Jim Neveau, Staff Writer
What if 21,000 screaming fans packed the United Center for a titanic clash between two teams vying for an important playoff seed, and one team didn’t show up?
Well, that’s what happened tonight in Chicago as the Blackhawks took to the ice and proceeded to be beaten in every aspect of the game in a 4-0 throttling at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks Sunday night.
The game will undoubtedly be remembered for the way things went down in the third period, but the real story of this game (at least the one that the major news outlets will undoubtedly ignore) was the play of the Hawks in a game brimming with importance.
This game was touted by some as a game that would define the team’s season, a true test of their character, and a great chance to deal a serious blow to the chances of the Canucks in catching the Hawks for the 4th playoff spot. Well, apparently the Blackhawks didn’t think that was enough motivation, as they took to the ice and were promptly outplayed by the Canucks.
There is one question that every Blackhawks fan undoubtedly wants to ask every player on the team: If you’re not going to show up for a game this important, against a potential first round playoff opponent, then why the hell should we think that you are going to show up against this team come playoff time?
This question is a perfectly valid one, and while Chicagoans routinely overreact to bad things that happen in a given game or series, this time it is acceptable to question the team’s heart.
Never in the history of hockey has the phrase “they put up a fight” been so accurate, or so incredibly hollow. The fight the Hawks and Canucks engaged in during the third period was the only spark that the Hawks showed the entire night. Before a crowd surging with confidence and noise, the team came out of the dressing room, listened to the roar during the National Anthem, and sleep=walked their way through the first two periods.
The fight itself was a moment that many won’t soon forget. It all started when Dustin Byfuglien was stopped on a breakaway attempt by Roberto Luongo (who notched his seventh shutout of the season in the game) and proceeded to give him a whack in the mask with his glove. This set the Canucks off, and while Byfuglien was escorted to the penalty box, it seemed like the incident would pass without further problems.
That’s when Adam Burish got involved. Normally a catalyst for positive firing up of his teammates, Burish instead went the route tonight of complete pest, and badgered the Canucks to such a degree that he was nearly decapitated by Shane O’Brien, who claimed that Burish was going after Henrik Sedin, a man noted for not fighting in any situation.
From there, things got ugly.
Ben Eager, and Kevin Bieska ended up tangling up in a fight that saw jerseys, pads, and gloves fly, and eventually, Eager landed a hellacious left jab right to the mouth of Bieska that spilled blood onto the ice and riled up the restless crowd. Incredibly, that fight continued, and Eager once again took down Bieska to the delight of the hostile United Center crowd.
As the referees struggled to get those two combatants apart, Brent Seabrook and Shane O’Brien wrestled with each other, and Duncan Keith and Alex Burrows locked horns as well. The Keith scrap was noteworthy, because Burrows grabbed Keith by the hair at least three different times, and took him down by the hair during the fight.
Also, after everything was said and done, Cam Barker got a misconduct penalty for trying to pick a fight with another Vancouver player in front of the penalty boxes.
Keith, Eager, Burish, and Barker all got misconducts during the melee, and Bieksa and O’Brien got them for Vancouver as well.
Here’s how the penalties all sorted out:
Ben Eager got a five-minute fighting penalty, and a 10-minute game misconduct. Kevin Bieksa got a five-minute fighting penalty and a 10-minute game misconduct. Shane O’Brien got a 10-minute misconduct. Cam Barker got a 10-minute misconduct. Henrik Sedin got a two-minute holding penalty. Duncan Keith got a 10-minute misconduct. Adam Burish got three separate two-minute roughing penalties, and also a 10-minute game misconduct.
All in all, there were 80 minutes of penalties assigned from the skirmishes, and then Dave Bolland got a four-minute double minor roughing penalty 18 seconds later for going after Daniel Sedin, who also got slapped with a two-minute roughing penalty.
There are two observations to be made about all of these penalties and the melee itself. First off, why Alex Burrows didn’t get a misconduct penalty and Keith did is beyond explanation. I understand that all hell broke loose and the officials were trying like crazy to break everyone up, but to miss that blatant of a violation is unacceptable on the part of the NHL officials who were working the game. I hope Colin Campbell and Gary Bettman take a good look at that incident.
Secondly, this fight was born out of a frustration that has been brewing with the Hawks for some time against the Canucks. If you recall, Vancouver throttled the Hawks 7-3 in the teams’ previous meeting north of the border, and with this 4-0 defeat, the Blackhawks have been thoroughly embarrassed by this bunch twice in a row. Also, you could tell that the Hawks were disappointed in themselves for not coming out with more intensity, and that boiled over into the mess you saw on the ice.
Other things also occurred that should concern the Blackhawks besides the complete lack of effort in this game. First off, the continuing bad play of Brian Campbell is giving fans of the team fits. He is being paid more than any other player in the history of the team, and yet when Alex Burrows is skating against him one-on-one towards Nikolai Khabibulin, he doesn’t lay so much as a stinking hand on him. He was playing like an NBA center who already has five fouls and doesn’t want to foul out, and gives his opponent an open lane to drive. This sorry excuse for defense led to a goal, and the Canucks never looked back.
Another player who has given Hawks fans reason for concern is Dustin Byfuglien. He has been teetering on the edge of coming out of the lineup for weeks now, and this may have finally been the straw that broke the camel’s back. He took a foolish penalty in the second period when he clumsily moved the wrong way to stop an on-rushing forward, and instead of hustling to correct his error he stuck his stick out and hooked the guy, drawing a penalty.
Also, he gloved Luongo in the face, which incited the fracas in the third period, and instead of standing up like a man and taking his lumps for his foolishness, he fled behind the net and let teammates take care of the mess he created. As he skated oafishly to the penalty box, only one thought went through the collective minds of everyone at the UC: “Isn’t that guy supposed to be tough?”
Also, the entire defense deserves a chunk of the blame, as they were unable to hit ANYONE named Sedin or Burrows the entire game. The Sedin-Sedin-Burrows line combined for NINE points in the contest, and they controlled the tempo throughout. Even the checking line of Eager, Burish, and Byfuglien were powerless to stop them. It was a miserable excuse for defensive hockey, and the blue liners and forwards alike should be ashamed of themselves.
Finally, Nikolai Khabibulin also deserves a fair share of the blame, as he continues to allow random soft goals to find the nylon behind him. If this kind of subpar play continues, Joel Quenneville may have to resort to Cristobal Huet in net again, or perhaps put someone like Brent Seabrook in net who actually knows how to block shots.
All of these issues lead to the biggest question of all: can the Hawks even compete with Vancouver in the playoffs? Better yet, can they compete with anyone? After all, if you are going to come out in a game with big implications for your seeding and lay a massive egg in front of your own revved up fans, chances are you won’t show up to play in the postseason.
If Vancouver overtakes Calgary for the division lead, the Hawks would likely face the Flames in the first round, and even though Chicago has beaten Calgary in all four meetings this season, those games were all played before the Flames acquired Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold at the trade deadline, so even those results can be cast into question.
This game unraveled just about everything the Hawks had built up during their three game winning streak. It undercut the confidence of the fans, and likely of the players and coaching staff. The true test will be Tuesday when the Hawks play their final non-divisional game of the season against Montreal. How they play in this game will show the true character of the team. Let’s hope the team that got throttled by Vancouver tonight isn’t the one that shows up in the great white north on Tuesday.