- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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The Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks have very little time to recharge after surviving one of the NHL's most dramatic first-round series in recent memory.
Having needed the maximum seven games plus overtime for good measure, Vancouver can exhale after finally beating its nemesis, Chicago. But can it regroup in time to focus on the Nashville Predators?
The Preds enter their first-ever second-round series as underdogs, although they did split the season series with the Canucks 2-2-0 with all four games low scoring and fairly close. The Canucks won 2-1 on Jan. 26 and 3-1 on March 29, but sandwiched in between were a 3-1 Nashville victory Feb. 17 and a 3-0 Preds win March 3.
This will be a homecoming of sorts for B.C. native Shea Weber of the Predators, a Norris trophy finalist this season and a player many people speculate could later in his career wear Canucks colors in his home province. But that's for another time. Right now, he's focused on upsetting his B.C. buddies with a Predators series win over the top-seeded Canucks.
1. Goaltending: The series features two of the three Vezina Trophy finalists in Pekka Rinne and Roberto Luongo. Neither netminder had a Vezina-like first round, with each getting pulled during his series. Rinne gave up 19 goals in six games versus the Ducks and sports an ugly .876 save percentage. But he was solid in the clinching game when it mattered most. Likewise, Luongo went from playoff goat after getting pilfered by the Blackhawks in Games 4 and 5 to hero following an all-star clutch performance in Game 7. He allowed 17 goals in parts of seven games and raised his save percentage to .903 following Tuesday night's brilliant, 31-save performance. Now that Luongo has the boogeyman Blackhawks out of his sight, look for him to settle down.
2. Are the Canucks a more fortified club now? The Chicago Blackhawks will tell you that a season ago, en route to their Stanley Cup championship, their scariest test came in the first round versus the Predators. But surviving that six-game scare with Nashville, in which they were seconds away from being down 3-2 in the series and heading to Nashville for Game 6, gave the Blackhawks wings the rest of the way. Similarly, the Canucks believed to a man Tuesday night after their Game 7 win over the Hawks that they will be galvanized by surviving their test with Chicago and now will be better prepared for what lies ahead. "This is a resilient team," Canucks blueliner Kevin Bieksa told ESPN.com on Tuesday night.
3. But, can the Canucks regroup physically? A year ago, it was a tired Detroit Red Wings team that survived a seven-gamer with Phoenix in the first round before traveling to San Jose to open the second round just two days later. The Red Wings never recuperated in time to make it a series. Can the Canucks avoid an early hole against the fresher Predators, who have been off since eliminating Anaheim on Sunday? One key difference from the Red Wings last year is that the Canucks get to sleep in their own beds and avoid a continental flight to begin the series.
4. Special teams: The Predators and Canucks have identical power-play percentages (22.2) after the first round, a somewhat surprising statistic for Nashville. But the Preds got key goals on the power play in their series win over Anaheim, Weber leading the way on the point with his deadly shot. It's a different story on the penalty kill, where the Preds, again surprisingly, were ranked dead last among the 16 teams in the first round, killing off only 63.6 percent of the Ducks' power plays. Anaheim had a deadly power play, but so does Vancouver. The Canucks were in the middle of the pack on the PK in the first round at 79.3 percent but, with the series on the line, had a huge kill against the Blackhawks in overtime of Game 7. The bottom line here is that the Preds need to stay out of the box because special teams look to be a key advantage for Vancouver.
5. Familiar faces: Shane O'Brien and Dan Hamhuis face their former teams. O'Brien was dealt away this past fall as the Canucks needed to trim down a loaded back end. You just know the fiery O'Brien, who clashed with Canucks coach Alain Vigneault during his time in Vancouver, would love to stick it to his former team. Look for him to try to get under the skin of his former teammates with some pushing and shoving after the whistle. Hamhuis was a big UFA loss for the Preds last summer, as a limited payroll gave them no chance to re-sign him. Hamhuis went home to his native B.C. and has had the anticipated impact of a high-end blueliner. He always played second fiddle to Weber and Ryan Suter in Nashville. Now he faces off in a playoff series against his former team with a chance to prove he's a top-2 defender.
• Shea Weber and Ryan Suter vs. the Sedin twins: The first round saw Weber and Suter, for our money the best defense pairing in the NHL, match up with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. The Predators blueliners did not disappoint, as they won that matchup, and that was a large part of their series victory over the Ducks. It doesn't get any easier now with the Sedin twins on tap, Henrik last year's Hart trophy winner and Daniel this year's Hart front-runner. Having said that, the twins need to step it up a notch. On the one hand, they did combine for 12 points (5-7) in seven games with Chicago, but that production was largely front loaded, as they struggled once the Hawks' Dave Bolland returned in Game 4 to shadow them. The Canucks need the twins to produce against the Weber/Suter matchup.
• Vancouver: Team USA Olympian Ryan Kesler was fantastic in Game 7 against the Blackhawks and was effective all series in helping limit Jonathan Toews to one goal. But Kesler scored 41 goals in the regular season, so his zero-goal performance in the first round can't carry over. Especially given the Sedin twins' tough matchup with Weber/Suter, Kesler needs to get on the board in this series.
• Nashville: Sergei Kostitsyn was brought to Nashville from Montreal last summer for one reason and one reason only: to score goals. He had a solid 20-goal campaign in the regular season but put up a donut in six playoff games against the Ducks. He did have four assists, but what the Preds need from him now is some goals.
• The Predators are going to make this a tougher series than most people predict. It wouldn't even shock us if they won it outright. But we're going to hold off on the upset pick because we feel the Canucks have seen the light after surviving the Blackhawks. Canucks in seven.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
9hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com