The top-seeded Vancouver Canucks will get their 2012 playoffs underway tonight, as they host the Los Angeles Kings at Rogers Arena for Game 1 of this Western Conference quarterfinal series.
The Canucks are the defending Western Conference champions, but have unfinished business after losing a home Game 7 to drop last year's Stanley Cup Finals against Boston.
Vancouver is coming off its fourth straight Northwest Division title and its second consecutive Presidents' Trophy as the team with the best regular-season record. However, the Canucks are also dealing with some uncertainty thanks to a late-season concussion suffered by star winger Daniel Sedin.
Henrik Sedin's twin hasn't played since March 21 after he took an elbow to the head from Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith, a cheap shot that earned the Blackhawks blueliner a five-game suspension. The good news is that Daniel was able to return to practice on Monday for the first time since the blow and could even be ready for tonight's Game 1, however, he was unable to take to the ice the following day. He is questionable for tonight and his uncertain status is not a good sign for Vancouver in this best-of-seven series.
If Sedin can return, it will completely shuffle the Canucks' lines. He should return to a line centered by Henrik that also includes Alexandre Burrows, a unit that represents Vancouver's top scoring threat. Even with the missed time Daniel Sedin was tops in the club with 30 goals and second with 67 points, while Burrows' 28 tallies were second on the club. Henrik Sedin, meanwhile, led the NHL with 67 assists and the former Hart Trophy winner was among the league leaders with 81 points to go along with a plus-23 rating.
The other big question facing the Canucks is just how long of a leash goaltender Roberto Luongo will be on, although he enters this series as Vancouver's No. 1 option.
Luongo would likely be an undisputed No. 1 on a lot of teams, but the solid play of backup Cory Schneider has made the latter player a fan favorite in Vancouver. Schneider went 20-8-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average in 33 games this season, causing a goaltender controversy with Luongo.
A veteran of 59 NHL playoff games, Luongo certainly had his struggles during the 2011 postseason. He went 15-10 with a 2.56 GAA and .914 save percentage and holds a career playoff GAA of 2.50. Luongo gave up at least four goals in a game six times in last season's playoffs, including eight in one game versus the Bruins. A few outings like that early on could lead to Schneider taking over.
The Kings, meanwhile, are back in the postseason for a third straight season, but are still looking for their first playoff series victory in 11 years. If they are to finally advance, it will likely be because of goaltender Jonathan Quick.
The fact that the Kings are even in the postseason is a testament to Quick's outstanding season that should make him a Vezina Trophy candidate. Los Angeles was able to grab the eighth seed in the West despite finishing 29th out of 30 NHL teams with just 188 goals as Quick won 35 games and led the NHL with 10 shutouts. Quick certainly has the ability to steal some games in the postseason, but he'll still need help.
The Kings tried to get him some when they traded for high-scoring forward Jeff Carter, getting him from Columbus prior to the trade deadline. The move seemed to work as Los Angeles went 13-5-3 after the deal and saw a bump in scoring. For his part, Carter had six goals and nine points in 16 games after the trade before sitting out the final five regular season games due to an ankle injury. He is likely to be ready for tonight's Game 1.
Getting Carter wasn't the only big move the Kings made during the season as they fired head coach Terry Murray and eventually replaced him with Darryl Sutter. Los Angeles went 25-13-11 under Sutter.
Carter was a teammate of Mike Richards in Philadelphia and Los Angeles paid a big price to bring the former Flyers' captain to the West Coast in a trade before the start of the season. The move paid off at times, with Richards notching 44 points in 74 games, but he also missed eight games due to an upper-body injury in December and was slow to return to form.
The addition of Carter added much-needed scoring depth behind the usual trio of center Anze Kopitar and wingers Justin Williams and Dustin Brown. All three were able to play in all 82 games and Kopitar led the Kings across the board with 25 goals, 51 assists and 76 points. Brown used a strong second half to finish alongside Williams with 22 goals, while the latter was second on the club with 59 points.
Kopitar should be itching to get these playoffs underway after missing last year's tournament due to a season-ending ankle injury suffered in late March. He has just five points in six career playoff games, while Richards has the most experience behind the injured Simon Gagne with 50 points in 63 playoff contests.
Los Angeles and Vancouver have met four times in the postseason, with the Canucks winning the previous encounter in six games during the 2010 conference quarterfinals. The Kings had won the previous two series (1991 and 1993) after the Canucks began this matchup's history with a five-game victory in a 1982 meeting.
The clubs also battled to a split in the 2011-12 season series, with the Canucks getting an extra point off a 2-1-1 mark that included a shootout loss. Luongo and Quick started the four games for their respective clubs and put up solid numbers. Luongo had a 1.95 GAA and a shutout, while Quick actually gave up one fewer goal for a 1.72 GAA in a series in which three of the four games were decided by one goal.
Game 2 of this best-of-seven series is scheduled for Friday night in Vancouver.