Where the heck did that come from on Wednesday?
In the previous week, we’ve heard all kinds of experts confirm the Canucks as the favorite to win it all this June but an equal number of them expressed that they wouldn’t be surprised if the most dominant team in the NHL this regular season with all their trophies and top-5 presence in nearly every important statistical category were bounced by the reigning champs in the first round. Why? Most questioned whether the Canucks were tough enough both mentally and physically to make it through what is probably the most difficult post season in sports. We were too soft, too fancy, too Swedish to play with the big boys. Our style was too regular season. Our grit and grime was enough for November but not April.
One game isn’t enough of a sample size to make a realistic call on whether the Canucks are tough enough. But 47-21 is a big advantage in hits, and while they’re banged up, the Blackhawks aren’t small. However, they have lost a lot of the physical presence that made them so hard to play against last year. Gone is Dustin Byfuglien’s 265-pound presence in front of Luongo. Actually, the ‘Hawks have another giant on their roster by the name of John Scott but that guy hasn’t played since March and his 4 career points aren’t likely to phase Luongo. His hands are probably made of stone and/or ham since he’s more used to using them as facial softness testers on opposing teams rather than putting pucks in the net.
The ‘Hawks are also without Dave Bolland who’s still out with a concussion but that doesn’t quite explain how the Canucks exploded into the playoffs with a new physical game. If you look at their stats all season, they’re closer to the bottom of the league in terms of hits, blocked shots and for the first time in recent memory, not one player was over 100 PIMs (there were 5 last year and 4 before that). Jannik Hansen who leads the team in hits is less than halfway to NHL hits (and name awesomeness) leader Cal Clutterbuck. Personally, I had a few fears as well of the Canucks being able to play playoff hockey, where the refs make fewer calls.
But now I’m thinking the Canucks were just saving it all year, hoping to manage injuries knowing full well in October that they were going to make the playoffs. I know that sounds ridiculous. I thought so too but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.
How else can you explain that Sami Salo, the most injury prone player on the roster since he arrived in Vancouver, threw three hits on Wednesday, taking away time and space from players that were learning their ABCs when he started in the NHL. Consider that three hits is 50% of his hits total for the entire regular season. He’s had 49 hits in his 692 career games and I’m almost sure the majority of those were by accident. Heck, when’s the last time you thought of Sami Salo and physical game at the same time without Salo being injured at the end of it? I would’ve sooner believed he could be injured just thinking about throwing a hit but his crunch on ‘Hawks Tomas Kopecky and Viktor Stalberg last night proved otherwise.
You also have to consider Alex Edler, just a couple games back from missing over 30 after back surgery laying out monster checks everywhere, especially on ‘Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, finishing with seven total, one behind Maxim Lapierre for the team lead. Michael Frolik had six to lead the Blackhawks but he must’ve been doing that off camera because I don’t remember that guy playing 18 minutes. In short, the Canucks dominated the physical game. Maybe they were tired of being pushed around by the ‘Hawks the last two seasons and decided they weren’t going to take that crap anymore.
Whether the Canucks can build on this one-to-nil series lead is up in the air as there’s still lots of hockey to be played and we can never underestimate the Blackhawks after falling to them each of the last two years in the post season. However, if the Canucks maintain everything they’ve done all year and add the physical game we saw last night, there should be little reason to worry. Why?
- Depth is reversed. The Canucks are a much deeper team than the Blackhawks this year. We have nine or ten NHL playoff capable defensemen available and nearly all healthy. Our most important forwards are all healthy and while our bottom six isn’t as strong as I would like, they’re contributing at the right time and playing tight. Dan Hamhuis led all Canucks in ice time last night while five Blackhawks played more than his 22 and change. If the Canucks continue to play hard, the Blackhawks will have to rely even more on their top players. They’re world class athletes but fatigue has to set in when your forwards are playing over 23 minutes a game.
- Almost more important than the Canucks physical presence is the ‘Hawks lackthereof. Luongo has been sharp and without a big body in front of him, he’s even better. The Canucks are middle of the pack when it comes to shots allowed but near the bottom in blocked shots. I’m guessing this is by design with Rollie Melanson’s philosophy this year. Block what you can but otherwise, get the hell out of the way and let Louie see it. Luongo has been stronger positionally this year than he has probably his entire career. If he can see it, he’ll likely stop it and with the Canucks depth on defense, there probably won’t be much parked in front of Lu this series.
- Special teams. While they weren’t much of a factor in scoring on Wednesday, the Canucks have the advantage in case things get ugly. The ‘Hawks have to be worried that countering with their own physical game could result in getting burned when the Canucks get the man advantage. Yes, the Blackhawks are probably just as good on the powerplay but our penalty kill is decidedly better. Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler almost connected on a short-handed chance despite being hounded by three Chicago players.
But again, it’s one game and it’s the Blackhawks. We were all optimistic last year after the first game and I don’t know about you but by the time game six came around, I was ready to jump out a window. There’s a lot to work on for the ‘Nucks. Their second period was sloppy at best and they just barely contained the four star, although overworked, Blackhawks forwards in Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and that mullet-wearing kid.
However, what they did show us was they can do even better than their magical regular season, that they can add another dimension to their already stellar game come playoff time and as a Canucks fan, I can’t help but be even more excited than before.