By Stu Hackel
With decades of disappointments behind them, the Vancouver Canucks and their fans had reason to believe that the team's 40th season would be the one in which it would shake off its voodooed past like a dog shakes off water. They could point to the Presidents' Trophy for the NHL's best regular season record -- a first in franchise history -- as a sign that their luck had changed, and a deep roster that any GM would admire. Then the Canucks jumped out to a 3-0 series lead against the defending champion Blackhawks, the team that eliminated them in each of the last two seasons. They were on the train to glory.
That was eight days ago.
Tonight, the Canucks will fight for their playoff lives, having not won since as they flirt with the ignominious achievement of choking on a three-game lead in a best-of-seven series. (SI.com gallery: Epic playoff collapses.) Their offensive motor has stalled, their defensive posture has been exposed, their special teams have not been very special and their goaltending appears to be in chaos.
In this wildly unpredictable first round, the Canucks could suddenly compose themselves and rebound with a stirring performance, unexpectedly summoning the sort of confidence they displayed last month when they scorched the entire NHL, gaining 26 of a possible 30 points. But this isn't last month. It's not even last week and it looks like Vancouver is taking on water while the Blackhawks are the team that has caught a brisk wind in its sails.
Just how this Chicago team that only intermittently looked like last year's Stanley Cup-winner has drawn even with this season's pace-setter has been debated throughout the hockey world.
First , there's the "Captain Serious" Theory, which maintains that Chicago's Jonathan Toews challenged and fired up his squad with his sharp negative assessment of the Canucks after Game 3. “They’re a beatable team,” he said the day after the Canucks hung on for a 3-2 win, largely on the play of Vezina Trophy nominee Roberto Luongo. Toews went on to say, "They have got weaknesses just like any other team. I think it is up to us to expose them and we haven't done a good enough job of that. It's pretty simple."
And he didn't stop there. He went on to identify their weakness. "They're skilled, they like to make plays, and sometimes that leaves you in vulnerable defensive positions," he said. "So like I said, it's up to us to be better."
And they were, roaring to 7-2 and 5-0 wins, shredding the Canucks' previously steady defense and chasing Luongo both nights.
Then there's the Bolland Factor, which credits that the return to health of Dave Bolland, one of the best two-way centers in the NHL. A concussion suffered on March 9 had kept him out of action until Game 4. Without Bolland in their faces, the Sedin twins totaled three goals and six assists and were plus-7 in the first three games of the series. Then Bolland returned and since then the twins have combined for two goals and one assist in the last three games while their checker/tormentor racked up a goal and three assists while dominating Game 4 and added another goal and assist in Game 6. Head to head, Bolland has twice as many points as the Sedins and is plus-6 compared to their collective minus-13.
The corollary to the Bolland Factor is the Minus Manny Method, which articulates the absence of Vancouver's shut-down center Manny Malhotra, gone since mid-March with a season-ending eye injury. Malhotra could have been able to blunt the Blackhawks' counterattack with his checking, penalty killing and prowess in the faceoff circle as well as his leadership on the bench and in the dressing room.
Let's not overlook Raffi's Wreck, the contentious hit that Vancouver winger Raffi Torres put on Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook in Game 3, followed by a second check that knocked the previously-concussed Seabrook out of the game and kept him out of Games 4 and 5.
Lots of people have speculated that Torres' hit, punished only as a minor interference penalty, woke up and angered the Hawks, reminding them of what made them champions and unleashing a fury the Canucks cannot control.
“That's what everyone wants to say, but we just like to say it was added motivation on top of the fact we were down 3-0 to probably our biggest rival in the league right now,” Toews said Friday (quoted in the suburban Daily Herald). “Every single guy in that locker room was reminded at that point that, hey, we're letting this team get away with too much and we have to hold them accountable a little bit. For a second maybe we forget about the hatred between these two teams and that definitely sparked it again. We're not going to deny that it lit a fire under our butts again, and here we are fighting and clawing our way back into this series.”
The one Hawk who seemed engulfed by that fire was Seabrook's partner, Duncan Keith, last year's top NHL defenseman. Scoring a big goal in Game 4 and then adding two more plus two assists in Game 5, the quiet Keith -- who stoically endured a puck in the mouth and the loss of seven teeth in last year's third round against San Jose -- has shown more emotion in the last three games than he normally does in a whole season.
...Canucks GM Mike Gillis went public with his complaints about the officiating in the series, including the Bickell hit that Gillis said should have been called charging. Stating that his team had played its best game of the year and lost, Gillis noted that the Hawks had more than twice as many power plays as the Canucks thus far in the series, and over two-thirds more in the last four games. And when the score is tight, he claims the Canucks get called for penalties twice as often.
Gillis called for a "level playing field," leading reporters to ask if the refs had it in for his team. "I don't know how to explain it. I'm just giving you the facts. It's easy to stand here and be emotional and look at the hit like the Bickell one on Bieksa and jump up and down and scream and yell. These are facts. They're undeniable. People think we don't have a killer instinct. It's pretty tough to have it when you're killing penalties all the time."
"It was some debatable logic, since nobody ever said penalties have to even out and the Blackhawks are one of the most disciplined teams in the NHL," noted Jason Brough on The Vancouver Province's great "Orland Kurtenblog."
"Only Gillis knows whether his public outcry was a sign of desperation or just a GM trying to take the onus off his team, and by Tuesday night, no one will really care," wrote The Vancouver Sun's Ian Walker.
It's highly questionable whether these public airings accomplish anything more than keeping the home fans from turning on their team once the puck is dropped. The notion that such pronouncements pressure the officials or the league is folly since the GMs of each club meet at least once prior to each game, if not more often, with the series supervisor to review various points of conduct, including bones of contention. Nothing that has been said in public thus far hasn't already been addressed in private.
But when a favored team suddenly can't do what it has done so well all season, when its top scorers stop scoring and its defenders get shredded by odd-man rushes and breakaways, when there's no Malhotra to stabilize things, what else can a GM do? He surveys his team and sees his goaltending has become wildly unpredictable. His starter Luongo gets pulled twice in a row, and is unseated in Game 6 by backup Cory Schneider, who plays well, but still fumbles the puck into two goals, and then gets injured while allowing a third on a penalty shot...
...forcing Luongo to return and look strangely uncomfortable. Bobby Lu's case of the playoff shakes isn't new and fans back in Vancouver had to watch with horror at his awkward falling-forward form while conceding the game-winner to Ben Smith.
Luongo will be back in there tonight with Schneider, who supposedly just cramped up, ready to go if needed.
So why not deflect attention from the players and put it on the officials? Taking the onus off the team is worth a shot when your fans have spent 40 years wandering through the NHL desert in search of the promised land.