First round lesson for Vancouver Canucks: hit or be hit
For Vancouver Canucks forwards Kyle Wellwood, Mason Raymond, and Rick Rypien, it was the ultimate case of on-the-job training—and it couldn’t have gone any better. Those three had all heard the stories of the excitement and intensity of National Hockey League playoff action but had never experienced it for themselves prior to the Canucks’ four-game opening-round sweep of the St. Louis Blues.
And the experience definitely lived up to the hype.
“Oh, for sure, and maybe it was even more than I expected,” a wide-eyed Rypien told the Georgia Straight after a recent practice at GM Place while the Canucks awaited the start of their second-round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks. “It was exciting going into the unknown, and that first game was a moment I’ll never forget and is definitely a highlight of my career so far.”
Although the results on the scoreboard were terrific (the Canucks completed the first sweep of a best-of-seven series in franchise history), it was all of the buildup for the games that left the biggest impression on Raymond. The second-year winger had been told by teammates about the way the entire city embraces hockey at playoff time. And he saw it for himself when the Canucks kicked off the postseason with a 2-1 victory in front of their home fans on April 15.
“With the energy in the building and throughout the city and the level of play out there, everybody stepped it up a notch and it was amazing to be a part of,” said Raymond, who didn’t figure in the scoring against St. Louis but hit a post in the second game and contributed a number of solid third-line shifts hemming the Blues in their own zone.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the first round was the way Raymond and his diminutive linemate Wellwood responded to the physical nature of playoff hockey. Neither of them is known as a bruiser, but both showed a willingness to get involved and held their own when bodies started flying.
At this time of year, it’s hit or be hit. And Raymond elevated his battle level as part of a penalty-killing unit that allowed just one St. Louis power-play goal on 24 attempts in the series.
“Guys are throwing their bodies out there and doing whatever it takes to win a game,” he said. “An inch can mean everything at this time of year, so you have to take a hit to make a play and you have to finish your checks when you have a chance. It’s just fun to be a part of.”
If he had his choice, Wellwood would much rather skate around opponents than through them—and he did a little of both against St. Louis. But he learned early in the series with the Blues that space was scarce and physical contact was inevitable. So he adapted his game and didn’t shy away from the hits—though he’s glad that the Canucks were able to finish the first round in four games because he now has a better appreciation for the toll a deep playoff run would certainly take on his body.
“For one round, it was fun,” the former Toronto Maple Leaf, who had a goal and an assist in the series with St. Louis, said of doling out and being dealt a steady dose of body contact. “As you go deeper and play a really tough physical team, it might get tougher. I’m sure we’ll all have bruises, and some of the hits might take the wind out of us. I think you just have to be aware all the time to make sure you don’t take that one hit that can take you out of the game.”
That one hit is something Rypien is always looking to deliver. The scrappy speedster was built for playoff-style hockey, using his wheels to get in on opposing defencemen and wear them down with a relentless forecheck. As a fourth-liner, Rypien saw limited ice time, with the Canucks either leading by a goal or tied going to the third period of all four games against the Blues.
But when he was given the green light to hop over the boards, he knew he had a job to do and did his best to make things happen.
“That’s the type of hockey a guy like me and our line [with Ryan Johnson and Darcy Hordichuk] wants to play,” said Rypien, who, along with Willie Mitchell, shares the team lead in playoff penalty minutes with 12. “I think we play better in those kinds of games, and the more physical and gritty, the more we get into it and the more we can get the guys on the team going.”
And Rypien knows that a whole lot more energy will be required for the Canucks to make it through three more rounds of the playoffs, leaving them the last team standing in the chase for the Stanley Cup.
“What makes it so hard is that pace and that intensity,” he added. “It’s not just one period; it’s every period, every game, and that doesn’t let up.”
Now that Rypien, Raymond, and Wellwood are no longer strangers to playoff hockey (backup goalie Jason LaBarbera is the only player on the current Canucks roster never to have seen action in an NHL postseason contest), they all have a greater understanding of what it takes to win at this time of the year. And they all believe that with the uncertainty out of the way, they will now be better prepared to contribute in the second round.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. Readers can e-mail him at email@example.com.