The Cinderella Blues really have nothing to lose in this series; they shouldn’t have even made the playoffs after all. Missing their top scorer and biggest defenseman for the season, they were supposed to be on the golf course by now. The question is, will they bow out in the first round or drive deep into the playoffs before succumbing to a better team? The fact is Cinderella teams are a nice story while they last, but they generally don’t last long.
Long the darling of analysts, Roberto Luongo is making only his second post-season appearance. Holding him up against goalies like Martin Brodeur, doubters would scoff that he had never had to play a “meaningful” game in the NHL. He impressed in his playoff debut last year, but his team did not. Perhaps this is the year that Luongo will finally prove that he’s one of the greatest to anyone who watches him this postseason.
Vancouver Offense vs. St. Louis Defense
Vancouver Offensive GVT: + 8.9 (Rank: 11th in NHL)
St. Louis Defensive GVT: + 7.0 (Rank: 11th in NHL)
St. Louis Goaltending GVT: - 6.3 (Rank: 22nd in NHL)
It appears the key to a victorious Vancouver squad is to stay out of the penalty box. Their even strength offense is very good, scoring 8.9 GVT above average during the regular season. St. Louis doesn’t have much to offer on defense. Their skaters as a whole are solid (7.0 GVT above average), but their goaltending lets them down (6.3 GVT below average), resulting in a middling, league-average defense at even strength. While this is not a huge advantage for the Canucks, it certainly helps. Combined with their great advantage when St. Louis has the puck (see below), they are clearly the dominant team in this series as long as no player is in the penalty box.
Alex Burrows is a secret weapon for the Canucks on offense. That may seem strange to say, since the winger did garner quite a bit of attention this year for his goal-scoring. He finished the season with a respectable 51 points, which is hardly eye-popping, and was only fifth in team scoring. His scoring totals are deceptive, however, because he was almost never used on the power-play. He averaged only 27 seconds of power-play time per game and didn’t register a single man-advantage point. He was third on the team in even strength points and actually led the Canucks with 24 even strength goals. Had he been given, Pavol Demitra’s power-play minutes, Burrows probably would have had around 70 points this year. Overall, he’s very effective at even strength and should play an important part in the series.
Identifying St. Louis’ best defenseman is an interesting prospect. We’ll exclude Eric Brewer, who’s out with an injury and has been for much of the year. Physical Barrett Jackman leads the squad in average ice time, but his plus-minus was terrible this year and he takes too many penalties to be sufficiently effective. His 1.5 defensive GVT is surprisingly low given how highly his physical play is thought of. Solid Jay McKee led the team in defensive GVT, but he doesn’t play enough to impact the game, playing just over 17 minutes per game. The Blues really don’t have a go-to guy on defense.
St. Louis Offense vs. Vancouver Defense
St. Louis Offensive GVT: - 15.6 (Rank: 23rd in NHL)
Vancouver Defensive GVT: + 8.5 (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Vancouver Goaltending GVT: + 12.0 (Rank: 6th in NHL)
This is where Vancouver really shines. The Canucks scored 20.5 GVT above league average for their even strength defense, to which both the skaters (8.5 GVT) and goaltending (12.0 GVT) contributed significantly. It’s not enough that they have a great goaltender in Roberto Luongo, they have a very solid team defense as well. The blueline corps is not particularly physical; Bieksa, Ohlund, Edler and Mitchell all had between 82 and 119 hits, but the only defensemen that could really be called physical players are sixth man Shane O’Brien and spare defenseman Ossi Vaananen. This is not a crease-clearing bunch, but St. Louis isn’t really a crease-crashing team anyway. Willie Mitchell is the leader defensively, clocking in at 7.7 defensive GVT.
To make matters worse for Blues fans, St. Louis really doesn’t have anything to bring against this defense. The Blues scored an anemic 15.6 GVT below average on even strength offense. Their overall leading scorers are also their best bets here; David Backes led the team with only 40 ES points, which illustrates their lack of scoring. Having Andy McDonald in the lineup, who missed nearly half the season with injury, will certainly help the Blues. However, he alone is not enough to overcome their scoring woes.
To sum up: Vancouver is very difficult to score on at even strength and St. Louis has a hard time scoring at even strength against an average NHL team in that situation. Putting this together with Vancouver’s small advantage on offense, you have a Canucks team that should dominate the play. As long as they can stay away from needless penalties, that is.
Vancouver Power-Play vs. St. Louis Penalty-Kill
Vancouver Power-Play Offensive GVT: -0.7 (Rank: 17th in NHL)
St. Louis Penalty-Kill Defensive GVT: + 9.7 (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
Vancouver’s advantage dissipates on odd-man play. They have a respectable power-play, just above the league average in overall effectiveness. The Blues defend very well when they’re a man down; their 9.7 GVT above average on penalty-killing defense is very good. This is offset somewhat by their tendency to take a few more penalties than they should, but again the Vancouver man advantage is not of the fear-striking variety. Thus, the Blues excessive penalties taken on the year shouldn’t be that significant of a factor in this series.
Vancouver has a very high-skill forward line on the first power-play unit in the Sedins and Pavol Demitra. The second unit is “led” by Mats Sundin, who did not impress after returning to hockey at the midpoint of the season. The distribution of power-play time among Vancouver forwards is puzzling, as Kyle Wellwood, Steve Bernier, Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond all had significant opportunities and disappointing results, while leading even strength goal-scorer Alex Burrows got next to nothing in terms of ice time. Something doesn’t make sense there.
St. Louis Power-Play vs. Vancouver Penalty-Kill
St. Louis Power-Play Offensive GVT: + 5.5 (Rank: 7th in NHL)
Vancouver Penalty-Kill Defensive GVT: + 1.3 (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Once again, St. Louis holds the advantage here, albeit a small one. When up a man, the Blues’ offense goes from anemic to effective, scoring 5.5 GVT above average. Meanwhile, the Canucks do not defend particularly well in this situation. Vancouver has a penalty-killing team that is league-average in effectiveness, but hurt by the fact that they take a fairly large number of penalties. The Blues need the man advantage to have a chance against this team. They should focus on pestering the Canucks and should not retaliate if a penalty is drawn. Scoring on the power-play is the only real option the Blues have if they expect to have a chance at taking down the superior team in the Canucks. Discipline is the key.
Season Series Results
The regular-season series between these clubs was surprisingly high-scoring. They split four games, with Vancouver outscoring St. Louis 15 goals to 14. Don't read too much into these games; four games is not nearly enough to judge a team by. Vancouver is a substantially better team than the Blues.
Injuries and Intangibles
Vancouver goes into the series almost injury-free. Taylor Pyatt may not be available, but while he's a solid player he's certainly not irreplacable. Indeed, the Canucks have largely avoided the injury bug all season, with only Sami Salo and Pavol Demitra missing any real time among their top players.
On one hand, St. Louis is not so fortunate. They've gone nearly the entire season without Paul Kariya, who recorded 15 points in the 11 games he did play in. If he were in the lineup, the Blues’ impotent even strength offense would undoubtedly be much-improved. Defenseman Eric Brewer played only 28 games this year and young stud Erik Johnson missed the entire season after undergoing knee surgery in the fall. On the other hand, they made the playoffs without these players. Their playoff roster is essentially the same as their regular-season lineup. Kariya may make it back to the team later in the series, at which point it may be too late to help.
Teams that make surprising playoff runs tend to do so on the back of a stretch of spectacular play by their goaltenders. In this department Vancouver has the decided edge. Luongo is arguably the best goaltender in the game over the past several years and in his one playoff appearance in 2007, he recorded a .941 save percentage in 12 games. If Luongo brings his “A” game, the Blues should bow out quickly.
Based on regular-season results, Vancouver has about a 64% chance to win this series. They are simply a better team than the Blues. Luongo gives the Canucks a chance to win any game he plays in and the team doesn’t need that much help in this series. Cinderella stories almost always end badly in the NHL playoffs. There’s no reason to think any differently here.
Prediction: Vancouver in 6 games.