Once again, the Vancouver Canucks begin the rite of spring for Canadians known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As some from our Southern brethren look forward to spring training, and can tell you the day that pitchers and catchers report, and others feel the same about quarterbacks and receivers engaging in “workouts” , Canadians look forward to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Pools are joined, picks and how far a team will go passionately argued, with statistical comparisons pro and con pointed to as exactly why one prognostication is better than the other. Its at least as intense and looked toward as March Madness is in the United States in the fans’ regard.
Obviously, its more intense in Canadian cities where your team is lucky enough to be good enough to be in. There are two cities that gleefully look forward to it this year. Vancouver and Montreal. Outside of possibly Toronto, it can be argued the two teams with the most rabid fanbases in the country where we feel hockey is OURS, damnit. (Sorry Sweden and Russia )
So, when a team finishes first overall, and sets records for excellence, you can expect that to be ramped up even more. Now, we drop into that, the most familiar of foes, the Chicago Black Hawks. Ahhhh yes. Those guys.
Well. Yes. Familiar foes. The team that won the last two 2nd round playoff series against the Canucks. But though the logo on the front is the same, the names on the back are not. Some great players still remain, most notably Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. But these are different teams.
The players themselves, are different. Ryan Kesler has progressed from a checking centre with potential to an All Star, likely Selke Trophy winner, and a 2nd line centre that would be the first line guy on many teams in the league. The Sedins are coming off back to back Art Ross Trophy, and possibly Hart Trophy seasons. They were point per game players in the playoffs last year.
But both know that they let David Bolland get them off their games. That is something both have worked on all season as well. Hawks and their fans should not expect the same to happen this year, even if he comes back from a concussion currently sidelining the second line centre.
There’s the clue right there. David Bolland will probably be the teams’ second line centre. Last year, he was not. He was part of a checking line that made that team special. But when players like Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, (Bollands linemates with Byfuglien playing effectively with Toews and Kane ) Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and others, including Anti Niemi in net, are replaced by Fernando Pisani, Ryan Johnson, Michael Frolik, Thomas Kopecky and Corey Crawford in net.
Questions abound. Yet, its the Canucks that the media, and some Hawk players in interviews ( like Ex-Canuck Ryan Johnson here ) have been playing it to the hilt as being the mental underdogs. Think about that. The team that backed into the playoffs the year they were defending their Cup as the 8th seed is talking about having the mental “edge” in a first round series versus the best team in the league.
Thats good. Because This Team, This Year, the Hawks are not as good as the Vancouver Canucks. By any way you judge the sport statistically, the edge is profound for the Canucks. Some are not quite as obvious ( the Canucks are the #1 team in the NHL in Goals For, but Chicago only had 4 less over 82 games ), but the Canucks are, for instance, #1 on the Power Play to the Hawks #25 penalty kill. The Canucks have the #3 penalty kill to the Hawks #4 power play. So, a decided advantage there when the Canucks go on the power play. Which should happen if they do as they have talked of bumping Roberto Luongo, like the perceived advantage that gave them with different players ( Like Buf) in different years. The most important factoid of the series might be that Luongo plays a foot deeper under the tutelage of Rollie Melanson. He won’t be there to bump. In today’s NHL, even in the playoffs, being a full foot into the blue like that gets called 95% of the time.
The deeper team may be the Canucks on the bottom two lines. Without the suspended Raffi Torres, the Canucks called up two players, Cody Hodgson and Victor Oreskovich. Hodgson slotted into a line in practice with Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen. Whether he goes back to being a Black Ace when Torres returns ( and Raymond shifts to centre again ), the kid’s undeniable talent is a positive, if unknown, option.
Add to that players like Maxim Lapierre ( who shone last year for the Montreal Canadians in their playoff run ), Tanner Glass, Jeff Tambellini and Oreskovich (who shone and improved every time he was called up this year, playing better every shift ) on the fourth line, and it can easily be argued that Canucks have the deeper team on the bottom two lines.
Most prognosticators think the top two lines could be a wash, and we will see. The Sedins seem poised to break thorough in the playoffs as never before, and Kesler is going to be far tougher for the Hawks to handle this year than last ( when both he and Burrows had shoulder injuries, much like Troy Brouwer is battling for the Hawks this year ).
It all comes down to how much value can be given to the regular season for both teams, and how they can bring that to the playoffs. The Canucks have played all year as the top team. The guys. The Hawks played all year as the defending Champs, and suffered a bit for the experience. Everybody got up for them, every game.
But the same is also to be said for the President’s Trophy winners. When even coaches like Mike Babcock of the Wings and Laviolette in Philadelphia go to the “measuring stick” cliche when playing the Canucks, it has to be said that the Canucks have played the same type of hockey most of the season.
Call me biased, a Canuck fan, a homer, whatever. But I truly believe, from watching a lifetime of hockey, that this is the best Canuck team I have seen. Their regular season accomplishments are now in the rear view, and the mantra that AV has intoned of ” playing one game at a time, learn from it, and move on”all season will now be put to the test.
I think it wins out over whatever contrived mental “advantage” the boastful Hawks have spoken about recently. Johnson’s comments linked above seem to be the attitude in that room.
Respect them. Sure. They are the defending champs. Kevin Bieksa said as much today on Canucks.com. (root around in there. Great reports and new interviews all the time. Required viewing for Canuck fans )
But that is where it ends.
Canucks in 5, maybe 6.