Tuesday, April 26, 2011

You have to #3lieve - Blackhawks vs Canucks preview

"You know what? You've just got to go out there
and try to control the things you can control,
deal with things, and stay mentally strong."
- Jonathan Toews, during the 2010 Stanley Cup run

Tonight in Vancouver, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks face off in what is certainly the most epic of this year's round one games. There is so much history hanging over both these teams, and the teams have become one of the strongest and most vibrant rivalries in the NHL today, fueled especially by the Hawks knocking the Canucks out of the playoffs for the past two years.

It seems almost fated, then, that these two teams should meet up in the first round this year. Surprisingly, after Chicago's triumph last year, it is Vancouver who entered the series as the favorite, hoisting their freshly-earned Presidents' Trophy. Chicago struggled their way through their season, collecting 97 points (still more than three teams who made the playoffs in the East), and getting in to the playoffs by the grace of the hockey gods.

The teams were 2-2 against each other in the regular season, including a 7-1 Chicago romp of a win in the Canucks barn in November to open up their season series.

It's interesting to note that the Canucks had looked at the Blackhawks of a model of who they needed to be this year in order to succeed. After all, if you can't beat 'em... become them? Roberto Luongo gave up his captaincy and refocused on his goaltending, which paid off as he and backup Cory Schneider picked up the William Jennings for the team with the fewest goals scored against them. Players like Ryan Kesler learned to be more focused and take less penalties, although the Canucks still finished this year with the 7th-most penalties in the league. (Take notes, this'll come up again later.) And the Canucks in general did what it took to earn team and league records and firsts.

To underscore the heated rivalry, the Canucks engaged in a campaign on Twitter with the hashtag "3venge", with the idea being "third time's the charm", and a bit of revenge on their long-hated rivals. But to peruse through the Twitter entries tagged with "3venge" is to see not only team support, but to also witness the volume of anxiety, hatred, anger, and resentment that Vancouver fans have stored up against Chicago.

Pressure is strong on the Canucks. Forty years - an entire team's history - is a long time to go without a championship, especially after a stellar season like this one. There is a lot of pressure on both Canadian teams to win the Stanley Cup - to bring it "home" to Canada - but nowhere more so than Vancouver.

So coming into the playoffs, it's really not surprising that the Canucks started strongly. Perhaps it was more startling to see how badly the Blackhawks played in the first two games, getting badly outworked and outplayed, before finding their feet in the third game. Despite game one looking like an AHL team playing against a playoff team, Vancouver only won it 2-0; and the next two wins were just 1-goal margins.

After the third, a frustrating loss at home in the United Center, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was interviewed, and he said, "Everybody wants to look at the stats all year, and talk about what they do well, and how good of a team they are. And that’s what’s frustrating because we’re not exposing them for what they really are. I think a lot of people outside this locker room are giving them too much credit and maybe we are as well.’’

When asked what, exactly, the Canucks were, Toews replied, "A beatable team."

Sports writers snickered behind their recorders, and it gained more than a few chuckles on various hockey programs. How silly of Toews to suggest such a concept. Didn't the Blackhawks realize that they were dealing with an unstoppable Canadian juggernaut?

But after taking those three loses to open the playoffs, Chicago repeated that November performance last Tuesday, roaring before a wild home crowd to a 7-2 win followed by a 5-0 win a few nights later on Vancouver ice. Chicago outplayed Vancouver both nights, but especially in game 4. The Blackhawks were not about to go quietly.

The biggest story was that the Blackhawks chased Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo from the ice not just once but twice in two games. The $10M goalie has his Kryptonite, and its name is the Blackhawks.

The Canucks took a page from the Philadelphia Flyers book and named Luongo as their starter for game 6, but it was Cory Schneider who took the pipes on Sunday. It was actually a pretty smart move: by declaring Luongo the starter and going along with that decoy, it was an attempt to give Vancouver an edge. The team further attempted to protect their goalie by saying there was "no room for him on the bench" and Luongo sat out as backup off-ice. (No room? Funny, every other team fits all their players on the bench.)

And for most of the game, Schneider played as he has all year: very solid, despite a few bobbled attempts to play the puck. Unfortunately for him, while working against a penalty shot by Michael Frolik, he cramped up, which meant Roberto Luongo had to come in to the game. While the Canucks regrouped and resurged, coming back on Sunday in Chicago to force overtime, Chicago responded by winning the game, tying up the series 3-3 and forcing a historic game 7.

Jonathan Toews would never say that he meant that Vancouver was anything but a beatable team when he said they weren't "exposing them for what they really are". But we saw the same Canucks in games 4 and 5 that we saw for the last two years: a team that when backed into the corner began taking a lot of penalties.

Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis spoke up yesterday about the number of penalties took, but instead of admitting that maybe his team had some issues, he tried to point fingers and say that the refs were calling the games in favor of the Blackhawks in order to draw out the series. He completely failed to mention that during the regular season, he own team was the 7th-most-penalized in the league while the Blackhawks were the 2nd-least penalized. He made it sound as if the penalty shot awarded to the Hawks was some grave injustice, instead of the direct result of his own player tripping up Michael Frolik on his way to the net. He wailed about the injustice of a non-injury, unpenalized puck-possession hit on Kevin Bieska, while his own player, Raffi Torres, had dealt Blackhawk Brent Seabrook a concussion while checking Seabrook, who didn't even have puck possession at the time. And despite his lawyer-precise listing of the statistics, he failed to mention that all the goals in game 6 were scored on even strength and that despite having more PPOs, Chicago certainly isn't taking very good advantage of them.

But the failed ref calls go both ways. Vancouver fans can claim conspiracy, but there have been plenty of penalty-worthy infractions throughout the series that the Canucks have gotten away with. Over the course of a series, these things tend to even out.

Simply another tactic to draw heat and attention away from the team.

The Chicago Blackhawks haven't had their best year. Until Duncan Keith spoke up a few days ago, talking frankly about his season, nobody was admitting to any kind of "Cup hangover", although certainly their play on the ice reflected it. But finally, in the playoffs, in game 4, and 5, and 6, when it mattered, the team has begun showing what it is capable of all year.

Gone for the Blackhawks is the pressure of the regular season. It's not to say it's entirely disappeared; but the team is living on grace right now. Their entry into the playoffs was a gift. The odds were against them. But, like the champions they still are, they have risen to the occassion - and most importantly, they have been having fun again.

The core players keep talking about how much "fun" they are having in the playoffs. The newest additions to the team have contributed some of the biggest plays - notably, Frolik scoring on the penalty shot he was awarded, and Rockford callup Ben Smith coming up huge in overtime for game 6. You can see the joy and delight in both their faces in the newest "History will be made" commercial.

Most importantly, Chicago has played with the hearts of champions. When the odds were completely out of their favor, they responded with a huge win. And another. And a third.

Coming into tonight's important game 7, it really is anybody's game. It boils down tonight to one game, one win.

Statistics go out the window tonight. Nothing ever matters except what happens between the first puck drop and the final goal horn.

The Canucks have plenty in their favor. Home ice, home crowd. If they can settle their minds down, and play a solid - and here's the important part - clean game, they might even have the edge. If Luongo can come up big the way he has in major games like the Olympics, they might win.

But on the other side of the ice, the Blackhawks have a lot going for them, too. They're playing like the Stanley Cup champions that they are. They have the experience of winning last year's Cup. They have drive, desire, skill. Toews has had a great deal of good fortune in this building: he got drafted here, he won a gold medal here, he's closed out series against the Canucks before here. He's overdue to come up big, as are most of Chicago's stars. Until tonight, it's been all about the grinders; tonight it has to be as much about the stars, the core.

In response to the "3venge" tag, Blackhawks fan "@Hawknut suggested "#3lieve", and the Blackhawks fans have embraced it. Unlike the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality of "3venge", the driving force behind "3lieve" is that the Hawks fans believe in their team. They believe they can be champions for a second year running.

The players believe too.

Tonight should be a game for the ages. As Toews said today, "We have to empty (our) tanks. Nothing to save it for."

It's a sentiment that is true for both sides of the ice. Whoever wins, advances. If it's the Blackhawks, they will write a new and highly interesting chapter as they go into round 2 against the San Jose Sharks and the Blackhawks' goaltender from last year, Antti Niemi. If it is Vancouver, they will go into round 2 against the Nashville Predators, who achieved the second round for the first time in their team history.

If the Blackhawks win, the fans will forgive the roller-coaster season that got them here.

If the Canucks win, the series may not end with a parade down Granville Street in June, but the team may finally may have faced some of its demons in the eye. Their fans will feel vindicated. If the Canucks win, the fans will forgive them going 3-3 when they were already up 3-0 because the team will finally have gotten past the Hawks.

If the Blackhawks lose, it will be disappointing, to be sure - to get this close again, and to not win. But only 16 days ago, as game 82's final horn sounded, the team and its fanbase thought the season was already dead and buried. The team has given its fans not only the gift of a resounding rebound to finish out this series, but the team has shown that next year, with the targets off their backs and a new sense of purpose, this team should be something amazing. For Chicago, either way, it is a win for this club, although obviously, to win tonight would be the far larger triumph.

If the Canucks lose, they may never be able to crawl out from the weight of the "choker" label that will be nailed against them for the depth and scale that the loss would mean.

Either way, for just one team, whoever wins tonight in Rogers Place, there will be glory and redemption and triumph.

But only one team can come out the winner.

1 comment:

Thanks for your viewpoint!

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