2011 NHL Playoffs: Canucks vs. Blackhawks Could Be Tougher Than You Think
And it was the most unlikely scenario because both Chicago and Dallas had to lose.
It seemed unlikely that a desperate Blackhawks team would fail to get a single point against their rival, the Detroit Red Wings, especially after beating them in Detroit 4-2 two nights prior. But they didn't get it.
Now here we go again, the Blackhawks and Canucks will battle each other in the playoffs for the third straight season, this time in the first round. Some kind of destiny has to be at work here.
However, unlike the previous two years, now Vancouver is the undisputed favorite to win. They are the better team. Even the most die-hard Blackhawks fan can't argue this point.
They've scored more goals and allowed fewer, have a better power play and penalty kill, win more faceoffs, have better goaltending, have the Art Ross trophy winner (and the one from last year), two 40-plus goal scorers, a Selke trophy candidate, a deeper defense and the William Jennings and Presidents' trophies.
Statistically, the Canucks are better, so I'm not going to compare them based on stats, nor am I going to do a head-to-head matchup. The Canucks are the better team. End of story. Moving on.
Instead, I would like discuss why a series between the Blackhawks and Canucks will be tougher than most hockey fans might think.
There are some areas where the Blackhawks can more than compete with the Canucks and a few areas where they even have an advantage.
Now I'm not saying the Blackhawks will defeat the Canucks. I just think this will be a hard fought, exciting series that might go a longer than most fans might expect.
Here's why the Canucks might have some trouble with the Blackhawks this year.
Just like when a team plays a division rival, expect both the Blackhawks and Canucks to enhance their play in hopes of defeating their hated rivals.
Admittedly, neither team is quite the same and the animosity between them isn't as strong as it once was. But the Canucks hate the Blackhawks and would love nothing more than to knock them off on their way to a Stanley Cup.
And the Blackhawks know how much the Canucks hate them and would love nothing more than to spoil their Stanley Cup hopes with a third straight knockout.
The point is that this series will be very different than a series between Vancouver and Dallas (I can't believe people actually wanted that. That would be the most boring series of the first round,) because a rivalry exists between the Canucks and Blackhawks.
The rivalry adds some extra motivation and intensity for each team. However this may work against the Canucks by throwing them off their game like it has in the past.
The rivalry should also ensure that the Blackhawks make the series competitive and step up to match the skill and depth of the Canucks.
First let me say, I think Alain Vigneault is a good coach. I think he as developed a great system in Vancouver, and the players seem to have bought into it. This has allowed the Canucks to be the best two-way team in the NHL.
With that said, I don't think that Vigneault is a great coach. There are a few flaws in his style, primarily his "laissez-faire" approach: letting the team command itself and not establishing good matchups.
Compare this with Joel Quenneville's "hands-on" style. Quenneville plays a very active role in motivating his team. He isn't afraid to juggle lines in search of chemistry and production and firmly establishes effective matchups.
Quenneville's style wins out over Vigneault's and he has two previous years of postseason victories against Vigneault to prove it, not to mention a Stanley Cup championship. Yes Chicago was the better team, but coaching was a huge influence in Chicago's victories.
Vigneault has a history of being out-coached in the playoffs, particularly by Joel Quenneville, who, like I said, likes to get very involved with his team and manipulate the other team's ability with the right matchups.
Coaching will be a very powerful determinant in this series. Quenneville doesn't have the same agitators such as Andrew Ladd and Adam Burish to use against the Sedins, and it is uncertain whether or not two-way forward Dave Bolland will return in time for the series.
Still, I would say the coaching advantage goes to Chicago. Quenneville knows how to win in the playoffs. He knows how to get matchups, how to find chemistry and production and how to match up against the other team. Vigneault lacks the same experience and style.
The season series was split between the Canucks and the Blackhawks, with the 'Hawks taking the first game in a 2-1 shootout victory and the second in a 7-1 victory.
The Canucks took the third game in a 3-0 shutout win and the final game in a 4-3 home victory.
Only once in those four meetings was Corey Crawford in net and that was for the 7-1 victory for the Blackhawks, meaning it's tough to say exactly how good the Canucks will be against him.
The Canucks have butchered other goalies like Kari Lehtonen, Jonathan Quick, Jimmy Howard and even Pekka Rinne, so matchups against those teams would seem more favorable because the Canucks know how to beat those particular goalies.
With Crawford, the Canucks don't exactly know how to beat him yet. Only some video review and a few games in the series will show them how.
For those of you who don't know who Corey Crawford is, he is the 26-year-old rookie who has taken over the starting job in Chicago and has been the main reason that this series is even happening.
Crawford enters the playoffs with an impressive 33-16-6 record, four shutouts, a .917 save percentage and a 2.30 goals against average and a very strong case for the Calder Memorial trophy.
Despite only being a rookie, Crawford has shown tremendous poise and resiliency, starting 27 consecutive games, every single one of them deemed "must-wins".
Crawford has given the Blackhawks a chance to win nearly every game in the regular season and should continue to do so in the playoffs. He is a goalie with great patience, fights through screens, isn't afraid to challenge shooters and makes saves at key moments.
Crawford could prove to be a difficult obstacle for the Canucks to get around. Even as a rookie, he has all the traits of a championship goalie.
Offense and Power Play
Even though the Blackhawks lost a huge part of their offensive depth last summer, they still have an abundance of offensive weapons, including the obvious names like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, who carried the team over the last few weeks of the regular season.
They are even capable of putting together some very "Sedin-like" goals, as shown in the video above.
The Blackhawks amassed 258 goals this season, fourth most in the NHL and only four fewer than the Canucks. Therefore it is not reasonable to claim that Vancouver is a strong offensive team without implying the same for Chicago.
With scoring threats on all four lines, the Blackhawks are still one of the most offensively dangerous teams in the NHL.
Similarly, the Blackhawks have the fourth ranked powerplay in the league at 23.1 percent. The first unit of Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa and Seabrook is as deadly as they come.
Expect the Canucks to face a lot of shots and quality scoring chances. For this reason, goaltending will probably be the main difference-maker in this series.
Blackhawks' Improving Penalty Kill
Yes the Blackhawks have a poorly ranked penalty kill. Indeed it is one of the worst in the league. In November they only killed 74 percent of their penalties and around 77 percent in December, January and February.
But here's the interesting statistic that hockey analysts neglect to mention when describing the weaknesses of the Blackhawks. Since late February, they have killed around 84 percent of their penalties, which would make them a top-10 penalty killing team.
How much weight does this fact have? You could argue none because they haven't done it all year, meaning that their penalty killing is inconsistent.
But I'm not just talking about the amount of powerplay goals allowed. Their penalty kill has improved fundamentally with a newer, more aggressive strategy.
And this statistic isn't over a two-week span. I'm talking about span of five or six weeks of killing penalties in high pressure, must-win game situations.
Couple the fact that the Blackhawks are rarely shorthanded with the fact that they may be entering the playoffs with the ability to kill 84 percent of penalties, and this could perhaps nullify the Canucks top-ranked power play.
Closing Regular Season Schedule
This is an area that is open to a lot of speculation, but in my opinion the Canucks had a much easier schedule in the final games of the regular season. You may disagree, but let's compare the final five games of each team.
March 31st: Los Angeles Kings (seventh place in the Western Conference)
April 2nd: Edmonton Oilers (15th place in the Western Conference)
April 5th: Edmonton Oilers (15th place in the Western Conference)
April 7th: Minnesota Wild (12th place in the Western Conference)
April 9th: Calgary Flames (10th place in the Western Conference)
April 3rd: Tampa Bay Lightning (fifth place in the Eastern Conference)
April 5th: Montreal Canadiens (sixth place in the Eastern Conference)
April 6th: St. Louis Blues (11th place in the Western Conference)
April 8th: Detroit Red Wings (third place in the Western Conference)
April 10th: Detroit Red Wings (third place in the Western Conference)
Interpret this how you wish, but statistically speaking the Blackhawks faced much tougher opponents in their final five games than the Canucks did. This could make the Blackhawks more prepared for a tough and competitive opponent.
But like I said, interpret it how you wish. This is just my opinion. A team's play and readiness going into the playoffs can greatly affect how they perform in the first round.
The Blackhawks Have Experience That the Canucks Don't
I just recently read an article by Dan Rosen, a senior writer for NHL.com. The article was entitled: "Why Chicago Will Win the Cup." A similar article was written for the Canucks by Brian Hunter.
Dan had a good point. He emphasized how experience is such a valuable asset when trying to make a big playoff run, perhaps the most valuable.
In his article he wrote, "The Blackhawks know what it takes to win a Stanley Cup, and hands-on experience at this time of the year is huge."
The core group of players in Chicago are playoff-hardened veterans who know what it takes to win important games, especially in the playoffs. Guys like Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook, Campbell and others know the type of character it takes to win in the playoffs.
The same cannot be said about the Canucks. On their roster, they have only one former Stanley Cup winner in Mikael Samuelsson. Guys like Raffi Torres and Maxim Lapierre bring some playoff experience, but compared to the Blackhawks, the Canucks just don't stack up.
The main group of players haven't displayed the kind of leadership needed to get a team through the playoffs in the past. That may become a factor in this series.
Also, the core of the Canucks has been known to fall apart in the playoffs. For them to beat the Blackhawks, they will need to carry their regular season into the playoffs and overcome the experience that the defending champs have acquired over the past two postseasons.
The skill of the Canucks alone won't beat the Blackhawks. If the playoff instincts of the 'Hawks kick in, it could very well influence the outcome of the series.
The Pressure Is on the Canucks
The pressure is all on the Canucks this time. There is no doubt about that. They're the Presidents' trophy winners and the best overall team in the NHL. Anything short of winning the Stanley Cup will be considered a failure in the eyes of the city of Vancouver.
However, the Blackhawks don't necessarily have the same pressure on them. The Canucks on the other hand established a series of goals including making the playoffs, winning their division, winning the Western Conference, winning the Presidents' trophy and eventually the Stanley Cup.
The Blackhawks' goal since December has been to not become the fifth team in history to fail to make the playoffs the year after winning the Stanley Cup.
Now that the 'Hawks are in, they can put the question of, "Will we make the playoffs?" out of their minds and play playoff hockey, something they excel at.
In this series, the Blackhawks will be the underdog with uncertain expectations. No one knows how far they can go. They could potentially catch fire and be the best team in the playoffs. Or they could get crushed in four games in the first round. The Blackhawks will set their own standard.
Not like the Canucks who have a clear agenda ahead of them and cannot afford to fall short of expectations. A compilation of errors may disrupt the confidence or composure of the Canucks and force them into a danger zone.
Chicago is one team that has be known to do this to them.
This is Vancouver's series to lose. But can they handle the pressure, especially when facing their playoff nemesis who just also happens to be the defending Stanley Cup champions?
The Blackhawks Have Something to Play For
The Blackhawks do have something to play for this postseason. Now that they've made the playoffs they won't just say, "Well we made it here, now lets go golfing," and throw in the towel. Expect them to battle hard in hopes of defending their title.
In this salary cap era, it is nearly impossible to maintain a dynasty and win back-to-back championships. But could it happen? Absolutely.
Its this possibility that will keep the Blackhawks skating.
More importantly expect the Blackhawks to want to prove to everyone that they deserve to be in the playoffs. There are certainly a lot of critics out there who claim that they got an undeserved and unearned playoff spot.
What better way to silence those critics than to knock out the Presidents' trophy winners in the first round?
The Blackhawks have a lot to prove after a disappointing season that just barely allowed them to squeak into the playoffs.
They have a lot to play for: defending their title, silencing critics about their season and proving to themselves and everyone that they deserve to be in the playoffs. They will want to make everyone remember that they are the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Blackhawks are a team that rarely gives into their emotions. Even over the course of this season, which was inconsistent and disappointing, the Blackhawks rarely ever lost their composure in games.
Their bad season was due to a combination of lacking depth and effort on a consistent basis. Composure had almost nothing to do with it.
They never got frustrated and started taking unnecessary penalties, started stupid fights and/or let a bad period throw them off their game. When the Blackhawks are on top of their game, it's extremely difficult to throw them off.
The Canucks don't exactly have the same repertoire. In the past they have been notorious for losing their cool in big game situations, in fact that was one reason the Blackhawks were able to trample them. They agitated the Canucks to the point they wanted to fight more than play hockey.
And the Blackhawks just kicked back and racked up the power play goals.
Now this season is apparently different. Apparently the conventional hotheads like Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler have become more composed players and are finally focusing on hockey instead of scrapping with other players.
And while I agree to a certain point, my response would be this: over the course of a Presidents' Trophy winning season how often do you need to lose your composure? Its easy to shake things off when you're winning all the time.
When you're losing, its a whole different story. The Canucks history has suggested that they can't handle losing very well.
Take the 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks this season for example. The Canucks took eight penalties late in the game when they were already losing.
And while you could argue that they have matured since then, is there an comparable evidence to suggest otherwise? Have they suffered any other 7-1 losses to prove this point wrong?
Even during their very successful season they have been occurrences where they have taken bad penalties or have been thrown off their game due to an unfavorable scoreboard.
The Blackhawks are the second least penalized team in the NHL and have proven that they can keep their composure while winning or losing. Something that comes with championship experience.
The Canucks on the other hand are one the most penalized teams in the NHL, and while I'm aware that they have a very highly rated penalty kill, I think the Blackhawks first unit would be able to find the mesh a couple times in the series.
The ability of the Canucks to retain their composure, stay on top of their game and stay out of the box will be a huge factor in swinging the momentum either way in this series.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook
These two are the best two-way pairing in the NHL. There's no denying this. They have an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup championship to corroborate this claim.
While the Canucks have more depth on defense, no pairing they have is as skilled or versatile as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Admittedly, a huge reason for the Blackhawks less than inspiring season has been the mediocre play of Keith and Seabrook. Keith finished the season a minus-one and Seabrook an even zero.
However, over the past two months the play of Keith and Seabrook has improved significantly, and they appear to be awakening into their former playoff selves.
Not to mention they've been chipping in offensively in games the Blackhawks needed to score goals. Seabrook had five goals and nine points in his final 10 games, and Keith had two goals and eight points in his final 12 games.
They are used to logging very big minutes (Keith leads the league in average ice-time at over 27 minutes per game) and used to playing against top lines and in high pressure situations.
If these two fully round into form in the playoffs, the Canucks offense could be dampened. Expect Quenneville to matchup Keith and Seabrook with the Sedin line as usual.
Overconfidence and Mentality Going into the Playoffs
The Canucks had the President's trophy wrapped up two weeks before the season even ended, and the final games on their schedule didn't matter to anyone.
The Canucks will be entering the playoffs with a ton of confidence as the leagues best team with the best statistics as undisputed favorites. How can they possibly lose right?
That's exactly when teams are at their most vulnerable: when they think that they're too good to lose.
The Blackhawks have been in desperation mode for months now and will be more of a "loose-cannon" than anything else. I can't say that they are entering the playoffs with confidence, but they certainly don't expect to beat Vancouver the same way Vancouver expects to beat them.
That just might be the edge they need.
History has shown us that upsets happen at least once every year. It's not always the 8-seed overcoming the 1-seed, but even that happens.
If the Canucks come into the series with the mentality that they will crush the Blackhawks in four games simply because they are a weaker team that limped into the playoffs and the Blackhawks come in with a, "Let's defend our title and prove critics wrong" mentality, I think Chicago will prevail.
It all depends on the mentality of each team and their approach to the series. If Vancouver plays more cautiously and focuses on their game they should be fine.
If they get overconfident and don't respect the Blackhawks' abilities, the series will likely end in an upset. As I said before, skill alone won't beat the Blackhawks.
A lot of fans will refute this point and argue that the Canucks have overcome their fears of the Blackhawks and that the regular season series between the two teams, particularly the 3-0 shutout, is a good indicator.
Well I'll start by saying that regular season records between two teams aren't good indicators of anything. And if it is, I would like to refer you to the game on Nov. 20th, the Canucks worst loss of the season.
Second, no one can say with absolute certainty that the Canucks have overcome their fears of the Blackhawks in the playoffs until after they defeat the Blackhawks.
Until they do, the Blackhawks still have the psychological advantage.
You could say the Canucks might play harder to defeat the defending champs and old playoff rivals, but honestly almost everyone said the exact same thing last year too and look what happened.
How much the psychological aspect will come into play in this series has yet to be determined. We might not even see it if Vancouver maintains a lead. We might see it in a Game 1 blowout. No one knows.
One thing is for certain: Vancouver is the team that has to overcome its fears, not Chicago, which is strange considering that the Canucks won the Presidents' trophy and the Blackhawks barely squeaked into the playoffs.
The point is that the Canucks have something to prove, and the Blackhawks are their primary road block in doing so.
The task of exorcising their demons could add additional pressure to the Canucks and play into the Blackhawks hands.
No one has to overcome the psychological torment of the Chicago Blackhawks more than Roberto Luongo. He's been the main victim in the slaughter the past two years.
He made a stride this season with a 3-0 shutout in the United Center. But whether or not he can do the same in the playoffs has yet to be seen.
Luongo is perhaps one of the most notorious goalies (other than Evgeny Nabokov) for collapsing in the playoffs. Luongo's playoff statistics last year were atrocious. He had a .895 save percentage and a 3.22 goals against average, most of it at the hands of the Blackhawks in the second round.
His new goaltending style has done wonders for him this season, we so know he can handle the potent Blackhawks offense.
But mentally we don't know if he will be able to stand up to his nightmares of charging Indian heads and Chelsea Dagger. Did he get a new therapist too?
While everyone likes to point out that Dustin Byfuglien, Luongo's most despised Blackhawk, is no longer a Blackhawk and therefore he has nothing to worry about. But there's another kid who's still a Blackhawk that caused Luongo even more trouble.
His name is Patrick Kane. The guy who got a hat-trick against Luongo in Game 6 of the 2009 series and whose goal in Game 6 of last year's series made Luongo fall to the ice in shame.
Byfuglien may be gone, but Kane still remains. So does Patrick Sharp, whose shorthanded goal in game two of last years series was probably the turning point for the Blackhawks.
In the past, after each goal Luongo surrendered he seemed to get more and more distraught. If Luongo collapses, it could demoralize the entire team.
Fortunately this season the Canucks have a very capable backup in Cory Schneider, but like I said, the demoralization of Luongo falling apart yet again would have serious implications.
Not to mention by the time they turn to Schneider, it may be too late.
Honestly, has everyone forgotten how good this team actually is?
They're not a team of nobodies. They have a talented and experienced core that have won a Stanley Cup, they have four Olympic medalists, one of the best offenses and powerplays in the NHL, one of the best defensive pairings in the game and a goalie that is a very strong Calder trophy candidate.
This isn't the Edmonton Oilers folks, who the Canucks should be extremely thankful they're not playing.
Yes the supporting cast has changed and the players that caused the Canucks huge amounts of grief in the past like Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd are gone, but all the major threats still remain.
Even as a Blackhawks fan I will acknowledge that the Canucks have the better team and are the favorites to win, unlike in the previous two series. In my honest opinion, I expect the Canucks to win in six games.
Does that mean it will happen for sure? Of course not and you'd be foolish to think so. The Canucks will have to overcome various obstacles to be victorious in the series.
As I've proven (or at least have tried to prove) there are many reasons that will make this a competitive series.
Most people are calling a sweep of the Blackhawks, others are predicting Canucks in five games. Most think this will be an "all Canucks" series. I take issue with that. Its hard to imagine that this competitive Blackhawks team won't at least put up a fight.
Expect intensity, expect highlight-reel goals and expect to have all your questions about the Canucks and the Blackhawks answered.