It was clear from the opening minutes of this series what Vancouver’s game plan was: hit fast, hit hard, leave the Blackhawks reeling to recover, and use their game to score.
It worked pretty good in game 1 – compared to how Vancouver was playing, Chicago looked like they were still in regular-season mindset to the Canucks playoff mode. Rookie goalie Corey Crawford did the best he could to hold them in the game, but Chicago walked out of the game 0-2.
Vancouver went for more of the same, but Chicago had been roused, and began hitting back. Game 2 was much closer. Although Vancouver scored twice, Chicago’s scoring got kickstarted by call up Ben Smith with a goal late in the second. The Blackhawks began showing life and battled their way back to within one goal, but despite a solid late push, couldn’t manage to tie things up. Chicago lost 3-4; the Canucks held the series 0-2.
Game 3, Chicago: after two so-so performances by the Blackhawks, they were about to go into their own barn. The crowd was in their favor. The Blackhawks won on the playoff dot; they outshot the visitors; they traded an equal number of hits; they had more takeaways. Chicago put in the effort, but Vancouver held firm against Chicago’s improved performance, and Luongo won this one for his team.
There was one incident in Game 3, however, that stood out: Raffi Torres of the Canucks hitting Brent Seabrook of the Blackhawks blindside behind the net.
Torres was fresh off a 4-game suspension for a similar hit in an game vs the Oilers. It surprised – well, pretty much everyone – that Torres received no additional discipline beyond a 2-minute penalty; and fans and writers around the league found out a new wrinkle in Rule 48: apparently, there’s an area behind the net that’s considered a hitting zone, and there is a little more leniency about hits in that area. Even hits to the head.
One can only speculate what happened to the Canucks between Sunday and Tuesday. Perhaps they felt complacent – assured that Chicago wasn’t going to offer them much in terms of a threat. Perhaps they felt smug that Torres got away with a Rule 48 violation while one of Chicago’s most important – and effective – defensemen took a concussion and would likely sit out a game or more.
There’s a lot less “perhaps” from the Blackhawks side: the team got angry. They realized they’d let the Canucks get away with too much already in the series, and now they faced elimination – in their own barn, no less.
Then they came out in Game 4 and put their money where their mouth had been all season.
The Blackhawks spent much of the season saying it was “ridiculous” that they wouldn’t make it back into the playoffs, yet they were at the mercy of another team’s win or loss in the final league game of the regular season to find out if they’d make it in. They spoke of the fact that they felt they had “nothing to lose” now, and yet they started out flat during the new life they’d been handed.
You cannot even compare the Chicago team that took the ice on Tuesday night to the one that played in Vancouver to open the series, that’s how different the performance was. Chicago made it clear from the opening shifts that they were tired of taking abuse from Vancouver, starting off the scoring at 1:43. Although the Canucks would respond three minutes later, the visitors wouldn’t scratch the scoresheet again until the game was nearly done and the lid already nailed shut. The Blackhawks put in four more goals in during the second, and chased Luongo from the net with a sixth early in the third.
Duncan Keith in particular was a one-man tour de force, motivated by the absence of his usual blue line partner, Brent Seabrook. He hit, he checked, the scored. Here, finally, was the Duncan Keith of the 2009-10 season, the guy who won the Norris Trophy, gold at the Olympics, the Stanley Cup.
The Canucks held in for the first period, but they slowly began to unravel, and as the Blackhawks pounded in goal after goal, Vancouver began getting chippier – less, it seemed, about going for goals, and more intent, it appeared, in hurting the Blackhawks. By the time one of the Sedins threw in a late goal to make it 7-2, the Madhouse was rocking, the Blackhawks had found their form again, and you had to wonder where these players had been all year. They outhit, outplayed, outscored their opponents.
Perhaps a headline late Wednesday evening summed up Vancouver’s attitude: “Canucks just want to move on.” They are tired of answering questions about past demons about facing Chicago. They’re tired of hearing about how they’re choke artists. And most of all, they claimed they didn’t think they were going to beat Chicago in a sweep.
So you would’ve expected that going back to Vancouver, in their own arena, with no desire to return to Chicago, that the Canucks would’ve brought the pressure on full bore for Game 5 on Thursday.
In fact, Chicago shut out Vancouver. Marian Hossa broke his scoring drought 5:54 into the first. Duncan Keith – still a man on a mission – pounded in another 24 seconds later. Patrick Kane scored on a deflection off another Keith missile. Hossa scored again in the second, as did Keith. Luongo got pulled again, and the Canucks seemed to settle down in front of Cory Schneider, but by then, the damage was already done. The Blackhawks patrolled the ice, still making efforts to score, but also protecting their goalie – not only from being run over, but to reward him with a shutout. It was as if the team was saying, “You’ve had our back all season, and now we’re proving we’ve got yours.”
The series returns to Chicago; Sunday evening, the Canucks will be back where they didn’t want to be and where they didn’t think they would be, either. They’ve sworn to play game 6 as if it were game 7. After all, Vancouver still owns the series lead, 3-2. And despite the media all jumping off the Canucks bandwagon and rushing to embrace the Blackhawks once again, the Chicago team goes into the game with no illusions. They know that Sunday is still do-or-die; and should they survive it, Tuesday night will be the final showdown in Vancouver.
Surprisingly, Vancouver has stated they’ll go with Luongo in game 6, despite his being chased out of the last two games. This is Luongo’s $10M year on his contract; if he cannot prove himself this year against Chicago, the Canucks might wonder what to do with a goalie who can’t get them through the playoffs and a coach who can’t get them out of the second round, despite having a record-breaking year and a star-studded roster.
And Chicago isn’t quite ready to give up their championship mantle; and they certainly don’t want to give up the fight to the team that has replaced Detroit as their most hated rival. They know they are not out of the woods, and they are going to go down swinging.
For fans on either side of the ice, Sunday’s game promises to be very exciting indeed.