Let me start by saying that the Vancouver Canucks SHOULD beat the Chicago Blackhawks in their Western Conference quarterfinal matchup. The Vancouver Canucks SHOULD win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 40-year history.
In reality however, the line between should have, could have or would have and actually doing so are miles apart.
In all the history of the Vancouver Canucks franchise, never have they been the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. A mammoth of a season resulted in a record of 54-19-9 for a whopping total of 117 points, far and away eclipsing their previous high of 105 points set in 2006-07.
After they statistically dominated the league, there appears to be no equal to the Canucks this postseason. Vancouver, however, must exorcise demons from the recent past if they are to be crowned 2011 champions.
Perhaps orchestrated by fate, Vancouver's road to the Stanley Cup must once again traverse through the Windy City and the defending champions, the Blackhawks. It's fitting that in a season of so much fanfare and hype, the Canucks' first test this postseason comes versus the club against which everyone has measured them since the start of the year.
These are not the Chicago Blackhawks of yesteryear. Suffering from a mix of a Stanley Cup hangover and a dose of reality, Chicago has struggled to find consistency and was fortunate to even make the playoffs.
The aforementioned dose of reality concerns the perils and challenges of operating a team in the NHL salary cap era. A decade ago, teams such as Detroit, Colorado, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Dallas could spend huge sums of money to buy a perennial cup contending roster, much to the chagrin of Canadian and smaller US market teams.
Today's NHL forces teams to make tough decisions about who to break the bank for and who to let go into free agency. That is exactly what Chicago had to do after winning the Stanley Cup last season.
Chicago was forced to sell off the aspect of its team which made it so dangerous, its roster depth. Notables such as Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Brent Sopel and Antti Niemi were moved or let go in order to comply with the salary cap.
It also happens that these players and the others who left represented a sizable portion of the Hawks' toughness and grit: Vancouver fans were definitely not disappointed when Dustin Byfuglien was shipped to Atlanta.
In addition, the Hawks have put their faith in rookie netminder Corey Crawford. While Crawford put up great first-year numbers, he will be thrown into the fire against the league's top offense. With only the aging Marty Turco to fall back on should Crawford stumble, goaltending would again appear to be the Blackhawks biggest weakness.
Make no mistake however, this Chicago team is not to be underestimated.
While they lost a significant amount of their depth, the Hawks are still a loaded, albeit top-heavy team. Stars such as Jonathan Toews, Patricks Kane and Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to name a few will be front and center against the Canucks' best.
Toews in particular already has an impressive resume in his short career including an Olympic gold medal, a Stanley Cup ring and a Conn Smythe trophy for playoff MVP. Toews, also known as Captain Serious, has already proven himself capable of leading his team to greatness and also in demolishing the ambitions of the Vancouver Canucks.
This will be no cake-walk for Vancouver, but they have studied from the beatings that the Hawks have administered to the Canucks the last two postseasons. In 2009, Chicago showed Vancouver they needed to get faster and more skilled forwards. In 2010, the Blackhawks showed the Canucks they needed to be deeper and tougher. Now it is time for the Canucks to show that they have learned their lessons.
It can be said that every team needs to make a statement in the first round of the playoffs. That may be especially true for these Canucks. Vancouver has earned a reputation of choking in the clutch, a team that gains success in the regular season, but can't finish up in the do-or-die moments.
In the Blackhawks, the Canucks could be facing their toughest trial of the 2011 playoffs. Vancouver must overcome their own uncertainties and fears in order to beat the defending champions. I expect the Canucks will play it cool as they have all season, but no matter the outward confidence or bravado, the lingering doubt of overcoming the vaunted Chicago Blackhawks must tug at all of the players.
If Vancouver truly is the team to beat this year, they must first make a grand statement against Chicago. Despite their inconsistencies this year, there still may not be a more dangerous team than the Blackhawks. The Hawks know what it takes to win it all and they have shown that they play even better when the underdog.
This should be one heck of a series.
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