In the eyes of many observers, the fate of the Vancouver Canucks was sealed when they failed to hold onto a 1–0 lead late in the fourth game of their series with the Chicago Blackhawks and wound up losing 2–1 in overtime. Instead of being in full control of the matchup with a commanding lead and a chance to close out the best of seven on home ice in the fifth game, the Canucks found themselves all square with the Hawks through four games, and that late collapse was the start of a downfall from which they never recovered. Certainly the tying goal with three minutes to play and the overtime winner three minutes into the extra session were kicks to the gut that winded the Canucks and played a big role in the Hawks ultimately dispatching Vancouver from the playoffs in six games.
But any attempt to pinpoint where things started to go wrong for the Canucks has to go all the way back to the series opener. Despite winning that game 5–3 on a late goal by Sami Salo, the Canucks couldn’t deal with their own success that night and were unable to make a 3–0 third-period lead stand up.
Showing the same quick-strike ability that they would use to sink the Canucks 10 days and five games later, Chicago scored three third-period goals to erase that 3–0 deficit. And although the Hawks came up short on the scoreboard in the opener, all was not lost on that night. With their impressive rally, the Blackhawks delivered a handful of messages that they would continue to pound home throughout the series: that they could score in bunches, that no Canuck lead was safe, and that Roberto Luongo definitely didn’t scare them.
The Canucks led at some point in all six games against Chicago and scored first in five of them. Those things are supposed to be significant at this time of the year. Along with the opening night comeback, the Hawks overcame a 2–0 deficit in the first five minutes to win the second game of the series, weathered the 1–0 deficit to win the fourth, beat a 2–1 Canucks lead midway through the pivotal fifth game and won 4–2 at GM Place, and trailed on three separate occasions—including twice in the third period—of the series finale.
Like a boxer lacking a knockout punch, the Canucks landed a number of blows on the Blackhawks but couldn’t put them down for the count. As the series progressed, it was almost as if the Hawks were saying: “Hey, remember the first game, when you threw everything you had at us and it wasn’t enough?” And on too many occasions, it seemed as if the Canucks remembered the events of the third period of the series opener all too well.
A team that had had success managing leads for the most part during the regular season just never looked comfortable when out in front against the Hawks. In the fifth game, the Canucks took a 2–1 lead on their 15th shot of the night midway though the second period. They mustered just six shots the rest of the way and wound up losing 4–2. How a team with a chance to regain the lead in a series in front of its home fans simply rolls over halfway through a game is beyond explanation.
In the sixth game—and facing elimination and another long summer without a Stanley Cup—the Canucks did well to grab leads at 1–0, 4–3 and 5–4. But the longest they managed to stay in front of the Blackhawks on any of those occasions was exactly two minutes. Each time the Canucks scored to go in front, the Hawks had an answer. Mason Raymond opened the scoring, but Patrick Kane scored two minutes later. Mats Sundin put the Canucks in front 4–3 early in the third period, and Adam Burish tied it 1:58 later. And when Daniel Sedin reestablished the Canucks lead with less than eight minutes to play, once again it was Kane who replied just 45 seconds later, starting the Hawks on a run of three goals in a span of 3:17 to seal the deal.
The constant theme of the series seemed to be that whenever the Blackhawks fell behind they simply had to turn up the heat and they knew the Canucks would melt. And that’s exactly what happened. No one could ever have predicted a 7–5 score in the final game of the series or that Canucks captain Luongo would be the one to wilt the way he did, giving up seven goals in a game for the first time in his three years as a Canuck—with the team’s season on the line. He had to be better, and he and his team should have been able to do a better job of protecting their leads.
In a best-of-seven series in professional sports, teams don’t advance on breaks and lucky bounces. Over the course of the six games played between the Canucks and the Hawks, the better team won. Chicago had superior team speed, better scoring depth, and wore the Canucks down—and eventually out—by finishing every check.
At the outset of the series, many in the hockey world felt that the Hawks were too young and too inexperienced to match the challenge presented by the Canucks. In the end, that youth and enthusiasm allowed the Hawks to keep pushing hard regardless of the score, because they felt they were never out of hockey games. And, as it turned out, they were right.
As a result, the Blackhawks are through to the next round while the Vancouver Canucks are merely through for yet another year.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.