I’m not going to lie, anything that reminds me of Chicago makes me nervous. I cringe at the sight of anything remotely related to a Blackhawk, I never eat deep-dish pizza, and even Oprah Winfrey scares me a little bit. Ultimately, what makes me nervous is that the Vancouver Canucks are going up against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
It’s a tumultuous task to be sure, and no one said the road towards hockey’s Promised Land would be fraught with easy opponents. But the fact remains that the Vancouver Canucks have a very tough job ahead of them in the coming weeks.
But let’s not sell the Canucks down the river just yet. Despite the fact that Vancouver has lost in consecutive playoffs against the Hawks, this has been a milestone 40th anniversary for the men of green and blue. An unprecedented President’s Trophy win was the pinnacle of a season which included another Art Ross trophy win, the best goals for and against ratio in the league, and a very deep roster which was consistent from (almost) start to finish of the regular season.
This isn’t the same Vancouver club as a year ago. While upper management didn’t completely overhaul the roster which fell to the Hawks in six last season, they made a couple of facelifts which have made the team as a whole much better. Bottom-six players like Kyle Wellwood, Steve Bernier, Pavol Demitra, Ryan Johnson and Michael Grabner are a faded memory; replacing them are Raffi Torres, Mason Raymond, Maxim Lapierre, Victor Oreskovich, and Tanner Glass. It’s a quintet of players who are both skilled and rugged; but more importantly, are better suited for a bottom six role.
And let’s not forget the defensive depth. Mike Gillis came out smelling like roses when he added Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard during the offseason. Finally, Canucks fans get to bear witness to the ‘Sensational Six’ of Alex Edler, Christian Ehrhoff, Hamhuis, Ballard, Kevin Bieksa, and Sami Salo. Most importantly, Alain Vigneault won’t be sweating in his boots when the Canucks are called for icing because he’ll have a strong defensive pairing on the ice at all times. That’s a luxury few NHL teams can lay claim to.
And just to drive the point home, Roberto Luongo tweaked his game. Rollie Melanson has been a boon for Luongo this season simply because you’re less likely to see him flop around in his crease and frantically scramble to make dazzling saves. There’s a reason why fans haven’t seen Luongo on the highlight reel as much this season; he’s rarely, if ever, been out of position. He stays deeper in his crease and has been able to see pucks just the same. Not to mention he’s been well-rested over the course of an 82-game season.
But the second season means much more than just what the Canucks have accomplished in the first. At the end of it all, you can flush all the hardware the Canucks won down the toilet, because it means very little now. Vancouver can ill-afford to lose a third straight series to the Blackhawks, who will be going into the postseason with little to lose and so much to gain. The expectations of winning couldn’t be any higher for the Canucks; with the status of impending free agents Ehrhoff, Bieksa, and Salo all up in the air, this is Vancouver’s best chance of all time to claim the silver chalice.
It’s difficult to fathom that the Hawks are as equipped to win as they were a year ago. Don’t get me wrong, the core is still there. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook are still part of the league’s upper echelon of players, but you won’t find anyone arguing that a roster of Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik, Fernando Pisani, Marcus Kruger, and Ryan Johnson scare you more than one of Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, and Adam Burish. The depth the Hawks once boasted (and the Canucks now have) is gone.
I’m not completely sold that Vancouver is the overwhelming favourite to come out of this series. On paper, yes, the Canucks have a distinct advantage. But the Hawks are still the defending champions, and anytime even the league favourite goes up against the defending champs, it’s bound to be a challenging series.
In the meantime, I’m still boycotting Vince Vaughn movies and taking Oprah off my PVR.