Everyone in Vancouver remembers well how our last two playoff series went against the Chicago Blackhawks: ashes, sackcloth, gnashing of teeth. I also recall some wailing and saw a few torn garments on the streets. It was, like the Chicago Blackhawks, bad.
But neither the Blackhawks nor the Canucks are the same team as they were in those match-ups. I went over some of the changes to the Blackhawks lineup on Monday, but the Canucks have also experienced a fair degree of turnover. The bottom-six was completely remodeled: gone are Kyle Wellwood, Pavol Demitra, Steve Bernier, and Ryan Johnson. In are Raffi Torres, Cody Hodgson, Victor Oreskovich, and Maxim Lapierre. Unfortunately, this isn’t as big an upgrade as it would be if Manny Malhotra hadn’t had his season ended by a malicious puck.
On defense, Mike Gillis pulled off the extremely rare double cannonball, making two big splashes. He acquired Keith Ballard in a trade with Florida and Dan Hamhuis in free agency. Then the most unlikely event in the history of the world occurred: Sami Salo got injured. With the injury, Kevin Bieksa miraculously did not need to be traded. A combination of seemingly convenient injuries throughout the season allowed the Canucks the luxury of entering the playoffs with a top-six defensive corps making 22.3 million dollars per season while still employing other hockey players.
The Canucks first meeting with the Blackhawks of the regular season was a shootout loss, causing minor outbreaks of hysteria throughout Canuckistan. To be fair, the Canucks only had 2 wins through their first 7 games, so it looked at the time like the pre-season hype, like that of the Red Sox, was entirely unwarranted. They then proceeded to win 6 straight, erasing most of the complaints.
Regulation time goals were scored by Viktor Stalberg and Daniel Sedin, the latter lacking severely in wizardry. Turco was outstanding for Chicago, while the Canucks got a solid 31-save performance from Luongo. Unfortunately, this was the game with the infamous almost-saves in the shootout. Oddly enough, it also featured a slick shootout goal from Daniel Sedin, who was soundly mocked for his lack of success with penalty shots later in the season. Ryan Kesler also scored, but Mikael Samuelsson lost the handle on his attempt. Meanwhile, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, and Patrick Kane scored in the shootout, the Patricks only barely squeezing it past Luongo.
One month later came the infamous Voldemort game, which has unfortunately been mentioned continuously throughout this season. This was easily the worst performance from the Vancouver Canucks this season, causing many to claim that the Blackhawks were in the Canucks’ heads. It was a terrible, terrible game, featuring 6 goals against at even strength, awful performances from essentially every player on the team, and Joel Perrault on the powerplay. Yikes.
We watched this game at a Canucks blogger meet-up in Vancouver and it gave us ample ammunition to do what bloggers seem to love best: complain. Harrison, to his credit, saw the silver lining: this would surely be the wake-up call the Canucks needed to turn the season around. It was. The Canucks had a closed-door meeting after the brutal loss and have frequently credited the loss and meeting to their following success. After losing their next game, they didn’t lose two games in a row in regulation until their early April losses to the Edmonton Oilers after clinching the Presidents’ Trophy.
It didn’t take long for the Canucks to get another crack at the Blackhawks: just two weeks later, the Canucks played one of their best games of the season. Roberto Luongo was at the top of his game, making spectacular save after spectacular save, shutting out the Blackhawks and shutting up his detractors. Tanner Glass, Christian Ehrhoff, and Daniel Sedin scored the goals. Glass scored a classic grinder goal by being the first to a puck sitting just outside the crease during a scrum, while Ehrhoff whipped a wristshot past a Ryan Kesler screen for the second goal of the game.
The best goal of the bunch, however, is Henrik’s. Watch the replay closely: Daniel gets in behind the defense on a breakaway and appears to attempt to deke out Turco and tuck it five-hole. I think, by now, we should know better than to assume that a Sedin will try to score when on a breakaway. If you watch, just before Daniel crosses the blueline he checks behind him to see Henrik. He then cleverly banks the puck off Turco’s pads to set up Henrik for the goal.
Ha, just kidding. They’re good, but not that good.
Their final meeting of the regular season was messy, physical, and controversial, just like the upcoming playoff series is likely to be. The Canucks benefited from two controversial calls: Ehrhoff’s goal was millimeters offside and a Blackhawks goal got called off due to the tiniest possible amount of contact on Luongo. It was a game where the Blackhawks outplayed the Canucks, but gave up the lead twice.
Meanwhile, the Canucks best offensive players stepped up: Ehrhoff opened the scoring with his bullet of an offside slapshot, then Samuelsson came through on the powerplay with a goal and a ridiculous assist on a goal from Henrik. Finally, Daniel clutched up, scoring the gamewinning goal to pass Naslund for the franchise record in that stat. In addition, he took the lead in scoring in the Art Ross race and, unlike a certain hare, refused to take a few naps prior to crossing the finish line. This season, Daniel was truly out for blood.