The news came out Vancouver yesterday that the Canucks had a special welcome for their long-standing arrival as they arrived to the Rogers: a freshly-painted locker room. No doubt there was a bit of smirking as the workers did the job; but hearing about that less-than-subtle attempt at psychological hockey warfare stinks of the Canucks’ desperation as they enter the playoffs.
Pressure has never been higher for Vancouver to perform in the post-season. It is their 40th anniversary; in the few Final round appearances they have had, they have gone home empty-handed. The team had flaws last year, and seemed to have corrected them this year, proven by the team’s cruising to the top of the league, Presidents’ Trophy in hand, with fantastic statistics bolstered by solid team play. Goalie Roberto Luongo gave up his captaincy to focus on stopping the puck; Ryan Kesler was told to act more like Jonathan Toews; and one of the Sedin twins took the “C”. Despite being constantly riddled with injuries and a line up bolstered out of the depths of their AHL and ECHL clubs, Vancouver finally Got It Done.
The team they’ll face in the playoffs is the Chicago Blackhawks – last year’s defending Stanley Cup champions; and the bane of Vancouver’s existence after knocking the Canucks out of the playoffs for two years straight. But the team rivalry extends much further back than that; in fact, as the season drew to a close, Vancouver immortalized one of the most infamous moments in Blackhawks-Canucks rivalry by erecting a statue to honor Roger Neilson and the “towel power” incident, meaning that every time fans head to a game at Rogers, they’ll be reminded of the event. In what was original a mock surrender to game officials has instead become the modern tradition of hockey rally towels.
For the Canucks, there is nothing about their regular season which suggests that this playoff season shouldn’t end in their hoisting the Cup… except that in order to do so, they must first get past Chicago. Nothing seems more fitting; if Vancouver can prove that the Blackhawks aren’t inside their heads, then should be able to make it to the Final round.
At the other end of the ice, the Blackhawks made it into the playoffs with 97 points. Three teams in the Eastern Conference made it into the playoffs with less. Chicago has had a season plagued with injuries, inconsistency, and the double hangover of not only a shorter summer, but the salary cap blues that forced the team to turn over nearly 50 percent of their Cup-winning roster, including both of their goalies and most of the “character” players that made a difference in the locker room and on the ice.
Chicago got into the playoffs thanks to the last game on the last day of regular season play. Earlier in the day, they didn’t even get a single point out of their own game against Detroit that would’ve clinched their berth; instead, they were at the mercy of the result of the Stars-Wild game. Minnesota refused to go quietly into the off season, and happily took Dallas along with them, telling the entire league on their website, “By the way, Chicago – you’re welcome.”
The Blackhawks traveled to Vancouver a recharged team, given a second chance at the 11th hour.
“We’re excited; we feel like we have second life, and there’s no pressure when you go out there, and take advantage of it,” Jonathan Toews said.
Winger Patrick Kane described the situation as “where it really feels like we have nothing to lose”.
And it’s true; Chicago has nothing to lose. During the final stretch to the playoffs, it looked like they wouldn’t even make the playoffs. Tonight starts their road to redemption: to prove the naysayers wrong.
The defending Stanley Cup champions have become the underdogs.
One can only imagine what sort of Hollywood-esque rallying speech that stoic captain Toews might be giving to his teammates right about now. Chances are he’s already said already said all he has needed to say: a reminder of where they were 72 hours ago, thinking that their season was already finished. A picture of the fervent fan base at home, wanting to see the team perform better than they’ve been all year. The fact that the vast majority of the hockey-writing media, broadcasters and bloggers and mainstream media alike, have already written off the Blackhawks.
Indeed… nothing left to lose. But everything to regain.
One can imagine that there might be some sort of inspirational speech in these moments. But instead, it’s probably something much more along the rallying lines that Keanu Reeves’ character delivered to his underdog teammates in The Replacements.
“Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory… lasts forever.”