Writing a fresh chapter on the Blackhawks-Canucks rivalry

Blackhawks vs Vancouver, game 6, 4/24/11
Blackhawks vs Vancouver, game 6 at the United Center, 4/24/11 (picture by Cheryl Adams)

Tonight, the Chicago Blackhawks face off against one of their most heated rivals, the Vancouver Canucks, for the first time this season.

It’s hard to forget the last time these two teams met: game 7 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, in Vancouver. The last time these two met on United Center Ice, Chicago had battled back from an 0-3 game deficit to tie up the series. Game 6 was an instant playoff classic, a hard-fought game that ended with rookie Ben Smith’s goal 15:30 into OT. The Blackhawks pushed game 7 into OT, too, with Jonathan Toews’ memorable goal with less than two minutes left in the third. A puck clearing from Chris Campoli got swatted out of the air by Alexandre Burrows and ended up turning into the GWG.

After being ousted from the previous two playoffs by the Blackhawks, it’s not surprising that Vancouver celebrated after that game – but they still had a long road ahead, one that ended in Stanley Cup Final OT defeat at the hands of the Boston Bruins on Vancouver ice.

Chicago had managed to make it into the playoffs on Minnesota’s grace of beating Dallas; they had spent the last six weeks before the playoffs fighting tooth and nail for every last point.

Canucks players were scornful of the Blackhawks during the first round. Vancouver had cruised easily to a Presidents Trophy, and were coming into the playoffs rested. Doubtless, the Canucks probably felt that if they made it deep in the playoffs – or won – they wouldn’t fall to same “Cup hangover” that had ailed the Hawks all season.

The summer had other ideas. Not only did Vancouver lose in game 7 OT, which would be emotionally draining for anybody, but they lost a few players that had been one of their own. First came the suicide of Rick Rypien. Later came the airplane crash which wiped out the entire KHL Lokomotiv team, including former Canuck Pavel Demitra and coach Brad McCrimmon, who had ties to various members of the team and management. One of their top blueliners departed the team via free agency, and there were a handful of other player changes to the roster, including a trade with Florida within the past couple weeks. All of that surely has affected the team over the past couple months.

But this is the NHL; the games must go on.

The Canucks weren’t alone in being impacted by the Lokomotiv crash; it affected the majority of the teams in the league. Two of the players had been former Blackhawks. Chicago winger Marian Hossa had been close friends with Demitra.

And now, six months later, the teams are facing each other again. The door has been shut on last season, and the new season is filling the stat sheet. This season, the positions are reversed from a year ago.

The Blackhawks sit atop the West, having collected 19 points in 13 games for an 8-2-3 record. They are a glowing 5-0-2 at home and have gotten a point in 11 of 13 games played. For a brief period tonight, between the end of the BOS-TOR game and the end of the PIT-LAK game, the Hawks were #1 in the league. The moves made in the offseason have given the Blackhawks back their “spark” that seemed to be missing last year. Some of the players brought in – Sami Lepistö, Jamal Mayers – already have a healthy appreciation for what Vancouver can do, having familiarity playing against them on their old team. New team agitator Daniel Carcillo, who has split his career between Phoenix and Philadelphia, has already readily embraced the Blackhawks/Canucks rivalry, telling fans and media during summer interviews that he was eager to take them on, naming names such as Maxim Lapierre, and further fueling the fire with his Twitter account. The Blackhawks are playing well, although they still have room for improvement, but it’s hard to argue with their position atop the stats chart. The Blackhawks have been looking forward to this game, as have their fans.

On the other hand, the Canucks are still struggling to find their feet. They’ll be coming into Chicago fresh off loses to St. Louis and Minnesota, wearing a 6-7-1 record in 14 games, which puts them 11th in the West, and 22nd in the league. So far they are 3-5-0 on the road. Roberto Luongo’s stats in 9 games is 4-4-1 with a .884 sv% and 3.19 GAA. Backup Cory Schneider’s stats in 6 games are .917 sv% and 2.51 GAA. Is Vancouver scoring? Sure. But other teams have been scoring more against them. There’s been flashes of the high-flying Canucks that we’ve come to expect, but for the most part, the team has more often looked like they’re just trying to hold their own against the opponents they’ve faced so far.

After two tough losses, coming into a very hostile building, will Alain Vigneault want to put Luongo in net? The last time the Canucks were in Chicago, Schneider pulled his groin on a penalty shot save early in the third; Luongo finished out the game. Schneider doesn’t seem as affected by the rivalry as Luongo is, so there’s plenty of good reason to give him the start over Luongo and potentially boost his team with a win.

On the Chicago side, sophomore goalie Corey Crawford is showing no signs of slowing down, so far 6-2-2 in 10 games with a .919 sv% and just 2.33 GAA; he’s coming off a 41-save performance in Florida.

In other stats, the teams look pretty similar, aside from the PP —

Chicago: PK 89.5% (4th); PP 10.4% (28th); 52.8% FOW; 33.5 S/G; 29.9 SA/G

Vancouver: PK 87.9% (6th); PP 21.2% (7th); 53.2% FOW; 32.3 S/G; 28.7 SA/G

For both teams, there’s plenty to prove, and another log to lay on the long-standing rivalry fire. Outside of Rogers Arena in Vancouver stands a statue of coach Roger Neilson, holding aloft a towel at the end of a hockey stick – a statue memoralizing the 1982 Western Conference Finals between the Canucks and the Blackhawks. The rivalry doesn’t show any sign of cooling down any time soon.