VANCOUVER, B.C. – There’s a good chance Roberto Luongo will bump into an old acquaintance when the Vancouver Canucks face the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago’s decision to return massive Dustin Byfuglien to forward from defence means the Canuck goaltender will be seeing a lot more of his old nemesis when the teams tangle in the NHL Western Conference semifinal.
For Luongo, dealing with Byfuglien is like a trip to the dentist. It can be frustrating, even painful, but something that can’t be avoided.
“He’s going to be in front of my net and it’s my job to fight through his presence and find the puck and make saves,” Luongo said Thursday before the Canucks boarded a plane for Chicago.
“That’s the way playoff hockey is played. I had two guys in front of me during the L.A. series. I just have to deal with that stuff.”
The best-of-seven series opens Saturday at the United Center (8 p.m. ET) The second game will be Monday in Chicago, then the series returns to Vancouver for matches Wednesday and Friday.
Byfuglien, a six-foot-four, 257-pound behemoth, parked himself in front of the crease and cast a shadow over Luongo when Chicago defeated Vancouver in six games during last year’s conference semifinal. He scored two goals and spent a lot of time in Luongo’s mask.
The heavy traffic resulted in collisions and heated words. Several times Luongo found himself buried under many bodies.
Byfuglien won’t be the only Chicago wide body crashing the Canucks’ net. Playing on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be six-foot-four, 223-pound Bryan Bickell.
Canuck coach Alain Vigneault hopes the referees keep an eye on the fine line between screening a goaltender and knocking him down.
“Against our team, with Roberto in goal, that is one of the opposition’s tactics to get to our net, get to Roberto,” said Vigneault. “He has to stay focused on stopping the puck and doing what he does best.
“We have to help him out as best we can. But the referee also has a responsibility there. In our first series against L.A., I thought it was fine.”
One thing Luongo won’t do is try to draw a penalty by flopping to the ice. The Canuck captain said he was warned by a referee during Vancouver’s first-round series against the L.A. Kings not to take any dives or embellish hits.
That brought a sharp retort from Vigneault.
“If there is one guy that I know that doesn’t dive and doesn’t embellish in goal, it’s Roberto Luongo,” he said.
The job of keeping Luongo’s crease clear will probably fall to defencemen Kevin Bieksa and Andrew Alberts.
Moving Byfuglien can be like pushing a boulder up hill.
“He’s a big body,” said Bieksa, who can bring a mean streak to the rink. “He’s not going to do anything special or anything we don’t know.
“We have to be aware of him, control his stick as much as you can in front of the net, and get to rebounds before he does.”
At the other end of the ice, Vancouver’s Steve Bernier will be trying to make life difficult for Chicago goalie Antti Niemi.
At six foot two and 216 pounds, Bernier isn’t in Byfuglien’s weight class. But he still managed to score four goals against the Kings.
“That’s my job,” said Bernier. “It’s a pretty tough job, but that’s what we signed up for.”
The battles in front of the net can become heated. A player wants to be aggressive, but doesn’t want to take a penalty.
Vancouver’s penalty kill was awful early against the Kings before improving near the end of the series. The Canucks still allowed 10 goals on 26 power plays, the worst of any playoff team.
Chicago’s power play was four for 23 during their six-game series against Nashville.
“Our penalty kill will be important, but more important will be staying out of the box,” said centre Ryan Kesler. “The less penalties we have to kill, it’s going to be better for this group.”
Canuck forward Mikael Samuelsson, who leads the playoffs with seven goals, did not practise Thursday. He also left Wednesday’s practice with a suspected sore back.
Vigneault shrugged off Samuelsson’s absence.
“He’ll be fine,” the coach said. “He will practise tomorrow.”
One edge the Hawks have over the Canucks is depth. Kesler said all of Chicago’s lines can be dangerous around the he net.
“They are so deep in their forwards,” he said. “Any line can score.
“That’s why we have to be consistent top to bottom. We have to match every one of their lines. It’s not going to be one or two lines that carry us. It has to be everybody.”
Vancouver’s secondary scoring dried up in the first round of the playoffs. Alex Burrow, who lead the team with 35 goals during the regular season, managed just one empty net goal. Mason Raymond and Kesler had one goal each while Kyle Wellwood didn’t score.
Vigneault said that needs to change against Chicago.
“If you are going to have success in the playoffs . . . you need contributions from your whole lineup,” he said. “We’ve had balanced scoring, we’ve had scoring from our defence. We are going to need that as we move forward here.”