Last spring, the Vancouver Canucks suffered from an acute inability to deliver the death blow. The fortunes of the two-time Presidents' Trophy winners in this year's springtime hockey rodeo will in part, and perhaps largely, rest on the Canucks' gumption to decisively knock out reeling opponents.
Twelve months ago, the Canucks barely survived the first round against the Chicago Blackhawks, blowing a 3-0 series lead and nearly securing Vancouver a prominent place in the Choking Hall of Fame.
The second round against Nashville was spotty, too. The Canucks let a lead slip away in late in Game 2 – after dominating the third period all season – and flew to Nashville tied 1-1 instead of up 2-0. Then, in Game 5, the Canucks lost a lead at home and had to haul themselves back to Nashville to close the series in six.
Finally, against Boston, the sordid story hardly needs retelling: Vancouver blew a 2-0 lead, then a 3-2 lead, and then, on home ice, lost 4-0 in Game 7. The rioting outside the arena started before the final buzzer sounded, the fans inside afterward disgracefully booed Gary Bettman.
The past month of hockey suggests the Canucks do indeed have more fortitude than they did a year ago, winning eight of 11 one-goal games down the stretch. Against the Los Angeles Kings, goals may come at an extreme premium, so the Canucks will need every ounce of oomph they seem to have conjured. It is especially so because as the puck drops Wednesday night at about 7:45 p.m. PT, Vancouver, like last year, faces a team that is hardly a typical eighth seed.
The Kings didn't look great in their final two losses of the regular season, blowing leads in both games of a home-and-away scrap with rival San Jose. Despite this, the chatter about L.A. is of a team that realistically can make a serious run for June and the Stanley Cup.
This season, L.A. gave up the second-fewest goals in the league, and since the trade-deadline arrival of Jeff Carter, the Kings have become a scoring force, after barely being able to score at all. (Carter missed the last five games of the season but is expected back this week.)
The Kings, according to Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault, have been "one of the best in the NHL" since coach Darryl Sutter took the reins. Los Angeles was 15-14-4 before Sutter and 25-13-11 under the oversight of the man who took the underdog Calgary Flames to Game 7 of the Cup in 2004.
"They come at you real hard," Vigneault said about the Kings after the Canucks practised on Tuesday.
Vigneault again highlighted the Canucks' ability to open games strongly this season. The Canucks led the NHL in first-period goals, with 81, and had the second-fewest scored on them, 46. (L.A. gave up the third-fewest first-period goals, 47, but scored the second fewest, 54.) Getting a lead is always key, in any sport. Getting it, and holding it, will be crucial against Los Angeles.
The Kings, arguably, outplayed Vancouver in four games this season, according to the statisticians at canucksarmy.com, who say the Canucks were saved by outstanding goaltending from Roberto Luongo. The teams split the four games, and Luongo's save percentage was an outstanding 0.962 (even better than Jonathan Quick's amazing 0.951).
Analyst Thomas Drance calculated that the Kings had almost 50-per-cent more scoring chances than the Canucks at even-strength in their four games this year, and also had more chances when the score was tied. The Kings also had a better power play and penalty kill. Drance, a Vancouver fan, predicts the Kings will upend the Canucks in six games.
In the predicted low-scoring series, the spotlight on goaltending will be exceptionally bright. Luongo's playoff ups and downs are well chronicled. Expect to see a certain redhead backup if Luongo falters.
But, also, consider this: If a Vézina candidate who goes by Jonathan was named Roberto, there might be more questions, and less reverence, about the L.A. netminder. Quick has had an amazing season but in his two playoff appearances (Vancouver in 2010 and San Jose in 2011) he was quite ordinary, losing eight of 12, a save-percentage of 0.900 and a goals-against average of 3.32.
Let the wild rumpus start.