Thursday, April 14, 2011

Blackhawks drop first game 0-2 to Vancouver

The Blackhawks dropped game 1 of their first-round series to Vancouver last night, 0-2, at Rogers Arena. Why, it's practically a tradition to lose to their rivals in the first game; this makes the third year straight they've done so - only to win out over the Canucks as the series unfolded.

Although newcomers to the fandom might think the hatred was born in the past two playoff seasons, the Chicago-Vancouver rivalry stretches back at least three decades.

The most famous incident between the two teams happened during a 1982 playoff game between the Blackhawks and the Canucks, when Roger Neilson coached for Vancouver. Coach Neilson felt his team was being unfairly overpenalized, and he finally took one of the white trainer towels, and lofted it high on a hockey stick, as if waving a white flag. Three players followed suit, and were ejected from the game. For the next game, many fans brought towels with them to wave, creating a playoff tradition of "Towel Power" that continues through the league through today. Vancouver, incidentially, went on to win that series, and marked their first appearance in a Stanley Cup Finals that year.

Now it is 29 years later, and the Canucks hope to repeat that famous season -- at least, the "beat the Blackhawks" and the "make it to the Final round" part.

Last night, the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs opened across the league, and the Chicago Blackhawks took the ice vs the Vancouver Canucks in Rogers Arena. As President's Trophy winners, the Canucks will hold home ice for however long they can continue to progress through the playoffs. Chicago, last year's defending champions, held onto an 8th-place standing, and despite wearing the mantle, are considered long-shot underdogs.

The Canucks came out in the first period and did what they needed to do: set a tone of physicality and dominance. They studied what made Chicago the better team last year, and learned from it, which showed in their play throughout the season. Buoyed by the emotions and energy of a home opener for the latest playoff round, Vancouver showed why they have had so much success this year.

Chicago, on the other hand, unfortunately showed exactly why they have spent this season on a roller coaster of inconsistency. Coach Quenneville began hitting the random number generator early, seeking to out-work the Canuck lines.

The numbers from last night at first glance seem what might've been a close game: 0-2 win; SOG nearly even at 32-33; relatively few penalties; FOW wins nearly even 48-52%.

It's the event summary sheet where you begin to see the holes: the Blackhawks out-hit 47-21. The Hawks having just 4 takeaways to the Canucks 13 (although amazingly, Vancouver gave away more, 7, than the Hawks, 3). The Hawks also struggled more with hitting the net - 19 missed and 11 shots got blocked; versus Canucks 12 missed and 18 blocked. Despite being outworked, out-hit and outplayed, Chicago was the more dominant in the second two periods - but ultimately, it didn't make much difference, as they couldn't score, and Vancouver had already put two on the board in the first.

Corey Crawford deserves more attention than he's been getting, especially when it comes to Calder consideration. Without his solid season in net, the Blackhawks wouldn't even be here. And last night, although Patrick Sharp got one of the stars of the game, it was Crawford who held his team in the game with a .939 sv% and 31 saves. There's a reason that Chicago fans have taken to calling Crawford "Crawesome".

Starting Friday, and going forward through this series, the Blackhawks have to amplify their game. Last night, they looked like a team that was out for a regular season game, while the Canucks brought playoff-level pressure to the first period. The game was a far cry from the NYR-WSH and PIT-TBL matchups earlier in the evening, especially considering the venue it was played in.

People can continue to talk about lingering "chemistry" issues from when the Blackhawks had to restructure half their team after they hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup. Gone were the grinders and energy men - players like Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager. Gone, too, is Roberto Luongo's nemesis from last season, Dustin Byfuglien.

There's been a few different matras repeated in Chicago this year, and the most common refrains are that the "core" guys have got to step up; and that the new guys have had to find their roles. Unfortunately, the core of stars on the Blackhawks roster have been hit with one injury after another, and even the healthy ones haven't found a consistent game.

Jonathan Toews has continued to lead the team as its MVP this year. At times, he has practically picked up the team and thrown them on his shoulders, it seems; but even he has bad games - and he can't do it all alone. Patrick Sharp was one of the top scorers in the league but has had a rough second half, then lost half a dozen games to injury. Patrick Kane also missed nine games and put up numbers on par with his 2008-09 season. Tomas Kopecky, not considered core and not gifted with the same level of natural talent as the men he's frequently shared lines with (Hossa, Sharp, Kane, Toews) has nonetheless had a dominant career year, with 15G and 27A. Marian Hossa blitzed out of the gates at the season opener, lost 17 games to injuries, and finished the season with lower numbers than hoped.

And perhaps most importantly, Chicago's defensive core has struggled to find its game this year, while putting up staggering TOI. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the only two players to have appeared in every single regular-season game this year, with ironman Keith leading the league's D-men with an average 26:53 TOI/game, including an average 2:59 on the PP, and 74 more total minutes played than the next closest D-man, Jay Bouwmeester. Seabrook racked up an average 24:23/game and 2:39 average on PPs. Niklas Hjalmarsson, re-signed last summer to a new 4-year contract, has averaged only 18:28/game; and Brian Campbell, who missed 17 games with injuries, has racked up 22:58. Perhaps the most telling figures is that team newcomer Chris Campoli, acquired at the trade deadline, is seeing an average 1:39 more per game than Hjalmarsson; and rookie Nick Leddy, who only played 46 games this season but has been a more consistent performer than some of the core,

Much discussion has been spent on the constantly-evolving chemistry on the Blackhawks as the team has sought to settle down and find its groove this year. The team is carrying six rookies going into the playoffs: Bryan Bickell (LW) and Jake Dowell (C), Leddy, and late-season call-ups Marcus Kruger (C) and Ben Smith (RW).

It should be a matter of concern to the team that Ben Smith, fresh out of his first year in the AHL, looks more solid out on the ice right now than some of the players the Blackhawks have had on the roster all year. Smith tallied 19G, 12A with an impressive 17% SH% en route to collecting "Rookie of the Year" honors in Rockford. Smith looks confident on the ice and has been playing relatively well.

There are three callups to the Blackhawks that could possibly see ice time during these playoffs: Jeff Taffe (C), Rob Klinkhammer (LW), and Garnet Exelby (D). Taffe had 30G, 37A, +10 with just 22 PIM on a Rockford team that was largely mediocre this year. Klinkhammer had 17G, 29A, +14; and Exelby, who served as the IceHogs team captain, spent 7 years in the NHL, and is known for his aggressive play and bodychecking. Brian Connelly (D) was also called up today - Connelly was an AHL All Star this year. With Kopecky potentially out of the lineup on Friday with an injury sustained last night, and Ryan Johnson getting a knee-on-knee hit from one of the Canucks, perhaps we'll see Taffe in to fill in that need up the middle.

Going into Friday's game, the outlook for Chicago is pretty straightforward:
1. Remember it's playoffs season; time to amp up your game.

2. The regular season got wiped clean on Sunday night and the team was granted a second life. Find that chemistry that kept peeking out all season, and grab onto it. The Blackhawks still have the potential to be great this year.

3. It's ok to carry the puck in, and not dump-n-chase or make too many passes en route to the net.

4. Get bodies around Luongo, period. Far too much shooting all season long has gone on from the top of the circles; time to change that.

5. Use the body. Plenty of big boys on this team. The Canucks call-ups aren't playing like AHLers; they're playing like NHLers. If you're wearing that sweater, you're an NHLer... start playing like it.

6.Keep it simple, keep it clean, but do whatever you can to frustrate the Canucks. The one bright spot out of Wednesday's game that was despite Coach Q's RNG and what was barely a good game, the Sedin twins and Kesler were both kept off the score sheet.

There's still six games left. Anything's possible.

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