Christian Ehrhoff's injury in Game 3 of the Western Conference final became a blessing in disguise for the Vancouver Canucks.
Minus their top offensive defenceman, head coach Alain Vigneault was forced to make some changes on the top power-play unit, and replaced Ehrhoff with veteran Sami Salo, who possess one of the hardest slap shots in the NHL. The move, which began in the late stages of Game 3, and carried over to Game 4 Sunday, led to a 4-2 win over the San Jose Sharks at the HP Pavilion, and a 3-1 series lead.
Salo scored two goals during five-on-three power plays, and the Canucks grabbed a series stranglehold heading into Game 5 Tuesday at Rogers Arena. Vancouver is just one victory away from its first Stanley Cup finals appearance in 17 years, and the team was sent off in style by thousands of Canucks fans who made the trip to San Jose and saluted their team with chants of "we want the Cup" as it left the ice.
"It's been a long journey this year," said Salo, who missed all but 27 regular-season games this year after rupturing his Achilles tendon last summer. "But obviously it is really exciting. It's the first time in my long career to have a chance to play in the Western Conference finals...it couldn't be any better."
The 12-year veteran from Finland has played on some excellent teams in his NHL tenure; the famed West Coast Express clubs in Vancouver earlier this decade, and the Ottawa Senators as they were cresting towards a Presidents' Trophy campaign in 2002-03.
"In all the years I've been here, we've had great teams," the 36-year-old said. "It just seems that this year, the team is really united together."
Sharks head coach Todd McLellan admitted that his team couldn't handle Vancouver's new look during three five-on-three situations in the middle period. The Canucks scored on every occasion, and became the first team in NHL history to score three five-on-three goals in a playoff game.
Vancouver had just one five-on-three goal during the 82-game regular season, but Salo scored twice just 16 seconds apart with his famed slapper.
"You've got to find a way to get in those lanes," McLellan said. "We're not giving up three five-on-three goals to that team and coming back."
McLellan explained that a right-handed shooter like Salo, as opposed to the left-handed Ehrhoff, opened up a lot more ice for the Canucks, and allowed Henrik Sedin to feed some easy passes for powerful one-time shots.
"It opened a lot of different options for me as a passer," Sedin said.
Special teams were a huge key as Vancouver killed off San Jose's first five power plays before exploding in the second period. The Canucks set five postseason club records in the game, including the fastest three goals (1 minute 55 seconds), and the fastest two goals by one player (Salo).
"The penalty-killing was huge," winger Daniel Sedin said. "When you take that number of penalties in the early going, you have to kill them off."
Henrik Sedin had four assists, and brother Daniel had three as the twins continue to be dominant in this puck-possession series. Ryan Kesler scored his first goal in five games, and Alex Burrows iced the win with a tally early in the third.
Roberto Luongo made 33 saves, while Antti Niemi was torched for four goals on just 13 shots, the fewest in Vancouver's postseason history.
Vigneault said that he faced some tough decisions on defence after losing Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome (upper-body injury) in Game 3. He replaced them with Keith Ballard, who hadn't played since Game 2 of the previous round, and rookie Chris Tanev, who was playing his first career playoff game. But the most significant move was elevating Salo to the No. 1 power play.
"Without a doubt, Sami's shot is a big weapon," the coach said. "Sami's shot was available, and we used it twice."