Playing not to lose
It’s hard to fathom that one play might prove to be the difference in the Canucks’ Western Conference Semifinal series against the Blackhawks. Willie Mitchell’s attempted clear of the puck with under 3 minutes left in the third period and the Canucks nursing a 1-0 lead was intercepted by Marty Havlat; Havlat then scored to send the game to OT and Andrew Ladd scored in OT to win the game and tie the series.
But while it’s true that Willie’s play led directly to Havlat’s goal, I think the Canucks had it coming. After Darcy Hordichuk scored midway through the second period, they suddenly got away from what made them successful in these playoffs. They sat back on a 1-0 lead and spent almost the entire last half of Game 4 at least 60 feet away from Nikolai Khabibulin. Seemingly, their approach to the game changed – instead of playing to win, they started playing not to lose.
In Game 3, the Canucks did a very good job of the former. Yes, they placed an emphasis on their defensive play and controlled the tempo of the game, but when given the opportunity, they also challenged the Hawks. When they had the puck, they actually tried to do something with it instead of giving it up faster than Paris Hilton does in a Vegas club full of douchebags. Because the Canucks took some smart chances on offense, they forced the Hawks to play defense. Because they forced the Hawks had to play defense, they also kept the puck away from them and stalled their offense.
I thought the Canucks would have that figured out by now. In Games 1 and 2, they sat back on leads, gave up the puck (and thus scoring opportunities) too easily, let Roberto Luongo do all the work and it cost them. In Game 1, they built a 3-0 lead and sat back; the Hawks then scored 3 third period goals to tie it up. In Game 2, they built a 2-0 lead in the first 7 minutes of the game and sat back; the Hawks then scored 5 unanswered goals.
I don’t doubt that the Canucks need to play good – scratch that, great – defense to succeed in the playoffs, but they can’t forget the offense part either. It’s called playing not to lose, and when teams that play like that, they generally lose anyway.