Vancouver Canucks Have to Mind the (Defensive) Gap

Sami Salo (6) of the Canucks blocks a pass attempt made by Jonathan Toews

The Blackhawks have played their post-season perfectly.

Shutout in game one, they lost two close games before turning on the heat in games four and five. Chicago lulled the Vancouver into a false sense of security.

No one looks more surprised than Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, who wound up pulled in games four and five.

While Luongo hasn’t looked great for stretches, especially in game five, it’s hard to lay the losses entirely at his feet.

Instead, I would blame the Canucks’ defense, which is allowing Chicago to build up a lot of speed, especially though the neutral zone.

It makes sense that the Canucks would play opponents with some space. The Canucks often take that same space they’re giving to opponents and turn it into offense. That’s the nature of their attack. If a series like Philadelphia-Buffalo has been all about taking away every inch of ice in the game, Vancouver-Chicago has been about turning the NHL ice into an Olympic-side rink.

But now, the Canucks are starting to find that space used against them. Even when the Canucks defense picks up their forwards, the Blackhawk defense is still getting a lot of room to shoot. Witness Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith’s two goal night last night. And that came after a goal in game four (which came immediately after a goal by defenseman Brian Campbell).

Right now, Canucks’ coach Alain Vigneault needs to listen to Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, who preached the importance of gap control during the regular season.

It’s not about oppressively tight checking that squanders all opportunities for offense by both teams. Instead, it’s about reducing your opponents’ options with the puck.

The Canucks haven’t done a good job of limiting Chicago’s options that past two games. That’s why they’ve been so hard to defend. And that’s part of why Luongo has looked so horrible.

The Canucks thrive on space and offense. That’s what got them into the playoffs. It would be ridiculous to say they need to suddenly re-invent themselves as a trapping, defense-oriented team. But it’s not ridiculous to suggest Vigneault tweak his defense a little bit, to slow down the Blackhawks rush and force them to dump the puck a little bit more. Little things like that will allow the Canucks to play with the puck more and put the Blackhawks on its heels.

Minding the gap isn’t just an English public transit expression/recommendation:

Mind the Gap sign

It’s also a valid NHL coaching technique. Quenneville used it to hold the ‘Hawks together when they were hemorrhaging stars during the regular season.

Vigneault can now use it finish the Blackhawks.