VANCOUVER — A puck savvy, fluid defence is one of the reasons why the Vancouver Canucks scored more goals than any other team in the regular season.
The Canucks offensive engine if fuelled by a group of mobile defencemen who can move the puck quickly and are not afraid to jump into the play when given the chance.
“From day one this year they have been the backbone of our team,” captain Henrik Sedin said Tuesday after Canucks practice.
“They move the puck well. You need your defence to help you offensively. They’re going to be the guys to make the first pass. They’re going to join the rush.
“If you don’t have that, it’s tough to score in this league.”
Putting a road block in front of Vancouver’s defencemen is something the San Jose Sharks will need to do when they face the Canucks in Game 2 of the Western Conference final today. The Sharks lost Sunday’s opening game 3-2.
With the Sharks clinging to a 2-1 lead in the third period, Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa took a pass from Alex Burrows and ripped the tying goal past netminder Antti Niemi.
“Offence from our defence has been a big part of our team’s success all year,” said Bieksa, who has two goals and three assists in the playoffs.
“We have six guys that can do it pretty regularly.
“It’s just a matter of reading when the right time is.”
Dan Hamhuis, Bieksa’s defensive partner, says having a defenceman join the rush is one more body the opposition has to deal with. It can also open up more space for Canuck snipers like Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler.
“Teams play so well defensively in the playoffs, it makes it hard for our forwards,” said Hamhuis.
“If we can create an extra option out there for them, like Kevin did last game, it sometimes can create some good offence.”
The top gun on the Canucks defence is Christian Ehrhoff, who fed Henrik Sedin for the winning goal Sunday.
Ehrhoff has two goals and eight assists for 10 points in the playoffs. He’s second in scoring among defencemen, behind San Jose’s Dan Boyle who has 12 points (two goals, 10 assists).
San Jose forward Ryane Clowe says the Sharks weren’t physical with the Vancouver defence in Game 1.
“I think that had a lot to do with them being fresh, they weren’t getting wore down,” said Clowe. “When you finish your hit and you pin the defence in, they think twice about jumping up. A lot of times, they’ll change … they’re tired.
“Bieksa, he got up there pretty quick. That’s not really something that’s happened a lot to us. When the (defencemen) are not getting punished they’re going to have legs to play offence.”
Hamhuis expects the Sharks to be more aggressive on the forecheck in Game 2.
“They have a really good group of forwards, a lot of speed,” he said. “It was tough in Game 1. We expect it to be tougher again in Game 2.
“It’s just a matter for us getting back as quick as we can, communicating trying to get the puck up to our forwards as quick as possible.”
One area the Canucks want to improve on is their power play. Even though Vancouver scored the winning goal on the man advantage, they finished the night 1-for-4.
Ehrhoff says the Canucks have worked on improving their entry into the San Jose zone.
“I think we have enough options,” he said. “What ever the other team is doing, we have an answer for that.”
The Canucks won the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy by finishing the regular season with 117 points, 12 more than San Jose.
Vancouver also led the league in scoring with 262 goals and allowed the least with 241.
San Jose centre Joe Thornton says the Sharks don’t need to match Vancouver’s firepower to win the series.
“We’re comfortable playing 1-0, 2-1,” said Thornton. “That’s how we’re going to win this series.
“It’s not who is going to score more goals. I think it’s who defends better. Defensively, the team that plays better is going to win this series.”
The best-of-seven series returns to San Jose for Game 3 and 4 on Friday and Sunday.
Manny Malhotra, out since March 16 with a serious eye injury, practised with the Canucks on Tuesday in full gear.
Malhotra had previously skated with the team wearing a helmet, facemask and warmup suit.
Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault says Malhotra has not been cleared for contact and didn’t want to speculate on when the veteran centre could return to play.
“I want him around the team,” said Vigneault. “It’s that simple.
“We’re not going to discuss his physical situation, his eye.”
Vigneault also couldn’t give an update on Mikael Samuelsson, who has missed the last two games with an injury.
Kesler, meanwhile, expects both teams to play a better game Wednesday.
“They want to play a better game, they think they can play a better game,” said Kesler. “For us, that was no where near the game that we can play. We can definitely play better.”