesler dug the puck out of the corner and fed Kevin Bieksa, whose point shot was then tipped perfectly by Chris Higgins to put the Canucks up 1-0.
Minutes later, Kesler blocked a Duncan Keith shot, and then Mikael Samuelsson fed Jannik Hansen a perfect breakaway pass. Hansen took the pass on the fly and snapped the puck over Crawford's glove to put the Canucks up 2-0.
In the second period, the Hawks stopped rolling lines and went almost exclusively with their big players remaining from the championship team. They out shot the Canucks 15-13 in the second, but thanks to a highlight reel save by Luongo to deny Brian Campbell the open net, the Canucks came out unscathed.
In the third, it was more of the same, with both teams exchanging chances but no goals as both goalies shut the door and also got more help from their posts.
Of note was special teams: Neither team scored on the man advantage, but the Hawks gave up several shorthanded chances on their power plays, which is uncharacteristic.
It wasn't all sunshine for the Canucks though.
Neither Sedin hit the scoresheet in a good way, as both Henrik and Daniel took minor penalties for slashing. The top line of the Sedins and Alex Burrows combined for six shots and some good scoring opportunities, but were denied by Crawford and the posts.
Some positive play from the makeshift third line was encouraging. Aside from Hansen scoring, Mason Raymond and rookie Cody Hodgson looked comfortable as well.
On his first shift, Hodgson showed he was ready for the playoffs, taking a defensive zone faceoff, and then at the other end of the ice he went hard to the net, drawing a crowd of Hawks for an after whistle scrum.
On defense, all six starters looked good. Coach Vigneault rolled the three pairings to even out the ice time and there didn't seem to be a weak pairing for the Hawks to exploit.
The defence was consistently stepping up to deny the blue line and lay out huge hits all night as well.
My three stars:
1. Roberto Luongo: He pitches a shutout in a playoff game against a team which has averaged almost four goals a night against him in the playoffs. Of note is that Luongo's last regular season game was a shutout as well.
2. Ryan Kesler: He helped create both goals, threw big hits and was all over the ice in his 20:46 of ice time.
3. Maxim Lapierre: Eight hits and he went five for seven in the faceoff circle, allowing the Canucks to roll all four lines with confidence.
*Honorable mention to Dan Hamhuis. He was solid all game and led the Canucks with 22:31 in ice time.
And as you can see from the picture at the top of the article, he had fun welcoming Patrick Kane back to the playoffs, taking a minor penalty for roughing in garbage time.
The fans loved it.