Commentary

First-round breakdown: Canucks-Blues

Updated: April 14, 2009, 7:01 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Talk about two hot teams meeting in the first round.

The Vancouver Canucks have steamrolled through the NHL since Feb. 1, going an amazing 23-7-2 to close out the regular season. But they face a St. Louis Blues squad that's been nearly as good over the same stretch (21-7-6).

Both clubs are riding excellent goaltending, good special teams and balanced scoring. Neither team was expected to do much when the pundits were making predictions last September. Many had the Canucks missing the playoffs and almost all had the Blues missing the postseason.

The Blues, especially, have stunned the experts. Not only did they reach the playoffs, but they did it despite 461 man-games lost to injury. Stud sophomore blueliner Erik Johnson missed the entire season after a freak golf cart accident ruptured his ACL during the preseason. Veteran defenseman Eric Brewer and star winger Paul Kariya also have missed most of the season. But the Blues persevered, buoyed by the big contributions of rookies T.J. Oshie and Patrick Berglund, and the rock-solid goaltending of Chris Mason in the second half of the season.

1. Louie, Louie. Roberto Luongo set a franchise record for shutouts in a season with nine despite missing 24 games due to injury. Vancouver's record while Luongo was out: 9-12-3. Luongo went 33-13-7 in the 54 games he played this season. Yes, he's the man, he's the captain and he's the best goalie in the NHL. Now it's time for him to take the torch from Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy and translate that dominating puck-stopping talent into the postseason. Luongo has played only 12 career postseason games after starting his career with lowly Florida and made the playoffs in one out of his two seasons in Vancouver. Is this the year Luongo makes his spring-time mark?

2. Paul Kariya. The 34-year-old star winger hasn't played since Nov. 5 after his season was marred by surgeries on both hips. The Blues maintain hope of a possible return in the first round. Blues president John Davidson told ESPN.com via text message Sunday evening that Kariya was still doing rehab in Colorado and could be cleared "mid- to-later" this week. Adding the veteran sniper to a forward group that already includes Brad Boyes, David Backes, Andy McDonald, Oshie, Berglund, Keith Tkachuk and David Perron would make the top three lines that much deeper. And dangerous.

3. Two-line attack. Vancouver's offense took off after coach Alain Vigneault decided to split up his terrific checking-line duo of Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows around midseason. Vigneault put Burrows on the top line with the Sedin twins (Daniel and Henrik) and Kesler on the second unit with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra. The results were dramatic, giving the Canucks a two-line scoring attack for the first time in ages. If you're Blues coach Andy Murray, which Canucks line do you match up your shutdown pair with? Probably the Sedins, but that leaves the Sundin trio to do their damage.

4. The Blues' special teams. St. Louis might have an edge here over Vancouver, ranking third in the NHL in penalty killing and eighth on the power play. The Canucks were 16th on the penalty kill and 17th with the man-advantage.

5. New to the dance. It's not like either of these teams has that much playoff experience to draw upon. In fact, other than Vancouver's 2006-07 playoff foray, which included a first-round series win over Dallas, neither team has played any other playoff games since the lockout. The playoff experience, or lack thereof, cancels each other out on both sides.

• Canucks' offense vs. Chris Mason. The Blues goalie has surprised many with his sensational, second-half form. But it's a whole new level come playoff time. Mason has one career playoff victory under his belt, going 1-4 in five career games, all in 2005-06 with Nashville. Can he hold up versus Vancouver's two-line attack?

• Vancouver: Luongo ended the regular season by allowing only one goal in his final three starts, stopping 88 of 89 shots. Forward Kyle Wellwood had three points (2-1) in his final 13 regular-season games.

• St. Louis: Mason was 9-1-1 in his final 11 regular-season games, allowing 23 goals. Rookie center Patrick Berglund was held pointless in his last six regular-season games.

• The Blues had the best second-half record in the NHL (25-9-7) and, because of that, will be a popular upset pick. Unfortunately for them, they drew a team that's been just as good over the final 10 weeks of the season, a team with a little more talent and a more established, elite netminder. But it won't be easy for Vancouver. Canucks in seven.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.