If ever there was a fitting way for the Vancouver Canucks to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup final, it was the goal that got them there: it came off the stick of a defenceman.
In the end, it didn’t really matter that it was Kevin Bieksa who scored a strange one in double-overtime to sink the San Jose Sharks in Game 5 of the Western Conference final. It very well could have been any of the blueliners. But it made sense that when the Canucks needed a goal to close out their third-round series, it came from the back end because nowhere was the gap between the two teams wider. That only became more apparent as the series unfolded.
There is an adage in sports that offence sells tickets, but defence wins championships. Where the Vancouver Canucks were concerned against San Jose, the blueline was great in both ends, providing 40 percent of the team’s 20 goals in the series. Canuck defencemen outscored their Shark counterparts eight to one.
It was a widely held belief heading into the series that Vancouver held an edge in terms of defensive depth. In reality, it wasn’t a fair fight when the two sides were stacked up and the series played out. From the drop of the puck in the series opener, the Canucks—as they’ve done all season—activated their defenders, giving them the green light to jump into the rush. That unleashed a multipronged attack for which the Sharks had no answer.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys in here who can do it all, and we feel we’ve got the best defence in the NHL,” Bieksa had said earlier in the San Jose series. “We’ve got confidence in each other and know that the coaches want us jumping up into the rush in the right situations.”
Bieksa scored in four of the five San Jose games, including the series clincher 10:18 into double-overtime on May 24. But he wasn’t alone. Sami Salo had a pair of goals, including the winner in Game 4 in San Jose, while Dan Hamhuis and Aaron Rome were also involved in the offence earlier in the series. In five games against their coastal counterparts, Canucks blueliners registered eight goals and 10 assists, averaging better than three-and-a-half points per contest. Not shabby considering Vancouver lost its highest-scoring defenceman, Christian Ehrhoff, to a suspected shoulder injury early in Game 3 of the series. Later in that same game, Rome had to be helped off the ice. But to the credit of the guys who picked up the slack in their absence, and those who were inserted into the lineup in their places—Keith Ballard and rookie Chris Tanev—the Canucks barely skipped a beat.
That’s nothing new for a team that has been dealing with adversity on the blueline all season long. Still, the San Jose series demonstrated that the Canucks have a defensive depth and versatility that other teams simply do not. And that will only continue to serve Vancouver well as the franchise now plays for the Stanley Cup for the first time in 17 years, and only the third time in its 41-year existence.
“I think at this time of the year, the only way to win and to move ahead is if you get contributions from everybody,” Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault said prior to Game 5. “It can’t be just Hank’s [Henrik Sedin's] line. Can’t just be [Ryan] Kesler’s line. You have to get something from the back end now and then. That’s how you win games and that’s how you move forward. So far we’ve had that, and we need that to continue.”
A year ago, when the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, their attack was fuelled by 20 goals from the back end. Through 18 games in the first three rounds of the 2011 playoffs, the Canucks defence has accounted for 14 goals, which isn’t far off a goal-a-game pace. But rather than load up and depend on one key offensive defenceman the way so many other teams do, the Canucks are blessed with an abundance of talent—and the ability to spread the wealth.
Ehrhoff (who is back skating and should be available for the finals) leads the charge with 11 postseason points. Bieksa leads all Canucks defencemen with five goals, while Salo’s three power-play goals are top on the team’s back. While he has registered just two playoff goals so far and didn’t find the net in the San Jose series, Alexander Edler is far and away the shot leader from the blueline.
By skating and moving the puck quickly, the Canucks’ defence neutralized the Sharks’ large forwards by eluding the forecheck and using a quick transition game to move to the attack. San Jose didn’t have anyone on its defence, outside of Dan Boyle, who was any factor over the course of the series.
Vancouver also had better goaltending, a more potent power play, and achieved more from its top-end forwards than did San Jose. In almost every facet of the game, the Canucks seemed to have the upper hand on the Sharks. But nowhere was there more of a discrepancy than on defence, where Vancouver is proving to have difference makers that no other team in hockey can handle. If they can keep it up for one more round, there is reason to believe that the Canucks will win the Stanley Cup.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/patersonjeff.