The Roberto Luongo we saw in the 2010 Olympics showed up last night.
Unfortunately, so did the pre-redemption Brent Sopel, and it's questionable whether the entire Blackhawks team showed up for the second period.
In a show that has become uncomfortably familiar to Blackhawks fans this season, the Hawks started off the game strong, faltered in the middle, and then resurged late in the game - but by then, it was too little, too late.
You can argue whether or not Patrick Sharp was screening Antti Niemi on the first Canucks goal; ultimately, it doesn't matter, because it was a goal. I'm a big fan of Niemi, but Game 1 just wasn't his night.
Unrest in the stands was high as the game plowed on towards the third period, booing the team as they skated off the ice. (Chicago fans never hesitate to tell it like it is.) And clearly there was some rattling in the box, too, as Coach Q shuffled his lines (argh!) as the game went on. What I have a hard time understanding is why the fans seem to so clearly see what's going wrong on the ice, but the coach and the team don't.
Maybe you remember a Whoopi Goldberg film from 1996 named Eddie. (I have a point, so hang with me.) In it, Goldberg plays a fan of the NY Knicks named Eddie Franklin. Eddie is a die-hard fan; her season seats are nosebleed, but she knows every player, and she knows the team's strengths - and flaws. As the Knicks flail through the midseason with a mediocre record, the new team's owner, "Wild" Bill Burgess, comes up with an "honorary coach" contest, and has the loud-mouthed Eddie picked. The fans love it, and when Burgess has the opening to fire the coach, he puts Eddie in the position instead.
Of course, the team doesn't take well to it at first. But eventually Eddie brings them around, because she has the sense to connect with each and every player, and to correct the issues that plagues the team, and wins their respect - and, of course, they go on to win.
To sit up in the 300s in the United Center for a Blackhawks game is one of the great experiences in sport. These are the fans who stuck with the team as it floundered its way through the early 2000s.
And they're really opinionated, too - recognizing every flaw on the ice - so you will hear catcalls ranging from the simple "Shoooooooooooot!" and "Stop passing so much!" to the funny, such as "Stop sucking!" and "Hit him with your purse!"
It isn't hard to imagine a Chicago fan, given the same opportunity as Eddie, walking into the box or the locker room, and giving every one of them a piece of their mind. (A fellow Hawks Tweeter suggested recently at a Tweetup, "I would just go into the locker room and throw down a bag of golf clubs, and say, 'Here, use these instead of your sticks, because this is the game you look like you'd rather be playing.'")
We love our players. Nobody in a million years would ever accuse hockey players of being prima donnas or rap stars or any of the other things that you see out of basketball, football and baseball players. Hockey players are hard-working, down-to-earth, approachable, mostly-modest athletes who genuinely seem to like connecting with their fans.
Maybe that's why it seems so hard to swallow when we feel the team has let us down.
Chicago fans - no matter what the sport - have no problem showing their displeasure when their team doesn't seem to be giving it their all. We've got nothing to lose, after all: prior to 2005, the last time the White Sox won the World Series was 1917. The Cubs haven't even won a World Series in living human memory. The Bears at least won the Super Bowl in 1985, but they've only gone to the SB twice and their last appearance was less than stellar.
The Blackhawks last made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1992, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins; but they last won the Cup in 1961. The team itself is no doubt hungry to bring home the Cup, but the fans are hungrier. Chicago sports fans live in a perpetual cycle of being lifted to the heights, only to have their hopes and dreams dashed on the field - or the ice.
Last night's game didn't exactly give the fans anything to instill any kind of hope that THIS is the team, THIS is the year for the Blackhawks. It was the same kind of performance we witnessed too much in the regular season: the team just didn't play a full 60 minutes.
The problem is that Vancouver did. The Canucks came into the building with their own "one goal": the Chicago rematch, to find redemption from the 2009 Playoffs. The Blackhawks are perhaps a little too focused on the Finals round, instead of the round that is in front of them right now, right here.
The game started strong, although a little slow, with Chicago actually leading the charge, peppering Luongo early with shots on goal. But it's clear that the Blackhawks didn't learn the lessons from the Predators that they should have: patience wins out over pretty. When the team focused on shooting and looking for rebounds, that is when they were looking their best and getting the scoring opportunities. Luongo showed up ready to play, however, the ghosts of 2009 clearly behind him, and kept the Hawks scoreless in the first.
On the other end of the ice, Vancouver showed what they've demonstrated throughout the year - an ability to be patient, and a highly solid offense that was able to find the holes and put the puck in the net. Only 2 goals? C'mon guys, you can get that back, no problem.
Apparently it was, as the team came out on the ice for second period and gave everybody another look at the flaw that has had fans gnashing their teeth all year: a sloppy, unfocused period where the team was looking for the pretty, clean, open plays instead of simply keeping posession of the puck and playing the hard, gritty hockey that the playoffs require. They chased the Canucks around the ice, and the Vancouver team was able to nail three more home.
I'm surprised Q didn't pull Niemi earlier, and I doubt anybody was actually surprised to see Cristobal Huet return to the pipes for the first time since March for the third period. And maybe it's because the team finally pulled their heads out of their butts for the third, or maybe they were simply worried about too much getting through to Huet, but at last, finally, they started to play like they wanted to stay in the game: only 3 shots actually made it as far as the goalie, and they returned to hitting up Luongo.
But it was too late and the damage was done. In a regular season game, a 1-5 deficit isn't impossible - ask the Hawks themselves, who led a game vs. the Minnesota Wild by the same score - only to see the Wild come back and win against them, 5-6, in the third period.
Do you see that kind of incredible comeback in the playoffs? Rarely, if ever. The players themselves would be the first to tell you that the level of competition in the playoffs racked up to a whole different level than the regular season. Mistakes, sloppy plays, wide-open passing, and lack of follow-ups become brutal in the playoff season, and give the opposing team all the opportunity they need to make life miserable.
Fans are hoping Game 1 was THE wake-up call that the Blackhawks needed.
Of course, we also thought that after games 1, 3 and 5 of the first series, too, so the Blackhawks seriously need to stop hitting the "snooze" button, and they need to stop it NOW.
Two small, but positive thoughts out of last night's game:
- The 36 saves tonight was the most action Luongo has seen so far this post season. When the Hawks were playing like the team we know they are capable of being, they were pounding them in. Most Blackhawks SOGs were in the first period and late in the third.
- Mikael Samuelsson was held pointless for the first time in the playoffs.
I had this dream of Brian Campbell scoring the winning goal for the Cup, a look of ecstasy on his face like we saw on Marc Savard's yesterday. Of course, my dream originally was that he would score it against the Capitals - who everybody thought would be the dominant team in the East - and Alexander Ovechkin would look on in shock.
The Canadiens managed to knock out the Capitals in round 1, so, now I don't care so much WHO scores it, but I sure as anything want to see my favorite team showing up and looking like THEY want to have that opportunity.
Last night was just one game.
I still have faith.