April 11, 2012; Vancouver, BC, CANADA; Los Angeles Kings forward Justin Williams (14) reacts to a hit by Vancouver Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows (14) during the second period in game one of the 2012 Western Conference quarterfinals at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-US PRESSWIRE
The Vancouver Canucks were criticized a year ago for not playing physical enough. They've added toughness this year as a result, but did the plan to beef up backfire on them in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings?
Through the 2011-12 regular season, the Canucks made the decision to push the envelope with their physical play, and the league's fifth most-penalized regular season team (including 41 major penalties) added even more "grit" in Zack Kassian and Samuel Pahlsson at the deadline, increasing its brawn while maintaining its suite of offensive weapons.
Many thought this shift in attitude would make Vancouver the odds-on favorite to come out of the Western Conference come playoff time, but if Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings was any indication, the Canucks may be playing with fire.
Though L.A.'s 5-on 3 power-play goal in the first period can be put at the feet of Higgins' delay of game call, it was Kesler's unsportsmanlike conduct that had the Canucks on the penalty kill in the first place.
The Kings also took their first lead of the night thanks to the five-minute major to Byron Bitz following his vicious hit to Kyle Clifford, but the Canucks' parade to the penalty box earlier in the second period (including charging calls against Kassian and Lapierre) helped to prime the Los Angeles power play and put additional pressure on Roberto Luong, despite the goaltender's frequent heroics.
Worse, when the Canucks seemed to back off the physical play, the Kings would take advantage, breaking through the neutral zone and setting up the eventual game-winning goal from Dustin Penner, who stood virtually unchallenged in front of the Vancouver net.
Earlier in the season, the Canucks could get away with a high level of penalties thanks to their impressive penalty kill and the fact that they could score almost at will on most opponents, but the lack of Daniel Sedin is beginning to show, particularly after they went 0-for-5 on power-play opportunities. That same focus on physicality (and the consequences of being down a man so frequently) also allowed the Kings to open a shooting gallery in the Canucks' zone, piling up 39 shots on goal while the Canucks needed a 12 shot third period just to make it to 26.
Should Bitz receive supplemental discipline for his hit on Clifford, the physical approach taken by the Kings could have even deeper consequences, as it would force head coach Alain Vigneault to rework his bottom six to make up for the winger's loss.
To its credit, the Vancouver penalty kill still shut down six of L.A.'s eight opportunities and only allowed one goal on the Bitz major. The fact remains that the Canucks spent almost an entire period shorthanded. That state of affairs could spell their undoing if they cannot find a balance between "tough" play and just plain reckless.