It appears after two years of utterly collapsing to the mercy of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Vancouver Canucks have finally found a way to beat their conference rival and overcome their anxiety of playing the team that has knocked them out of the Stanley Cup race two season in a row.
Or have they?
One would say by looking at the scores of the last two meetings that they obviously have. But there's a bit more to it than that.
First, these two teams split the season series last year when Chicago was a much more dominant team. For this year's Blackhawks team to walk away with the same amount of points, against a team that has become much stronger than it was last season, I think says one thing: the Blackhawks can still compete with the Canucks to some degree.
This year's season series between the Blackhawks and the Canucks is now over. The Blackhawks captured four of a possible eight points; the Canucks took five of a possible eight. Chicago won the first two meetings, Vancouver the following two.
However, it's important to note that in this year's series Chicago has outscored the Canucks 12-8 and outshot them 149-115. In the first two games, which were losses for the Canucks, Luongo was not at his best. In the last two, which were wins, Luongo has been outstanding.
This is not a coincidence.
These statistics and the series record don't suggest the Canucks have made serious strides to overcome the Blackhawks in any way. They only ended up with one extra point than they did last season.
But I want to focus on the most recent loss, in which the Blackhawks lost a very strange game 4-3.
First the negatives. It was the same old story with the defense. Turnovers, poor positioning, bad passing. Just overall inconsistency.
Turco was okay. He wasn't great, he wasn't terrible. He had some clutch moments but I think it's clear he's not the one to get them into and through the playoffs. It's time to go back to Crawford. They need wins and they need them now. The time to experiment is over.
The penalty kill was good at times and bad at others. But the Canucks have a very effective power play, so I have to cut the Blackhawks some slack. One goal was a bad bounce off of Campbell's skate and the other was a misread by Turco.
For the team with the leagues best powerplay they didn't show it. The Blackhawks went 0-for-6 last night and that can't happen for a team fighting for a playoff spot.
However, there were several positives from the game that I think will be overlooked because the Blackhawks lost. For one, the Blackhawks not only outshot, but significantly outchanced the Canucks, as has been the case for most of the series.
The Blackhawks had great tempo. They came out hard and took control of the game early. The forwards had plenty of chances and played a very synchronized game. Against any other opponent, this would have been a win for the Blackhawks. But they couldn't get the "W." Maybe the Canucks have finally figured them out.
This brings me back to my first question: have the Canucks figured out the Blackhawks?
My answer is: no they have not. The Canucks have not figured out the Blackhawks. Roberto Luongo has.
Luongo has shut the door on so many Blackhawks scoring opportunities in their past two meetings I can't even count them all. He flat out robbed Sharp, Kane and Kopecky in the December 3 shutout and had amazing saves on almost everyone in last night's game.
I think the Blackhawk-fearing Luongo has finally overcome his phobia and has stepped up his game to beat them.
I can't say the same about the rest of the Canucks team, particularly their defense.
Tonight's game should have been a 4-3 victory for the Blackhawks. I didn't know it was possible to score from the wrong side of the blueline or call off a goal when the skater did not interfere with the goalie. The game was full of bad calls and strange bounces for both teams. One thing is for certain though: the game was not dominated by the Canucks.
The Canucks were outplayed, outshot and outchanced but still managed to get the win. Same with the game on December 3. They capitalized on the power play and took advantage of poor goaltending to get the wins.
And in the end, that's all it comes down to. The Canucks got the two points, the Blackhawks got zero. But as I said things aren't necessarily that simple and it's important to take away some things from last nights game:
1. The Blackhawks are clearly not pushovers. I think they've proved to the Canucks, and to everyone, that facing them in the playoffs won't be a walk in the park. Despite losing, the Blackhawks played a very competitive game and kept the Canucks on their heels. With some better goaltending (most likely from Crawford) I think the Blackhawks can compete with the Canucks.
2. The Canucks skaters are still somewhat intimidated by the Blackhawks. You may disagree with me, but there were times in the game where the number one team in the NHL looked a little frightened of the defending champions, especially the defense.
They looked nervous, hesitant and were scrambling to clear pucks against the hard Chicago forecheck. If they meet in the postseason, the Blackhawks need to use this to throw the Canucks off their game.
3. The competitiveness is still there against the Canucks. The Blackhawks seem to give a little more effort against their new rivals. They were skating faster, fighting harder on the boards and for loose pucks and throwing pucks at the net from all angles. Simply put, the Blackhawks want to beat the Canucks and they play hard trying to do just that.
I don't think the Canucks have completely overcome Blackhawks. In fact, I think the Blackhawks still have their number to some degree. Unfortunately, Luongo has rid himself of his Blackhawks phobia and has bought his team the last two games of the season series.
With some better goaltending, and a better defensive effort, I think the Blackhawks can overcome the league-leading Canucks in a postseason matchup. They've outplayed the Canucks in nearly every meeting this season and have had the majority of the chances.
Some very bad goals make the Canucks seem very dominant over the Blackhawks when really it has been a matter of outstanding goaltending on the part of Luongo. The majority of the Canucks skaters have been mediocre and have struggled to outwork the Blackhawks skaters.
We'll see if these two teams meet in the postseason for the third straight year and whether or not the Canucks have truly overcome their inability to beat the Blackhawks when it matters.