A lot of people gave the Vancouver Canucks an edge over the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. Few thought Vancouver would be in a position to sweep the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. Yet after three games, the Canucks find themselves in that very situation.
In large part to a very physical style of play, Vancouver has come extremely close to exorcising their past playoff demons in Chicago. In addition, the Canucks have played well defensively and picked up timely goaltending from Roberto Luongo.
While Chicago has certainly shown life in the series, they just can't seem to get the upper hand on Vancouver. Game 3 was the Hawks' best effort so far, and they were still unable to come away with a victory in what was as close to a must-win game as possible.
Chicago deserves credit since they dominated the first period of Game 3. The Hawks scored the first goal, had three power-play opportunities—including a 5-on-3 chance for over a minute—and controlled the puck and physical play. It was the start to the game that the Blackhawks needed.
However, after the dust settled on the first period, the Hawks only led by a goal. Vancouver had weathered the storm that it surely knew to expect. Luongo made key saves, and the Canucks defense held it together and prevented it from becoming a free-for-all on the previously mentioned Vancouver goalie.
This is the aspect of the Canucks that they did not possess in years past. Vancouver did not seem to have the composure to prevent one mishap from disrupting their entire game.
In last year's series, The Hawks would have come out hard, scored early and likely scored several more times in the first period. That period would rattle Vancouver for the remainder of the game, and that game would go on to derail the entire series.
In my opinion, had the Hawks scored during their 5-on-3 power-play to make the score 2-0, they would have won Game 3. If this team was like its previous two incarnations, Canucks fans would have then had reason to lament that the collapse had begun. The Hawks again would come back with the momentum and send Vancouver golfing for the third consecutive postseason.
However, the 2011 Canucks are a different beast than before. Instead of letting one bad period throw them for a loop, they held together and prevented the Hawks from creating a multiple goal advantage, shifting the momentum and taking the lead the very next period. This, of course, set up Mikael Samuelsson's winning goal in the third period, and Vancouver walked out of Game 3 with a 3-0 series lead.
In a game where Chicago knew it needed to win, played its best hockey of the series and outplayed the Canucks for most of the game, the Hawks still couldn't pull it out. Great news for Vancouver fans, somber news for Chicago loyalists.
What more can the Blackhawks do in Game 4? What more is there to reach down and bring to the table? Last year, Chicago had a loaded lineup and could lean on any aspect of its deep roster to come through in the pinch, whether it was Jonathan Toews, Dustin Byfuglien or Dave Bolland. Now with Bolland out (and questionable to his exact return) and Byfuglien and others sent away in the offseason to make cap space, the Hawks have had to depend more than ever on their top players.
Vancouver has done well to contain players like Toews, Kane and Sharp—especially during 5-on-5 situations—and with all due respect to rookie Ben Smith (who has played well this round), the Hawks just don't have the depth in scoring like they did last year. With the Canucks defense at full strength and having all of their defensive pairings capable of shutting down the Hawks' top players, there is no one left to turn to for Chicago.
But this series is not over yet. Chicago is down but not out. For anyone who thinks there is no way they can do it, just look at the Philadelphia Flyers. Last season, they came back after losing the first three games to win in Round 2 against the Boston Bruins. The Hawks certainly have the odds—and history—against them, but strange things can happen.
What makes a Chicago series victory doubtful is that there seems little more that it can do against Vancouver to win a game. Even playing its worst game of the series, the Canucks still found a way to win on the road. What is really exciting is that we still haven't seen Vancouver play their best hockey yet in these playoffs.
With Chicago running out of time and opportunities, it looks as though it simply doesn't have what it takes to compete with the NHL's best team in 2011. With Vancouver the healthiest it's been all year and still reserving another gear it can shift into, the hopes are grim for the Hawks and their faithful.
Game 3 may not be the end of the series, but it was the back breaker for Chicago.