Blackhawks breathe new life into their series against Vancouver
The Chicago Blackhawks went into Tuesday night's game versus the Vancouver Canucks with a goal: keep it simple, and focus on one shift at a time.
By reading the most newspaper accounts, you'd think that the team already had one foot on the golf course, and a club already in hand. The season eulogies appeared to already be written.
The men of four feathers, however, had other ideas.
They knew everything was on the line: their season, their Cup-defending playoff run, everything. What was worse - almost not making the playoffs, or the idea of getting swept in the first round?
For some reason, the Blackhawks have always done their best when backed into a corner. Perhaps it's the extra urgency, but we saw it late in this season, and we saw it last season late in the first round when the Hawks pulled it together to win over the Nashville Predators. It seems to work better than any other motivation they've got.
Before the game, both sides had talked about the pressure going into the game. For the Canucks, it was getting a fourth win against a team that's had their number for the past couple of years; for the Hawks, getting back into the game after nearly letting it slip away. Add to that Chicago's building anger against a team which they already dislike, but which had been heightened after a few injuries, especially Raffi Torres' concussion-causing hit against Brent Seabrook in game 3 at the United Center.
As the Blackhawks said prior to the game, it was a "do-or-die" situation. The team wanted to play for each other, their fans, their city. All the talk all season long meant nothing if they couldn't keep themselves alive in this series.
Last night didn't disappoint. In front of a sold-out crowd, with far more Canucks jerseys dotting the stands than had on Sunday night, the Blackhawks played one of their absolutely best games of the season. Everything clicked. Instead of trying to get the best lineups, Coach Quenneville was able to roll lines and let the visitors figure out who to match up with who.
The scoresheet told a far different story than previous games. The only Blackhawk to break 20 minutes while even-handed was Chris Campoli, with 20:02 TOI. Brian Campbell was next with 19:22. Keith, Campbell and Campoli all put in time on the power play as well. The Canucks taking so many penalties allowed top players like Toews, Sharp, Kane and Hossa to spend 20-25% of their TOI on the PP. The team's accuracy was also improved - 35 SOG with only 7 blocked and 9 missed, compared to Vancouver's 23, 11, and 9. They outhit the Canucks, 44-33; and although they had more giveaways, they also had more takeways, too. Surprisingly, it wasn't a winning night in the faceoff circle - CHI 49%, VAN 51%; but they seemed to win the important ones, with Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Michael Frolik's percentages all over 55%. (Ryan Johnson had a rare off night, only winning 1 of his 4 draws).
Five Blackhawks ended the night a +4: Niklas Hjalmarsson, Bryan Bickell, Dave Bolland, Brian Campbell and Michael Frolik. Even John Scott was a +1, while several of Vancouver's players were -3, and Henrik Sedin was a rare -4. Vancouver took 13 penalties equalling 61 PIM to Chicago's 9/37 PIM - at one time having their penalty box filled to capacity during the third.
It had started early in the first, when Bryan Bickell scored at the 1:43 mark. Vancouver would return with a goal of their own three minutes later, but nobody would score again until 5:18 into the second, when Brian Campbell got on the score sheet after goalie Corey Crawford read a bad Vancouver line change and moved the puck up-ice to Patrick Kane, marking Crawford's second assist of the season within just 10 days. (One can only assume that Marty Turco has been teaching the rookie a thing or two about puck-moving.) Duncan Keith would score just 17 seconds later, setting an NHL playoffs record for the fastest two goals by defensemen on one team.
As Chicago continued to score - they'd put 4 on the board in the second period alone - things started to get chippier out on the ice. The Blackhawks played with the pride and anger that had been missing from their first three games of the series. Repeatedly, skaters intercepted Canucks who looked like they might be trying to charge Corey Crawford in goal. The rookie goalie had had their backs all season; now they were proving that they had his, too. The message was clear: no more liberties with us.
Vancouver slowly unraveled, and early in the third, things came to a head when fighting broke out between the two teams not long after Chicago notched their 6th goal of the night. The Blackhawks even eventually chased Roberto Luongo from the goal early in the third, with Cory Schneider coming in for relief - although the Hawks scored on him, too. It got chippy in the stands, too, as fan passions ran high. The final score was 7-2 as Daniel Sedin got in a goal late in the third.
Now the Blackhawks head back to game 5. The Canucks feel confident they can close out the series. The Hawks are confident and optimistic, but not cocky, about the game ahead. Game 4 was a statement that they would not go quietly; but in front of the crowds at Rogers Arena, the Hawks will have to bring their best - which isn't impossible; after all, they similarly routed Vancouver in the Canucks' own barn back in November. The players acknowledge it's an uphill battle, but they're resolved and ready to bring playoff-quality hockey on Thursday night.
Should Vancouver be the winners in game 5, however, the Blackhawks gave their fans an end-of-season gift with game 4: a resounding win at home against one of their most heated rivals.
Thursday will be anybody's game at this point. Chicago resolves to bring it; and Vancouver will have to win against a team hungry to stay in the playoffs.
It isn't over til somebody wins four.