“Whenever you can win a playoff series, it feels good. I don’t know who said it was going to be an easy series or we were going to get upset. It was two teams that played hard going back to the regular season. It was a very tough series. I give them a lot of credit. It could have really gone either way.”
This was Patrick Sharp’s summary of the series against the Predators, but it could have been a preview of the rematch between the Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks. The ingredients for a classic combat are there. Two talented teams with a history of hate; two teams who match up in a variety of areas; two teams who have been anointed as legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup.
This spring’s rendezvous is the fourth Stanley Cup Playoff Series between Chicago and Vancouver.
Though the Canucks had home ice advantage last year, the Hawks overcame them in six. In the 1995 Semis, Vancouver was swept. In their initial tilt, the 1982 Campbell Conference Finals, the Canucks prevailed four games to one.
Long time fans will remember the 1982 series for many reasons. Among them, the performance of Canucks goalie Richard Brodeur; the presence of ex-Hawks Bobby Schmautz, Ivan Boldirev, Darcy Rota and future Hawk Curt Fraser on the Vancouver roster. An interesting piece of hockey trivia is that Colin Campbell, current NHL Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, played defense for that Canucks team.
That year, the Blackhawks were coached by former d-man and team captain, the late, Keith Magnuson, no stranger to the muscular side of the sport. They featured the pugilism of Al Secord, and the rambunctiousness of Terry ‘Rosco’ Ruskowski–a captain who led his team not only on the ice, but in readiness to drop the gloves–Greg Fox, and Dave Hutchison, as well as the testy and talented Darryl Sutter, to name a few. Those who enjoy sifting through hockey history will take note of Florent Robidoux, whose brief moments as a Blackhawk–and an NHLer–were also marked by his willingness to bash and crash.
The Canucks were coached by the irascible Harry Neale. They had a few robust characters of their own, including the infamous Dave ‘Tiger’ Williams; Harold Snepsts; and Stan Smyl, all of whom racked up massive penalty minutes, Williams having the dubious distinction of 343 PIM that year.
It is fair to say the belligerent tone between the Blackhawks and Canucks was set almost three decades ago.
In 2010, the regular season saw a split. Each won a pair in regulation; each won in the other’s building. The scores reflect an even dynamic: the Canucks stole the opener in Chicago 3-2, with the Hawks coming back to stone the Canucks 1-0 Nov. 22 at GM Place. Vancouver responded with a dominating 5-1 home win January 23rd, with Chicago being equally dominant in their 6-3 close out March 5th at the United Center.
Hawks captain Jonathan Toews couched his view in customary understatement: “I’m sure they’re going to be looking forward to getting back at us. You don’t have to say much about it. There is a history. We don’t like each other too much, I think everyone knows that. And these are the types of games that you live for and look forward to.”
If the rivalry needed to be stoked, the hit delivered last fall by Nucks blueliner Willie Mitchell on Toews, knocking the star captain out for several games with a concussion, might be enough. The irony in Mitchell now being sidelined with post-concussion symptoms, only adds to the controversy.
The war has already started in the minds of the media. The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Rosenbloom and the Vancouver Province’s Tony Gallagher exchanged salvoes, Rosenbloom calling out Roberto Luongo and Gallagher saying Luongo nemesis Dustin Byfuglien was “already getting his butt enlarging pads ready.”
The trash talk from all sides will increase in volume.
Some will focus on the characterization of Vancouver as ‘Canada’s team’. However, both clubs have an equal number of Canadians on their roster (including four Hawks from the Vancouver area, whereas the Canucks have none); while Chicago has more Canadian hockey Olympians. Flag-waving fervor colors the coverage by the Canadian media and the commentary by fans above the 49th parallel. This, in an age where hockey has never been more international, and where the NHL’s “Hockey Is For Everyone” charity efforts are creating new converts around the world.
But all of this makes for great theater, and hockey is spectacle as much as it is sport.
The spectacle of the brash Blackhawks battling the cunning Canucks, in a festival of flash and feistiness, may deliver the best series of the 2010 NHL Playoffs. The sparring was fueled even during the Olympics; when, during the handshakes after the Canada-USA Final, Roberto Luongo told Patrick Kane, “See you in the playoffs.”
Stripping away the partisan perspective, the facts, and the season record head-to-head, tell us these rivals are ready to pit strength against strength. How do these break down?
Rather than elaborate on extensive statistical comparison, here are snapshots of both teams, with a focus on their first round play.
Season record: As previously stated, the teams split their series, and both proved they can win in the other’s building. Their offensive totals are nearly identical; Chicago is slightly better in goals against.
Ex-Red Wing Mikael Samuelsson has been a very strong addition to the Canucks, doing what the much more expensive Mats Sundin could not. He’s currently leading Vancouver in playoff scoring. Not much needs to be said about the prowess of Henrik Sedin, this year’s Art Ross Trophy winner; and his equally able twin brother Daniel. While the Sedins will draw the checking attention of John Madden, Dave Bolland and Jonathan Toews, Samuelsson, along with the mercurial Pavol Demitra and big Steve Bernier, will be players to watch. Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Alex Burrows and Kyle Wellwood all have a ‘nose for the net’.
On the other side, Marian Hossa is a major upgrade to the Hawks team that dive bombed Luongo last spring. Toews, Kane and Sharp are threats the Nucks already know. While Troy Brouwer has been finding his game again after an absence due to his father’s illness, a Brouwer at full power can break games open. Tomas Kopecky, who struggled all year, is finally rounding into form. The disruptive Dustin Byfuglien may see his time split between defense and forward. Kris Versteeg is one of the most offensively creative players on the Blackhawks. Both he and Bolland score clutch goals. Rockford call-up Bryan Bickell has added ‘net presence’ playing with Toews and Kane.
Even without Willie Mitchell, the Vancouver defense appears to have improved over last year. Ex-Shark Christian Erhoff and the emerging Alex Edler are smart, sizeable d-men; Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo are steady veterans. Andrew Alberts, Shane O’Brien, and Aaron Rome (currently day-to-day) add the nasty factor.
The Blackhawks are breathing easier since Brian Campbell returned to the lineup, though the absence of Kim Johnsson is a handicap. The Top 4 of Norris Trophy finalist Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Campbell and Nik Hjalmarsson is among the league’s best. Former Canuck Brent Sopel’s skills are well known to Vancouver fans, and Sopel is coming off an outstanding series against Nashville. Whether Byfuglien or Jordan Hendry (who can also play forward) are in the rotation, the Hawks have options, including the serviceable and boisterous Nick Boynton in reserve.
To paraphrase Hawks legend and former coach Denis Savard (who played in the ’82 series), “In the playoffs, your stars usually cancel each other out. So your supporting cast has to make the difference.” That in mind, how players like Vancouver’s Tanner Glass, Michael Grabner, Rick Rypien, Jannik Hansen and Darcy Hordichuk; and Hawks Adam Burish, Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd, Colin Fraser and John Madden play their respective roles, can tip the balance. Madden’s Cup-winning experience is an intangible that is already paying off; his penalty killing skill in OT helped saved Game Five against the Predators.
Both teams like to mix it up, and both teams have the bodies with which to do it. As previously illustrated, the blood has boiled between them for many years: Hawk great Troy Murray still remembers the intimidating presence of Harold Snepsts. And finding classic fights between Chicago and Vancouver crews is a pastime that delights donnybrook-loving denizens of YouTube. The hair-pulling incident between Alex Burrows and Duncan Keith still propels hockey forum debates. The recent sparks that have flown between Andrew Ladd and Ryan Kesler may ignite anew.
Vancouver’s power play is far superior to Nashville’s, so Chicago’s excellent playoff penalty killing will have a major challenge. While the Hawks have been less effective with the man advantage, the Canucks showed significant weakness when a man down against the Kings.
On the heels of his Olympic gold, Roberto Luongo assures everyone he’s ready to take the Canucks to the next level. But he was shaky in the early going against Los Angeles, even getting yanked in Game Three after allowing four goals on sixteen shots. Questions about his mental toughness, particularly against the Hawks, will persist in part because of his own statements. Speaking post-game about his meltdown in Chicago this past March: “I don’t think we had a great period and I don’t think we were ready to play. Unfortunately, I felt good. That’s the sad part. I felt ready. I felt sharp. And the goals kept going in.” Is the memory of Patrick Kane’s playoff hat trick still haunting him?
At the opposite end of the ice, Antti Niemi put up two shutouts in Round One, but the skeptics refuse to be convinced that an unproven, undrafted Finn with an unorthodox style can carry the Hawks deep into the post season. Niemi may give up the occasional errant goal; however, he seems to keep pucks out when it counts the most, as he did in the Game 6 cliffhanger against the Predators. On statistics alone, he’s outperformed Luongo so far; but he’ll have to be at his best against an explosive Canuck offense.
When asked the question, “Whose goaltending do you worry about most?” recently on “NHL On The Fly”, TV analysts Cup winning d-man Larry Murphy and former Flames GM Craig Button replied, “Both.”
The Blackhawks and Canucks share the weight of massive expectations. Both have been tagged as Stanley Cup contenders. Chicago has the recent experience of going to the Conference Final.
The Hawks have been accused of inconsistent play, and even the local journalists maintain that Chicago played less than its best hockey in Round One.
If there’s any truth to that viewpoint, the Canucks will make the Blackhawks pay dearly. As they showed in their crushing victory back in January, Vancouver will jump on each and every Hawk mistake and hammer them. So the Hawks have to be ready from the first puck drop.
The Canucks appear to be more than ready. Alex Edler, from the April 26th article in the Vancouver Province: “I think Chicago has a little more skill than L.A., which had a lot of big, strong guys. It would be fun to play Chicago again. They have been good all year and they are a really good team.”
Vancouver also has more to prove than just getting revenge for last year’s series defeat. In their thirty-year NHL history, they have advanced past the second round just twice, in 1982 and 1994.
Alain Vigneault and Joel Quenneville are both excellent coaches who know the value of balancing offense and defense.
Keys to the series:
Execution and effort make the difference in this exciting matchup of elite squads. As talent-laden as these rosters are, the series will hinge on the mistakes and unpredictable events—and ability to respond in kind—that are emblematic of playoff hockey.
Chicago’s home ice advantage is critical to their chances for success. Both teams will probably win one game in the other’s building, so this series could go all the way to the wire.
Should that be the case, the Blackhawks likely win in seven, as the United Center roars.
However, if the Hawks falter at any point, the Canucks might shock them in six before an ecstatic Vancouver crowd.
So one can argue the victor will be the team that demonstrates the most will and killer instinct.
That said, predicting the outcome of this series is a crapshoot: as of this writing, the Vegas betting line at Belmont Sports listed the Hawks as 9-2 Cup favorites and the Canucks at 6-1. Leading Canadian online betting resource, Bodog, has the Hawks as 9/4 favorites to win the Western Conference, with Vancouver at 3/1 odds; their Cup odds have Chicago at 4-1 and the Canucks at 6-1.
That narrow margin is a reflection of the closeness of the competition we are likely to see.
Hockey fans, no matter who they cheer for, will be rewarded.
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.