It took the Blackhawks losing on the final day of the regular season as well as the Dallas Stars choking versus the Minnesota Wild, but here we have it, Canucks versus Blackhawks for the third year in a row. Like most Canucks fans, I was cheering for the Dallas Stars to win their final game, not wanting to play the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round. But as soon as the Wild-Stars game ended, I began to get excited for this matchup.
Ok, I’m excited, but I’m also a little nervous. I’m excited because this could be great revenge. I’m nervous because if they were to lose to Chicago AGAIN, it would be the biggest nightmare scenario anyone could have written up.
So is this a dream? Is this a nightmare? This year feels different, but if I hear this song a few times during game 3, 4, and 6, I might start getting a cold sweat.
The Canucks are getting a rare chance to exorcise their demons, getting a third chance at a team that has had their number in previous playoff appearances. Canucks fans for their part, will get a chance to throw a salmon on the ice:
So will this year be different? I think it will. The first series between the Blackhawks and Canucks in 2009 featured an unproven yet talented Blackhawks team that found a way to get to Roberto Luongo and win the series in 6 games. That series was a close one and could have gone either way. In last year’s series, the Blackhawks were simply the better team. This year’s matchup the Canucks go into the series as the clear favourites.
As you are probably aware, the Blackhawks have lost a lot of their team that hoisted the Stanley Cup last season. For the most part they’ve been unable to replace some key parts of their team. Meanwhile, the Canucks have kept their important players and added some key pieces to the puzzle that have made them a better team.
2009: Luongo vs Khabibulin
The Canucks were supposed to have the big edge in goal in 2009, but didn’t. While the Canucks were outshot in 5 of the 6 games, Khabibulin was capable when called upon. Luongo did not have a good series, and was particularly awful in game 6. It’s a game that has haunted him ever since.
2010: Luongo vs Niemi
Despite winning the series, Antti Niemi wasn’t particularly impressive for the Blackhawks last season. He let in 4 goals or more on three occasions. The problem for the Canucks is it didn’t matter. In the 4 Blackhawks wins, Luongo gave up a total of 21 goals. While Luongo was tested a lot, facing 30+ shots in all 6 games, he wasn’t nearly good enough. His battles with Dustin Byfuglien are well documented, and he just seemed to get rattled by Chicago.
2011: Luongo vs Crawford
Is this Luongo vs Niemi 2.0? It certainly could be. Corey Crawford has played and won more games than Niemi did last regular season and he has a better save percentage too. Niemi didn’t wrestle the number one job away from Cristobal Huet as quickly as Crawford did to Marty Turco this year. But the difference this year should be the play of Roberto Luongo. In 2009, Luongo was at the top of his game, but had an injury riddled season in which he only appeared in 54 games. In 2010, Luongo had an off-year and wasn’t himself from start to finish. This year is different. He played only 60 games, to rest, not recover from injury. He’s quite simply posted the best numbers of his career and has never been this rested heading into a postseason.
While everyone talks about the forwards Chicago has lost, perhaps the focus should be on the Canucks defense this season.
In 2009, the Canucks defense looked like this:
Due to injury in 2010, the Canucks defense looked like this:
This year the Canucks have added Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard, and Kevin Bieksa is playing significantly better. Sami Salo also no longer has a ruptured testicle, so that should help too. The Blackhawks for their part have boasted the same top 4 defense corps in all 3 seasons, and they lean heavily on them. Campoli and Leddy are in this year, replacing the likes of Walker, Barker, Sopel and Hendry (injured) from years past.
The 2010 Blackhawks were a better team up front than the 2009 team, mostly because of the addition of Marian Hossa and the maturation of a boatload of young talent. This season, gone are the likes of Byfuglien, Brouwer, Ladd, Versteeg, Burish and Eager. They also had Sami Pahlsson in 2009 and replaced him with John Madden in 2010. So who are the replacements? Michael Frolik has probably been the best, but that’s not saying much. Bickell, Smith, Pisani, Stalberg and Johnson are the rest, so it’s not surprising that head coach Joel Quenneville has leaned heavily on his top 6 forwards this season.
The Canucks, on the other hand, have improved their forward lines considerably since the first team that faced off against Chicago in 2009. For one, their players have improved, too. Daniel and Henrik Sedin are now bona fide superstars in the league, while Ryan Kesler is a 40+ goal scorer. The Canucks second line also no longer features Pavol Demitra or Mats Sundin.
The Hawks still matchup well with the Canucks top 6 forwards, but at best it’s a wash. Where the Canucks will need to take advantage is the battle of the 3rd and 4th lines, something that absolutely killed them in 2009 and 2010.
I haven’t heard a lot of talk about it, but injuries were a key last season, and will be a key this season as well. Last year the Canucks entered the series versus the Blackhawks with Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler playing with significant injuries. Their best shutdown defenceman, Willie Mitchell, missed the entire series with a concussion. Sami Salo was knocked out of game 5, and hobbled around in game 6. Alex Edler was injured early in game 6. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, played without Kim Johnsson.
This year the Blackhawks are the beat up team. Patrick Sharp returned early from injury and isn’t 100%. It’s uncertain whether or not Dave Bolland will be able to start the series, recovering from a concussion. Troy Brouwer’s status is also uncertain. The Canucks, for their part, will be without Manny Malhotra for the entire series and Raffi Torres (suspension) for the first two games. The Canucks are much more well prepared to deal with injury than the Hawks this season, and that’s likely to be a key.
In 2009 and 2010, I predicted a Blackhawks victory. This year, I think the Canucks will win it, but it won’t be easy. The Blackhawks stars will be tough to beat, but the combination of the improved play of Roberto Luongo, the depth/mobility on defense, and the lack of forward depth for the Blackhawks will be the difference this year. Canucks in 6.