It only took a split second. Dan Hamhuis went from the Canucks defenceman who had just thrown a devastating hip check on Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic to the injured list, and subsequently the press box.
The hit, which occurred in the second period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, when Hamhuis flipped Lucic head-over-heels in the neutral zone right next to the Bruins bench, helped ignite what turned out to be a bitter seven-game series. It may also have been the turning point for the Canucks.
Hamhuis, who had a plus-five rating throughout last year’s run to the final, was injured on the play and didn’t return to the series. As a result, the product of Smither was forced to undergo a sports hernia operation in the off-season.
With Hamhuis out for the duration, and, following that, Aaron Rome’s series-ending four-game suspension for his late hit on Nathan Horton in Game 3, the Canucks’ blue line was simply stretched too thin by the end of Game 7 – a 4-0 Bruins win.
It was hardly a coincidence that, with Hamhuis out, the Canucks were outscored 17-3 inside the hostile confines of Boston’s TD Garden, losing all three road games.
“Watching the team lose in those games, it was real tough to sit out and watch those,” said Hamhuis Monday, two days before the Canucks opened up their best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final with the Los Angeles Kings at Rogers Arena.
“I really wanted to be there and kind of did what I had to do over the summer to get myself back in shape and try to get our team in position to get back there throughout this season. I don’t know if the grind is extra motivation, but playing in the Stanley Cup Final certainly is and everyone really enjoyed that experience, but didn’t get what we wanted at the end.
“So yeah, that is motivating. We want to get back there and finish the deal this time.”
The eighth-place Kings might have something to say about that.
The Canucks come into the series as the favourites, having locked up their second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy thanks to a 51-win and 111-point regular season. However, fans, media, players and coaches are prepping themselves for a low-scoring, physical matchup that might best resemble a bruising game of chess than free-flowing hockey.
The Kings finished second overall in the NHL in goals allowed, at 179. Offensively, however, L.A. had just 194 goals for, the lowest total by far of not only all eight playoff teams in the Western Conference, but all 16 playoff teams.
Despite the Kings’ offensive shortcomings — only six of their players got into double-digits in goals, compared to nine for the Canucks – they could still pose a threat, especially in low-scoring games and notable talents Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty, who could awake from dormancy at any time.
“It’s really a group effort of five guys out there. It always is,” said Hamhuis, who was a team-leading plus-29 in the regular season, to go along with his four goals and 37 points.
“Even though they haven’t had a lot of scoring this year … they have a lot of potential.”
The Canucks will look to their entire defensive corps to stifle any and all threats, which includes turning to 22-year-old rookie blueliner Chris Tanev, who was paired with Hamhuis when Kevin Bieksa was kept out of the lineup for “maintenance” in four of the six remaining regular season games.
It’s not beyond head coach Alain Vigneault to shake up his combinations, however Hamhuis and Tanev skated together at Monday’s practice, and both lauded the on-ice chemistry developing between them.
“The last little bit has been great. He’s such a smart player out there, he makes really good plays, beats pressure all the time,” said Tanev, who it appears will slot into the Canucks top-six defencemen when they hit the ice against the Kings.
“Any chance you’re out with him, it’s definitely a blessing but it’s also an opportunity to learn from him and pick up little things that he does.”