It took 3 games for the Canucks, the real Vancouver Canucks, to show up in this series and show up they did.
Whether it was the long layoff between series or getting too high on themselves with their sweep of the Blues combined with the relative ease in which they got early leads against the Hawks in the first 2 games, or a combination of all of the above, the team that looked primed for a long playoff run finally reappeared in last night's 3-1 win in Chicago.
The Canucks were lucky not to be facing an 0-2 deficit after uncharacteristically silver-plattering turnovers and scoring chances in bunches to the speedy and skilled Black Hawks in Vancouver and it took a road game in a very hostile environment for them to regain their identity.
That was the team that was the best in the league from February. They put their work boots on (finally!) and completely took the Hawks off of their speed and transition game by regaining their strong positional play and physicality on the forecheck severely limiting scoring chances.
Ryan Kesler got things going on the first shift with a couple of hits in the Chicago zone … why that element had been almost no where to be seen from the team's MVP to start this series is just as much as mystery as everything else that was the first two games. The Hawks did get 3 shots very early, however they weren't very dangerous ones and Kesler and his mates rediscovered what had made them so successful, and they did it before the young Hawks could start to feel too confident in their abilities to beat them.
A couple of shifts later Kesler bulled his way into Cam Barker with his speed and tenacity stealing the puck and getting a great scoring opportunity and the tone was set … the Canucks were no longer Missing In Action.
Roberto Luongo said it was their best game of the playoffs and while I'd argue that the first game against St Louis would supplant this effort in any rankings, this was an exceptional response to what had been a very concerning pattern of sloppiness and lack of system play that had led to a 1-1 series.
Chicago ended up with 24 shots on the night, but the number of those that were quality scoring chances can be counted on one hand after giving up around 20 of 'em in Game #2.
Luongo was very solid, but he didn't have to be spectacular, and that's because everyone in front of him was doing their job keeping everything to the outside … that is when they didn't break up the Hawks' vaunted transition game in the neutral zone with their excellent positioning time and time again.
In the absence of Sami Salo all of the Dmen were far better than they had been in the first two games, especially Kevin Bieksa, Willie Mitchell and Alex Edler who all stepped it up a notch or two. Bieksa led all skaters with 27:54 of ice-time and was the key figure in Mason Raymond's first playoff goal that gave the visitors a 1-0 lead in the first period.
After being knocked on his keester by Ben Eager deep in his own end but still making a nice breakout pass up the wall, instead of going back at Eager he bolted up the ice beating #55 to the puck where the Hawks winger was supposed to be before feeding Kesler in front who in turn made an exquisite pass to Raymond all alone as he was streaking toward the net down the left wing.
All of a sudden the oh-so-loud United Center was anything but and the Canucks were on their way. That play by Bieksa was very symbolic as they no longer concentrated on getting back at the bruisers wearing Red, instead concentrating their physical efforts on the Hawks Dmen on the forecheck and the talented smaller forwards and it worked to perfection.
For the most part Chicago had no time and space throughout and had no response for it, looking as though they had been blindsided by the meticulous positional play of the Canucks. What had been so easy was no longer, and while their coach and players bemoaned their lack of effort this was clearly about one team taking the other out of their comfort zone.
With Demitra gone for at least a week with a suspected concussion coach Vigneault put Raymond on the second line with Kesler and Mats Sundin while inserting Taylor Pyatt back in his familiar spot with Kyle Wellwood and Steve Bernier.
It was Pyatt's first action in over a month after the tragic loss of his Fiancee and his addition to the line-up was not only a good for him, but definitely gave the other guys on the roster an emotional lift while providing some much needed size and grit to a team that had not been playing up to expectations.
He ended up leading the team in shots with 4 and only Mattias Ohlund's 5 blocked shots surpassed his 3 on the night. He was only credited with one hit, but I counted at least three, and his hit on Jonathan Toews in the first that resulted in a boarding penalty was, in my opinion, a big part of setting the tone for the game showing that the Canucks were going to be tougher on Chicago's skill guys.
The news gets even better for the Canucks as not only does Chicago have to figure out how to beat the Canucks and their strong 5-man system play that made it's first appearance in the series, but Sami Salo was on an airplane yesterday afternoon after passing his MRI and is possible for Game #4 tomorrow.
The Canucks are clearly a better team with Salo in the line-up, but whether he plays the next game or not doesn't seem nearly as important as it did 24 hours ago. The most important thing for the team and the hopes of Canuck Nation is the fact they showed that they hadn't forgotten what had made them a good team before this series got underway.
They are now present and accounted for which is a whole heck of a lot better than being M.I.A.
The Grades …
A … Bieksa, Mitchell, Edler, Kesler
B … Luongo, Ohlund, Pyatt, Bernier, Raymond
C+ … O'Brien, Vaananen, Henrik, Daniel, Burrows, Wellwood, Johnson, Rypien
C … Hordichuk
C- … Sundin
About the Author
Written by Mark Gage