VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are looking forward to staying on the West Coast in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Starting Wednesday, the Canucks will renew their post-season rivalry with the Los Angeles Kings in Vancouver. Game two goes Friday at Rogers Arena while the third and fourth games of the best-of-seven series will be held April 15 and 18 in Los Angeles.
If necessary, the fifth game will occur in Vancouver on April 22; the sixth will take place in Los Angeles on April 24; and the series will close out in Vancouver on April 26.
The Canucks will have short flights, a potentially key factor in the likely event that the series extends beyond the minimum four games and the teams have only a one-day break before each of the last three games.
“Every team in our conference is going to be a battle, so it’s good that we’re staying in the same time zone,” said Vancouver defenceman Alex Edler. “It can’t hurt.”
The Canucks meet the Kings in the opening round for the second time in three years. In the 2009-10 post-season, Vancouver prevailed over Los Angeles in six games.
For the second straight season, the Canucks finished first in the Western Conference and overall in the NHL, posting a 51-22-9 record. The Kings drew Vancouver after battling just to get into the playoffs and finishing in eighth place in the West with a 40-28-14 mark.
“We know for sure we get home-ice advantage (in every round), so that’s a big thing,” said Edler. “It’s a great accomplishment to win the whole league. But now is when it starts. (Finishing first overall) doesn’t mean anything if you don’t get it done in the playoffs.”
The Canucks enter the playoffs on a roll, having won eight of their past nine games, including seven straight at home. All of the wins have come without injured scoring star Daniel Sedin (concussion).
“We’ve been playing the way we want lately, using our system,” said Edler. “There are a lot of good players on this team. Obviously, with a loss like Daniel, it’s good to see that other guys are stepping up and doing a good job.”
They clinched first place in the West and overall with a resounding 3-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday.
The Kings, on the other hand, are a modest 6-3-2 in their past 11. They drew the Canucks after losing their regular-season finale to the San Jose Sharks on Saturday. Had the Sharks lost, they would have played Vancouver.
Although the Kings’ uniforms are the same from two seasons ago when the clubs last met in the playoffs, many of the faces are different. The most significant change is behind the bench, where Darryl Sutter took over from the fired Terry Murray earlier this season.
Other notable additions include forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who formerly played together in Philadelphia. But Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa expects emotions to flare like the last time the teams met in the playoffs.
This season, the teams split their four games. One of Vancouver’s two losses came in overtime and three of the contests were decided by one goal.
“We’ve had a little bit of a rivalry with them the past two years,” said Bieksa. “We beat them in the playoffs a couple years ago. It kind of started from there. It’s probably one of the teams we’ve had the most scrums with throughout the season. “(They are) very deep, I think, up front and really strong on the blue-line and probably (have) one of the best goaltenders in the game. So pick your poison.”
Kings starting netminder Jonathan Quick finished with the NHL’s second-best goals-against average (1.95) while allowing only 133 goals. Only the St. Louis Blues (163) gave up fewer goals than Los Angeles (179).
But Vancouver, on the basis of its record this season, is the clear favourite. Now, it’s a question of how well the Canucks can handle that label and take advantage of reduced travel time.
Last spring, while making long trips from the West Coast to the U.S. Midwest, the Canucks had difficulty in the first round against Chicago and needed an overtime goal from Alex Burrows in the seventh game to push themselves through. Bieksa said Vancouver has prepared the right way for the post-season, despite placing first overall and in the West by a closer margin than last year. (The Canucks took No. 1 overall after the Rangers lost Saturday, and were able to claim first in the West after St. Louis lost a night earlier.)
The Canucks are also a different club than the one a year ago that fell to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals in seven games.
“We’re smarter, for sure,” said Bieksa. “Obviously, we haven’t been pacing ourselves, but we’ve been cautious. Coaches and management have done a great job of spreading ice time out down the stretch and giving days off when need be. We’re taking good care of ourselves. We’re doing the right workouts going down (the stretch), so everything’s geared towards Game 1 and round one.”
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said his team is also more mature. Aside from a few minor alterations, the current Vancouver squad is similar to the one that ousted the Kings two springs ago.
“This group is different than last year,” he said. “As soon as you change an element, it’s a different team. We’ve changed a few elements, but our core has stayed the same. The core in our team is focused, is motivated, and they’re ready for this opportunity.”
Accordingly, the Canucks don’t care who they play in the first round. Centre Ryan Kesler said the club must simply get ready and re-energize for the playoffs.
“For us, we’ve gotta worry about ourselves,” said Kesler.