Wednesday, April 28, 2010
By Brett Ballantini
One team, the Chicago Blackhawks, has its sights set on a Stanley Cup. Meanwhile the Vancouver Canucks have been pointing all season long toward upending Chicago in a postseason rematch.
Despite these differing goals, the second straight semifinals matchup between the Blackhawks and Canucksespecially when taking into account the regular-season hijinks between the teamsshapes up to be a high-flying, hard-hitting affair. Whichever club advances to the Western finals could well end up drained and dead on their skates.
And yet players on both sides are chomping at the bit for Hawks-Nucks, Mach II.
These are the rivalries you love, Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell said. Theres not a lot of love lost between us.
It was a lot of fun last year, said Hawks forward Patrick Sharp, without a single word spoken through gritted teeth. Whats that they say about familiarity, it breeds contempt? Thats about it.
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews even allowed himself some rare levity when speculating about the Chicago-Vancouver rematch.
Were going to have a lot of fun with the series, Toews said. "We can put our experience last year to good use.
Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa broke into a smile when talking about the rivalry between the two teams, even though hes yet to participate in a Hawks-Nucks playoff battle.
I watched the other playoff games last year when I wasnt playing for the Detroit Red Wings, Boss Hoss said. I could see how tough it was. It was that way in this regular season, too.
Last years playoff battle, won by the Blackhawks in six games after dropping two of the first three, certainly had interesting moments, including gilded Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo tearing up in the Vancouver locker room after the Blackhawks romp to clinch the series in Game 6. But the 2009-10 regular season is whats truly upped the ante.
Among a flurry of interesting statistics and trends, two violent episodes from this seasons Chicago-Vancouver matchups leap out.
The first and most infamous was Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchells crushing check on Toews after being sprung from the penalty box in the third period of two teams first tilt, at the United Center on Oct. 21. Mitchell decked the unaware Captain flat, leaving Toews dazed and barely able to skate back to the Chicago bench. The Blackhawks would lose the game late, and the Big Red Cheese would end up missing six games with a concussion due to Mitchells hit. Ironically, just three months later Mitchell himself suffered a violent concussion in a game vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins and has been sidelined since.
The other episode, a more sustained and humorous bit of controversy, is the Andrew Ladd-Ryan Kesler feud. Kesler had apparently been spoiling for a fight with Ladd since receiving a supposed cheap shot from the Chicago winger in the 2009 playoffs. But when the two squared off at the GM Place on Jan. 23, Ladd decked Kesler with a quick left cross, breaking his nose. Curiously, Kesler chose to advance the controversy by calling Ladd a coward after the game. Theories abounded that Kesler was more injured by Ladds tauntingquickly pointing to the welts he delivered to the centers facethan by the punch itself. In Marchs season series finale at the United Center, Ladd took a run at Kesler right away, but on advice of teammate counsel, Kesler demurred.
You media are probably going to have a lot to ask Kesler and Ladder this year, right? Toews asked, breaking into his version of a guffaw, a wry smile.
Kesler himself is trying to laugh at the controversy. You had to bring that one up, did you? he asked the Vancouver Sun on Monday. Im not too worried about Ladd. Im more worried about winning the series and trying to get even that way Its a team game, and were focused on the main goal here. There are no selfish guys on this team who are going to try to close up an individual battle and make the team suffer.
Kesler doesnt only claim no hard feelings, but over the past couple of months since last meeting the Blackhawks has developed a grudging admiration for Ladd. Absence makes the heart grow fonder?
Ladd is a guy who plays hard, he told the Sun. I dont think there is any rivalry there. Whats done is done. We fought and thats the end of it.
Luongos heartfelt reaction to, in his words, letting my team down in a 7-5 Chicago romp in Game 6 last year is another famous moment in the Vancouver-Chicago rivalry. But the Olympic goal-winning netminder fueled the flames a bit back in February, after his Canadian club knocked off the U.S. in the gold medal game. In the handshake line, Luongo reminded Patrick Kane that hed be looking forward to exacting revenge in the playoffs.
Kanes first career hat trick came in that Game 6 clincher vs. Luongo, and the ace has had his share of troubles over the years vs. the Blackhawks.
Contrary to common conception, Luongo has a terrific track record against Chicago in the regular season. Over the past four years, the netminder is 10-5-0 with a 1.90 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage against the Hawks. Of course, some persistent concerns may be in the goalies mind as he skates into the crease for Game 1 at the United Center: His poor performance in last years postseason (23 goals in six games), and getting shelled for five goals on 14 shots in the first period of the teams most recent meeting, a 6-3 Chicago win on March 5.
Even worse for the gold-medal winner is that Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has shifted his lineup in anticipation of the highly-skilled Canucks. Cool Hand Q has bumped the burly Dustin Byfuglien back to forward from the blue line, where he is expected to play the same pesky, physical role in front of Luongos blue ice he did, to raves, a season ago.
For a team not necessarily known for physical play, the Blackhawks did a marvelous job pestering Luongo last season.
I thought the Chicago series last year was the most Ive ever seen for guys going to the net and falling on the goalie, Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa told The Province.
I know its part of the Blackhawks game plan for sure, but Ive got to deal with it, Luongo added. I dont have a problem with that. Its a challenge for me, and I look forward to challenges like that.
And it wont just be Big Buff, who took in Tuesdays team practice not as a point on the power play but at long last back in front of goal, tangling Luongos long locks in the semis. Count on Adam Burish, Ladd, Tomas Kopecky, Bryan Bickell and Troy Brouwer all to buzz the goalie with drive-bys.
Heading into this titanic tilt, the bluster from both dressing rooms will be in full force. As Quenneville said, Im sure it wont take long to rekindle the animosity.
And once animosity has been raised to threatening levels, the reporting of every last deal stemming from the soap opera that is Blackhawks-Canucks will begin.
As soon as someone breaks their fingernail, it becomes a story, noted Toews, once again as jocular as youll find him. The players even talk to each other about that.
Brett Ballantini isCSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnikon Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawksinformation.