How quickly things change! The Vancouver Canucks, winners of the President's Trophy by a comfortable margin, have been lauded by sportswriters and hockey fans alike as the slam-dunk favorite to take the Western Conference. And in the first three games of the quarterfinals against the Chicago Blackhawks, they looked like they were on the march to the Stanley Cup. Not even three days ago, the folks in British Columbia were (very smugly) getting out the brooms and postulating as to which team they would face next...
Then something "unthinkable" in the minds of Canadians (and many Americans) happened: Vancouver loses to Chicago 7-2 in Game 4.
Ah well, the Canucks and their supporters said. It was bound to happen. Every team has a hiccup or two along the way (we can talk about the term "hiccup" being relative, but I'll save that for later). Our team is coming home for Game 5. We'll finish the series off on home ice.
What happened? The "unthinkable," AGAIN. Vancouver gets skunked 5-0 in front of their own fans.
Today, hockey fans in the Windy City are anxiously awaiting the return of their home team for Game 6, and hockey fans in The Big Smoke are scratching their heads any saying "What the f***, eh?" What started out looking like a routine knock-off quarterfinal that was more of a formality than anything else has become an honest-to-goodness series. Instead of sweeping, the Canucks now only have a one-game lead and are traveling east to play the next game in front of a noisy, hostile (and now VERY EXCITED) crowd at the United Center.
How did this happen, you ask? For crying out loud, we're talking about a team that dominated the regular season from start to finish against a team that barely squeaked into the playoffs. The difference between the first three games and the last two has been night and day. At first, the Canucks looked unstoppable and the Blackhawks looked like they were scrambling just to keep up. Then, in the blink of an eye, the Canucks looked like they were falling apart and the Blackhawks were literally mopping up the ice with them.
Have the Canucks gotten THAT bad THAT quickly, or have the Blackhawks gotten THAT good THAT quickly? The answer is somewhere in between. Chicago has had its problems, to be sure. Many familiar faces from last year's team had to leave due to salary cap issues. They've had their fair share (and then some) of key injuries. Both of these factors have affected the Blackhawks' ability to get their offensive and defensive lines in sync. Add a new starting goaltender to the mix and you're bound to have problems.
But I see two key points that the sportswriters, pundits, sages, and hockey "experts" have missed: (1) The Canucks are just as human as the rest of the NHL, and -- more importantly, (2) The Blackhawks are still the defending Stanley Cup Champions. OK, so the Blackhawks didn't look very much like the Cup defenders in the first three games, but they did what champions do -- they dug deep, they decided they weren't going out without a fight, they spent the last two games playing their hearts out, and they found ways not only to win, but to DOMINATE.
The result? 12 goals scored in the last two games and only 2 allowed. Both those goals were allowed in Game 4, and one was a fluke that bounced off a defenseman and into the net. The more telling accomplishment here, however, is the fact that the Blackhawks pulled off a shutout in General Motors Place while racking up 5 goals against the Sedin twins and company. To call Game 4 a "hiccup" is a gross understatement, and to call the comeback by the Blackhawks anything over than outstanding is an insult to Jonathan Toews and his team. Notice I did not use the word "miraculous" because that would also be an insult to the Blackhawks. There was no luck involved in the last two wins -- Chicago outplayed Vancouver in a big way for the last 120 minutes, plain and simple.
So here we are, on the way to a Game 6 that no one expected. Now, we all know that anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and we all know the Canucks didn't win the President's Trophy by accident, so a reasonable person would know that Vancouver could swing back and end the series with one swift stroke. However, it's the Blackhawks who are clearly in the driver's seat in this series, and it is clearly the Canucks, on the flipside, that are back on their heels. Unless Vancouver puts on an absolute clinic in Chi-Town on Easter Sunday, this one is going to seven games. I fully expect the Blackhawks to force a Game 7, and I fully expect that game to be a knock-down-drag-out where the winner will be determined by the last man standing (and my money is on the "underdog").
GIVE 'EM HELL, 'HAWKS!!!