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Canucks say they can handle defensive injuries

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) - Kevin Bieksa knows he'll probably be without his usual partner in the Vancouver Canucks' top defensive pairing for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals on Saturday night.

For another team, Dan Hamhuis' absence with an undisclosed injury from Game 1 would be a major blow to a championship run. But the Canucks are better suited than just about any club to withstand such a crisis, thanks to an organizational philosophy of building excitement from the blue line out.

"That's the strength of our team," Bieksa said Friday after the Canucks' practice at the University of British Columbia. "We're deep. There's guys that are capable of filling the void. Whoever it is ... we'll talk a lot out there. We'll communicate. We'll be fine."

Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault has the luxury of choosing among nine mobile, puck-moving defensemen. When general manager Mike Gillis took over in 2008, he decided the Canucks would play an exciting, aggressive style of hockey that depends on good defensemen creating plays - so he went out and signed even more than the salary cap sometimes allows.

"We got focused on defense initially," said Gillis, a former agent. "I spent three years trying to get the best defense we could assemble. 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."

The Canucks beat Boston 1-0 in the opener, but it was hardly a boring defensive game, with 12 power plays, numerous tantalizing scoring chances and an edge-of-your-seat intensity before Raffi Torres' winning goal in the final minute.

Sometimes it's tough to remember Boston and Vancouver were the NHL's top two defensive teams during the regular season. 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.

The Canucks have the high-scoring Sedin twins, arguably the best offensive duo in their sport, but they wouldn't be nearly as effective or aggressive without a steady defense moving the puck forward constantly. Vigneault's system demands it from whoever is on his blue line.

"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.

Ehrhoff believes Hamhuis' replacement is likely to be Andrew Alberts, who was scratched in Game 1 but would likely be a key player for the majority of the NHL's other teams. Alberts skated in practice with Ehrhoff, while Aaron Rome moved up to join Bieksa.

Keith Ballard, who's making $4.2 million this year in Gillis' stockpile, also is an option on the Canucks bench for Vigneault, along with 21-year-old Chris Tanev.

"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.

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 both done it without using a defensive 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.

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 Milan 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.