NHL Playoffs Preview – Vancouver Canucks vs. Chicago Blackhawks, Series deadlocked 3-3

In name, the NHL Playoff billing between defending champions, Chicago Blackhawks and President Trophy winners, Vancouver Canucks was expected to be a thrilling showdown. In seeding though, it threatened to be a lopsided affair, especially when the Blackhawks just barely clinched eighth seed while the Vancouver Canucks finished off the regular season on a record-breaking note.

Tale told (well almost), it’s proving to be the former, despite a rather unremarkable start to the series by the Stanley Cup defending champions, as Rogers Arena is getting ready for Game 7 of the series tonight. The hottest ticket in town but also a ticket few Vancouver fans expected to see; surely, when the Canucks beat the Blackhawks on the road in Game 3, celebrations appeared to be only sixty minutes away.

Indeed, the Vancouver Canucks were poised to sweep the series at the Madhouse, surprisingly comfortably as well based on the first three accounts.  However, in a complete turnaround, the Blackhawks stormed back to win three in a row, levelling the Canucks 3-3 and forcing a final, deciding Game 7 in the series to decide a berth in the Western Conference semi-finals.

A series that should have been done and dusted and in the books by now but is instead going to Game 7 begs only one question: how did this come about?

Going into Game 4, only the most spectacularly deluded Blackhawks fan could have predicted such a happy happenstance; similarly, only the most wildly pessimistic Canucks fan could have forewarned such a happenstance. After all, the Blackhawks looked defeated and out of sorts, while the Canucks seemed to have this thing all but locked down. The colourful answer: a watershed moment. Conventional wisdom though dictates another answer: Roberto Luongo.

Though many are careful not to lay blame on one single thing, tactic or person in the Canucks’s camp it is glaringly obvious where it falls at the feet of Luongo, the so-called Vezina Trophy shoe-in, who singlehandedly swung the pendulum to the Blackhawks camp in Game 4 and it has stayed there since.

Now, I am well aware of that hockey is a team sport and that, in some ways, the three defeats (or wins depending on perspective) are a team effort. Yet, speaking from a purely Canucks point of view, I must have missed the part where twelve goals (many of which were weak shots that he should have stopped) in two games (Games 4 and 5) becomes a team effort. No, this garishly awful statistic is entirely Luongo’s and thus, he should be made to carry the brunt of the responsibility for this spectacular collapse, in my humble opinion. (Come to think of it: the Blackhawks should send him a nice thank you note.)

Such modesty isn’t demonstrated when the Blackhawks are the talking point.  All too readily, credit is found in every aspect of the team, including with several players – whether inadvertently or not – for providing the catalyst for this comeback: Seabrook, Bolland, Frolik, Kane... and so forth, are just a few names that have lapped up the praise.

Not to take anything away from the Blackhawks because they did make a concentrated effort to get back into this series and thus, deserve all the plaudits they are receiving. But the fact is Luongo is an inexplicable train wreck waiting to happen against Chicago and in this instance, you have to agree that a renaissance by the Blackhawks was bound to happen. It would be perverse to argue otherwise.

Determining which developments over the series are down to the psychological aspect and which are down to a purely matchup aspect is open to debate. One thing is certain though, and that is from the previous playoff runs through to the last three games of this season’s playoff run, Luongo’s bipolar play was the major backstory.  And it remains so going into Game 7.

A footnote to this is provided by the glaring irony: the team, whose regular season was built on spectacular goaltending from both No.1 and No.2 goalies, and whose playoff odds centred on this very enviable and indisputable strength between the posts, is now on the verge of  being undone by the very same touchstones that gave it its measure.  Or is it?

The last game, apparently, gives Vancouver some hope to cling to; in that, the Canucks deposited by far the best account of the last three games. Heck, one could make a case for it being the best account of the series. Spinning it positively though doesn’t change the crucial fact that they LOST. That is the bottom line and it doesn’t augur well.

Typically, when a team plays its best it expects to be on the winning end. The Canucks not only played their best game of the series but also they were indisputably the best team on the ice that night.  Controversial officiating and shoddy calls (the penalty shot was a dubious call, at best), lucky breaks, home-ice advantage, overzealous puck handling by Schneider and shaky goaltending by Luongo in the end, amongst other things, might have helped the Blackhawks to win at the Madhouse on Madison.  But if they go on to win the series, how they did it or whether or not they were the “best” team will be of no consequence because they’ll be in the semi-finals when they should have been golfing already, since Game 4.

As for the Canucks, the so-called outright favourites to win the Stanley Cup this season, what is there to say but that they have to win, win convincingly to regain some shred of respectability. If they win Game 7, the last three games will be quickly forgotten. If – heaven forbid – they fail to overcome the Blackhawks in Game 7, especially with home-ice advantage to close them out finally, however well the opponent suddenly, mysteriously starts to play, they choked. Plain and simple. Anyone that claims otherwise needs to explain away the last four games of the series. Make that the last three years of NHL Playoffs action between these teams while they’re at it. That’s like a LOT to merely “explain away.” 
There it is: Game 7, rearing its definitive head and frankly, it is anybody’s series now. May the best team win!