VANCOUVER, British Columbia — When Daniel and Henrik Sedin streak down the ice, exchanging crisp passes in a display of their jaw-dropping offensive creativity, it’s easy to forget the Vancouver Canucks were the NHL’s best defensive team this season.
When Boston’s top line presses the attack, changes styles on the fly and comes up with yet another clutch postseason goal, it’s tough to remember the Bruins are nearly as defensively stingy as the Canucks.
The Stanley Cup finalists are reminding the entire NHL that elite defensive teams don’t have to fall into the trap — or any other defensive scheme that results in boring hockey. Defense can also be a natural outgrowth of a commitment to goal-scoring, Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said.
“Who says you have to do one or the other?” he asked.
In Game 2 on Saturday night, the Canucks will continue their quest to show it’s possible to win a title without retreating into a defensive shell, while Boston will look to build on a quietly impressive offensive season — except for that slumping power play — for a club without a big-name scorer.
Both teams proved their approaches work in the series opener. Vancouver’s 1-0 victory was hardly a boring defensive game, with 12 power plays, numerous tantalizing scoring chances and an edge-of-the-seat intensity before Raffi Torres’ winning goal in the final minute.
“Even when we’re not getting rewarded, we’re out there taking chances and trying to find ways to be aggressive and score,” Boston forward Milan Lucic said. “We’re not a team that’s usually going to sit back and wait and hide. We try to make things happen.”
Vancouver scored more goals (3.15 per game) and allowed fewer (2.2) than any team in the NHL during the regular season, while Boston was fifth in goals and second in defense, giving up just 2.3 goals per game. Even after managing just one goal in their last two playoff games combined, the Bruins are outscoring Vancouver in the postseason with 3.05 goals per game, compared to the Canucks’ 2.68.
And they’ve done it without the trap, which turned off many casual hockey fans for life when New Jersey, Dallas and other clubs had extensive success with thoroughly boring play in the 1990s. The scheme still shows up in the NHL in various disguises, such as Tampa Bay’s 1-3-1 formation this season, yet it’s no longer considered a necessity for winning.
Vancouver has earned a spot alongside Detroit, San Jose, Washington and Anaheim among the NHL’s most entertaining offensive teams, but it’s not just because of the Sedin twins, who have won the last two scoring titles and could take home back-to-back MVP awards.
Canucks general manager Mike Gillis decided to build an aggressive, high-scoring team behind the Sedins from the moment he took over for the fired Dave Nonis in 2008. The former Bruins forward knew he needed a special defensive corps to do it — and it had to be eight or nine men deep.
“We got focused on defense initially,” Gillis said. “I spent three years trying to get the best defense we could assemble so we could play any style of game. We wanted puck-moving defensemen who could join the rush. That was the style of game we decided upon. We went about trying to find those players that could complement it.”
Coach Alain Vigneault then implemented a system that relies on steady defensemen creating chances for the offense.
“This team was built on our depth on the blue line,” said Christian Ehrhoff, the Canucks’ aggressive, puck-moving defenseman from Germany. “That’s what we have, eight guys deep. We can take advantage of it in the playoffs, because some teams like to get very conservative. We keep playing aggressive hockey, keep attacking, and it works for us.”
All that depth comes at a price: The Canucks have teetered on the edge of the salary cap all season, often relying on perversely timely injuries to stay under the limit on a game-to-game basis.
That also means the Canucks are built to handle the loss of a top defenseman. Dan Hamhuis seems unlikely to play in Game 2 after incurring an undisclosed injury while delivering a low check in the opener, but Vigneault has three credible options as replacements.
Hamhuis didn’t skate in Vancouver’s practice Friday at the University of British Columbia. Andrew Alberts, a scratch in Game 1, skated with Ehrhoff, while Aaron Rome moved up to skate alongside Hamhuis’ normal defensive partner, Kevin Bieksa.
“That’s who I think it’s going to be,” Ehrhoff said of Alberts. “He’s a very strong and physical defenseman, and he can bring a strong presence to our back end.”
Keith Ballard, who’s making $4.2 million this year, also is an option on the Canucks bench for Vigneault.
“We’ve tried to play the right way all year long, which is having a good balance between good team defense and good team offense when it’s time to go on the attack, when it’s appropriate,” Vigneault said.
Boston doesn’t share the Canucks’ overall aggression, and the Bruins can fall into a defensive shell when necessary. They didn’t have a scorer in the NHL’s top 25 during the regular season, but their top line is emerging as one of the best in hockey during the postseason with David Krejci setting up Lucic and Nathan Horton.
There’s another key factor in this scheme: top-notch goaltending.
Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas are two of the league’s top three goalies, if being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy indicates anything. Both are experienced veterans at the close of outstanding individual seasons, further cementing their reputations.
Luongo, who tied for the NHL lead with 38 victories, won a gold medal for Canada in last year’s Olympics, while the late-blooming Thomas already has a Vezina on his mantle. Both have thrived under the burden of hefty contracts and high expectations, giving their teammates the confidence necessary to be creative.
“You can survive a lot of mistakes and play with a lot of aggression if you’ve got a goalie like we do, and they do,” Boston’s Mark Recchi said. “Your goalie is your most important defensive player, and Timmy makes us a lot better as a team.”
Even casual hockey fans appear to be catching on to the excitement generated by Vancouver, Boston and the other contenders. The playoffs’ early rounds had the NHL’s highest U.S. television ratings since 1994, and the Canucks’ win over Boston drew the best U.S. rating for a finals opener in 12 years — along with a whopping 5.6 million viewers in Canada, where the high-flying Canucks are must-see TV even for Maple Leafs or Canadiens fans.
“It’s fun to play at this time of year, and hopefully it’s as entertaining for the fans as it is for us,” Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler said.