Let us step back from our book-stealing, cheerleader-tossing, muffler-biting, pool-flipping ways for just one moment and take stock of what we just observed: that was an incredibly exciting hockey game. It was a nail-biting, innard-twisting, heart-pounding thrill ride filled with unexpected plot twists. The Canucks, after two complete no-shows, returned to form and played well enough to win the game; unfortunately, due to a couple puckhandling errors, an unfortunate bounce in overtime, and the posts not counting as part of the net, they didn’t. That shouldn’t take away from the sheer entertainment value of the game, nor should it take away from the excellent play of the Canucks. But it does. It takes everything away. In these few hours since the game ended, I can’t shake the feeling that the game sucked and that the Canucks were terrible. Because I’m a reasonable human being, capable of logical deduction, I can convince myself that such is not the case, but the emotions remain. This game was both exhilarating and excruciating. I watched this game.
Alain Vigneault is apparently good at keeping secrets: thanks to some well-placed comments after game 5, everyone was convinced that Roberto Luongo would start game 6. No one suspected differently until Cory Schneider led the team out on the ice for the pre-game skate and took the first shots that are normally reserved for the starter. Rumors flew that Luongo was injured or that it was just a mind-game and Luongo would still be starting. Neither was the case: Schneider was the planned starter and apparently had been for a couple days. If Vigneault had been named the Secret-Keeper for the Potters, the adventures of Neville Longbottom would be bestsellers.
This game was a tale of two Schneiders: one made a series of incredible saves, including egregious saves on Kane and Toews in the first period and some stellar work on a 5-on-3 powerplay for the Blackhawks in the second period. The other made two ugly blunders while handling the puck, leading to two Blackhawks goals. Schneider certainly played well and made some essential saves, but he also cost them the game with his two gaffes. Like Natalie Imbruglia, I’m torn. Add in his leg cramp that took him out, bringing in a cold Roberto Luongo to finish out the game, and Alain Vigneault is left with a difficult decision. If Schneider is healthy, does he come back with him in game 7 or do the reins return to Roberto?
Schneider’s puck-handling will definitely be a big story and was likely exacerbated by him not starting a game in over two weeks. On the Blackhawks’ first goal, he set up Hamhuis with a suicide pass with Dave Bolland steaming in on the forecheck. Bolland, unsurprisingly, runs over Hamhuis, creating a turnover and a goal by Bryan Bickell. It’s especially frustrating as Schneider had a chance to cover it up before it reached Bickell and didn’t. The second goal by the Blackhawks comes from a more blatant mistake, as Schneider puts the puck directly on Patrick Kane’s stick instead of leaving it for Alex Edler. Kane feeds Bolland, Bolland feeds the net.
Schneider starting in place of Luongo wasn’t the only change Vigneault made to the lineup: Andrew Alberts played his first game since breaking his wrist against the St. Louis Blues back on February 14th. He played 14:55, around the same time Keith Ballard played in his last game. That’s not a good thing: that includes overtime and and the increased time he saw when Sami Salo left the game in the first period with an undisclosed injury. Salo’s absence and Alberts’s not-being-good-ness led to Kevin Bieksa playing a ridiculous 36:33 and all three other defensemen breaking the 30-minute mark. Alberts finished minus-1, but it could have been worse: at one point in the second period, Jonathan Toews drove wide around Alberts and powered to the net. It took a savvy poke-check from Bieksa and a solid save by Schneider to bail him out. If that’s Keith Ballard on the ice instead, there’s no way that Toews gets around him: that’s hip-checking territory.
Kevin Bieksa had a hell of a game. He led the Canucks in icetime, playing more than four-and-a-half minutes more than his closest teammate, Edler. He scored the Canucks’ third goal, seen above, with a well-timed jump into the rush after a great bank pass to Mason Raymond by Alex Burrows. He was plus-2, recorded 2 hits, and was a key member of the Canucks’ clean sheet on the penalty kill. He was contributing all over the ice and even found time to contribute to the headshot debate by making himself the recipient of a Bryan Bickell hit to the head behind the net, in a play that bore a strong resemblance to the Torres hit on Seabrook (key difference: Bieksa had the puck on his stick, so no interference penalty). Dan “Community Man” Hamhuis tried to get him to contribute to a more worthy cause, such as the Red Cross relief efforts in Japan, but Bieksa rebuffed him: I’m a little busy, Dan. Let me finish clearing the zone first.
As mentioned, the Canuck penalty killers were exceedingly excellent, killing off all 4 Chicago powerplays, including a lengthy 5-on-3 when the Canucks were still leading 2-1. Hamhuis led the way, playing 4:39 shorthanded, followed by Burrows and Kesler with 4:17 and 3:20 respectively. After giving up 6 powerplay goals against in the last 3 games, it’s a nice switch. Not a nice switch? The tamarind switch.
Speaking of switches, the most unexpected switch came when Schneider awkwardly twisted his leg attempting to stop Michael Frolik’s penalty shot goal. With Schneider unable to continue due to an apparent leg cramp, Luongo came lumbering down the tunnel from the dressing room. Unsurprisingly, he looked like a goalie who had been sitting down for over two hours, but he still made 12 saves and gave the Canucks a chance to win in overtime, which they came achingly close to doing. Ben Smith’s overtime winner for the Blackhawks was just unfortunate: after fighting off a tipped shot from the point with his blocker, Smith happened to be in just the right spot. Luongo will likely get some flack for giving up the rebound, but the original save was legitimately difficult and impressive. And yet, even as I type this, I know there is a lede being written about Luongo losing the game for Schneider, glossing over Schneider’s giveaways to write another screed about the Blackhawks being in Luongo’s head and the gamewinning goal being just another chapter to that story. Don’t do it, hypothetical journalist! Refrain from writing the lazy lede! Do not let mediocrity win the day!
The Sedins were certainly better in this game than they have been in the last two. Daniel Sedin opened the scoring after some good old-fashioned hard work on the forecheck, an element that has been sadly missing recently, and they looked consistently dangerous in the offensive zone. Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and roses for the twins. Or, if it is, there are some unruly bees in the roses. The Sedins were on the ice for three of the four Blackhawks goals. The fourth was scored on a penalty shot. That’s not good. On the plus side, Daniel led the Canucks with 7 shots and the Sedins came this close to winning the game in overtime. But they need to get the defensive side of their game in order: Ben Smith was Daniel’s check when he scored the gamewinner.
Alex Burrows, on the other hand, had a superb game. He scored a goal and added 2 helpers, meaning he contributed to all three Canuck goals tonight. He was reunited with BFF Ryan Kesler on a line with Mason Raymond. The trio gave the Blackhawks defense fits with their relentless forechecking and speed over the blueline. It was this speed that led to Burrows’ goal, as Campoli fanned on a rushed clearing attempt. Credit Schneider, as well, for handling the puck well at least once in this game, hitting Mason Raymond with a perfect pass from behind the net after his other options were shut down by Chicago’s forecheckers. It would not be the least bit surprising to see Vigneault keep this line intact going into game 7, as they are very capable going up against Toews and Kane and can potentially create offense simultaneously, something Kesler has not been able to manage thus far.
Vigneault shortened his bench significantly at the end of the third period: Raffi Torres and Victor Oreskovich were stapled to the bench after the 13:05 mark of the third and Cody Hodgson didn’t even make it that far, taking a seat at the 8:36 mark. The Torres benching is understandable: he’s been a bit of a liability in the penalty department and tonight was no different as he gave the refs the perfect excuse to call a goaltender interference penalty. Oreskovich and Hodgson, however, were playing reasonably well, and seemed to deserve more than the few minutes they received tonight. Maybe they could pick up some old minutes from a yard sale.
Finally, game 7 is on Tuesday. After tonight’s performance, it is not unreasonable to be optimistic. Neither is it unreasonable to be pessimistic. But please don’t riot if the Canucks lose game 7. Take comfort in the fact that you will have witnessed something unique and special: the worst collapse in NHL playoff history. It’s something you may never get a chance to see again. And, if they win, please don’t riot. It’s unbecoming. Stay classy, Vancouver.
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