- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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One year later, the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks meet again in the second round. Vancouver's 2009 playoffs came to a crushing end in Game 6 at the United Center when Chicago exploded for seven goals on Roberto Luongo in a night few in the Canucks organization will ever forget.
This postseason, Chicago and Vancouver return to the second round with one thing in common: Both believe they're one step closer to challenging for the ultimate prize this time.
The Blackhawks and Canucks were both picked by many to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup finals, both clubs winning their respective divisions. Because of those high expectations, one team will be thoroughly disappointed with a second-round exit. It's Stanley Cup or bust.
Both teams needed six games to survive serious first-round tests and were down 2-1 in their respective series before rallying with three straight wins (the Hawks took out the Nashville Predators and the Canucks ousted the Los Angeles Kings).
Don't be surprised to see a long series again in this round.
1. Goaltending: Might as well start with the obvious, right? Luongo returns to the scene of the crime. He was so upset with the seven-goal barrage in May that he started crying about two or three questions into his postgame media session. Had to feel for the big fella. Now, he gets a chance at redemption, and he has added an Olympic gold medal to his résumé since that fateful night in Chicago.
Luongo struggled after the Olympics, and when he was pulled in Game 3 against the Kings, his critics had a field day. What an answer he had in store for them. His breakaway save on Alexander Frolov in Game 4 saved the series, and his Game 6 heroics, notably the save of the entire playoffs on Ryan Smyth, shut the series down. Forget that unimpressive 2.93 goals-against average and .893 save percentage from the first round; most of that damage comes from Game 3. Bobby Lou appears to be back on track.
At the other end of the ice, Antti Niemi's first-round numbers were sparkling, a 2.15 GAA and .921 save percentage backed by a pair of shutouts. And yet #&133; don't you still get that uneasy feeling the rookie hasn't really been tested yet? No offense to Nashville, but the Preds are not an offensive juggernaut. The Canucks? They can score goals and then some. Niemi's test is coming.
2. The new guys: The two most notable additions on each team made an impact in the first round. Blackhawks star winger Marian Hossa had seven points (1-6) in six games, including the OT winner in Game 5 that proved to be the turning point in the series. Canucks winger Mikael Samuelsson certainly didn't get the same attention in July as Hossa, but his signing by Vancouver has proved to be one of the best offseason moves in the league. Samuelsson led all Canucks with a monster 11 points (7-4) in six games, catching fire after coach Alain Vigneault moved him to the Sedin twins' line in Game 4.
3. Special teams: When you watched the Canucks try to kill penalties in the first round, it was hard to believe they had a Selke Trophy nominee on their roster in Ryan Kesler. The Canucks gave up a whopping 10 power-play goals, including six goals on six consecutive power plays at one point. Their 61.5 percent kill rate was easily the worst among the 16 playoff teams in the first round. The Hawks, meanwhile, were superb in the first round, killing 26 of 27 Nashville power plays. On the flip side, Vancouver rolled along on the power play in the first round at a 25 percent clip, and the Hawks, despite their awesome array of offensive talent, converted only 17.9 percent of their chances, continuing a regular-season trend.
4. The twins: There was once a time when people questioned the playoff mettle of the Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Not anymore. The twins combined for 18 points (5-13), but, more importantly, they scored clutch goals, especially in a critical Game 4 comeback win and the clinching Game 6 victory, both in Los Angeles. These guys have brought their game to another level this season and, so far, that has continued in the playoffs. The twins were OK against Chicago last postseason but didn't really dominate. Now is their chance to make amends.
5. Vancouver defensive corps: The Achilles' heel of these Canucks, no matter what anybody says, is their blue line. They were exposed at times in the first round with Kings forwards skating wide on them on numerous occasions and really making them looked overmatched. Against a Chicago team even deeper offensively than Los Angeles, watch out.
• Top Blackhawks defensive pairing Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook versus the Sedins/Samuelsson line: Drew Doughty and Rob Scuderi did a good job early in the series against the Canucks' top line but later were burned by the explosive Vancouver trio. This will be a huge test for Keith and Seabrook, who figure to see a ton of ice time once again.
• Chicago: Jonathan Toews showed he was clutch at the Olympics, and that didn't change in the first round as he led the Hawks with eight points (2-6) in six games. Troy Brouwer was pointless in the opening round and was minus-4.
• Vancouver: Samuelsson led the Canucks with seven goals in six games in the opening round. Second-line winger Mason Raymond had only one goal against Los Angeles.
• This has the makings of a long and entertaining series between possibly the best two teams left standing in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, one of them has to go. No doubt I am going against the grain, but I like the minor upset here. Canucks in seven games.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
This has the making of a long and entertaining series, but Pierre LeBrun smells a minor upset here with the Canucks prevailing over the Blackhawks.