Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
During this opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, hockey fans have been treated to some truly memorable games and stories. Whether it be the Red Wings overcoming injuries to sweep the Coyotes, or the Sharks winning three overtime games against the Kings, these playoffs have been filled with drama just about every night. The Blackhawks-Canucks series, which ended when Alex Burrows swiped a clearing attempt by Chicago defenseman Chris Campoli and buried a shot past Corey Crawford, was arguably the best of the bunch.
A year after defeating a team that had come back from a 3-0 series deficit to advance (the Flyers), the Hawks were poised to pull off a similar miracle this year. After winning games four through six of this series, Chicago managed to tie the Canucks with less than two minutes remaining in Game 7, but it wasn’t enough as Vancouver rode some solid goaltending by Roberto Luongo to the victory. It was a fitting conclusion to what was truly one of the more epic series that we’ve witnessed in our lifetimes, and it’s one that we won’t soon forget.
After all is said and done, what exactly did we learn from this series? Were the Blackhawks just that formidable, or did the Canucks let them stick around when they should have put them away? Will the Canucks be able to get enough of a boost from this series to prevent a letdown against the Predators in the second round? Here are five thoughts that shed light on those and other questions:
One: Corey Crawford Has the Potential to be an Elite Level Goalie
If this series only taught us one thing, it’s that the Blackhawks may have found a great young goaltender to solidify that position for years to come. A year after losing Antti Niemi to the Great Cap Crunch of 2010, the Hawks turned their crease over to cagey veteran Marty Turco, only to have him lose his spot to the perennial Rockford-denizen Crawford. He more than stepped up to the challenge during the regular season, keeping the Hawks in the playoff hunt until the very end and carrying them at times during the home stretch.
What the playoffs revealed is that Crawford, much like Niemi, does not shy away from the hot lights of the playoffs. He looked positively giddy to be playing in a pressure situation in Game 6 of this series, and his Game 7 performance not only kept his team alive in the game, but he also earned a lot of respect from Vancouver reporters covering the series.
Unfortunately for Chicago, Crawford couldn’t help them score goals on the offensive end, but even in defeat Crawford shows that he has the moxie and the calm demeanor to be a successful goaltender in crunch time, and if the Hawks are smart they will lock him up as soon as humanly possible to avoid the same fate that befell them with Niemi.
Two: Will Roberto Luongo Recover from His Game 6 Snub?
As was the case in the previous two playoff matchups between these two teams, the big focus going into the series was whether or not the years of playoff failure would creep into Luongo’s head. Through the first three games, Luongo looked unflappable, but with the return of Dave Bolland (and some much more aggressive net pressure by Chicago), Luongo looked positively scared in the fourth and fifth games of the series.
After getting yanked early in both of those games, coach Alain Vigneault decided to take a gamble before Game 6 and decided to start Cory Schneider at the United Center. It had to grate on Luongo a bit knowing that he had played so well in the first three games and failed so miserably in the next two, and to see Schneider get the nod was probably just icing on that crap sandwich.
The big question now is whether or not Luongo is going to get over his coach’s decision as the team moves forward. He wasn’t tested often against the Blackhawks on Tuesday, but when he was he stood up to the task and played pretty well all things considered. He is going to need to put this series out of his mind immediately as the playoff road continues through the Music City, and it will be interesting to see if he can carry Vancouver, or if he will display some type of contempt for Vigneault going forward.
Three: Was Henrik Sedin Right in His Comments After Game 7?
“We’ve been the best team for five games, they had no business being in the series. We made it tough for ourselves.”
With that statement, Henrik Sedin managed to simultaneously demonstrate how confident the Canucks are in their own abilities and to give the Blackhawks some great bulletin board material for the team’s four meetings next season. Mere minutes after shaking hands on the ice with a team that forced overtime in a deciding seventh game, Sedin threw the Hawks under the bus with his statement, but there may have been more than met the eye about the sound bite he delivered here.
Earlier in the series, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews did his best Dennis Green impression when he had this to say about Vancouver:
“They’re a beatable team. They’ve got weaknesses just like any other team. I think it’s up to us to expose them and we haven’t done a good enough job of that. It’s pretty simple.”
It may not have been as pithy as “they are who we thought they were,” but Toews’ point was loud and clear. The Hawks weren’t going to be intimidated by the Canucks, and they showed that in the remaining games of the series. While Sedin’s comments look like blatant disrespect when read by themselves, they were likely a shot back at Toews for suggesting that the Hawks’ poor play was making the Canucks look good.
Four: Can Vancouver Avoid a Letdown Against Nashville?
After a lengthy battle against a team that is quickly becoming one of their biggest rivals, the Canucks may be prone to letting their guard down as they face another Central foe in the Nashville Predators. They are coming off of a nice series win over the Anaheim Ducks, and they will be looking to add to their solid season by giving the President’s Trophy winners a run for their money.
The question of course is whether the Canucks will have the energy to get themselves revved up again for a series that is occurring so close to the end of their battle with Chicago. Vancouver looked like they had a pretty solid energy level during Game 7 against the Hawks, but with this series not having that “revenge” factor involved, look for the Predators to jump on them early and potentially steal a game at Rogers Arena.
Five: The Blackhawks-Canucks Rivalry Is Becoming One of the NHL’s Most Compelling
Judging by the comments made by Sedin and Toews, as well as the incredibly physical battles that the two teams waged against each other during this series, the Canucks and Blackhawks are two teams who clearly don’t like each other. While other rivalries like Boston-Montreal and Pittsburgh-Philadelphia are more established in terms of longevity, the passion exuded between these two teams when they play each other is quickly reaching that level.
Obviously the teams playing each other in the playoffs the past three seasons has contributed mightily to this, but also helping is that the league has teams in each conference play each other four times. Those regular season battles may not have the life or death elements that the playoff series do, but that much familiarity is sure to breed contempt, and you can see that developing between these two foes.
While the Canucks may have gotten their revenge on Chicago this time, the fact of the matter is that the Hawks still have their Stanley Cup rings from last season, so until Vancouver gets their own, they will still view Chicago with a mix of envy and hatred. Winning a title might alleviate that somewhat, but even still, these two teams battle hard every time they play, and they are quickly turning into must see TV whenever they get together.