2011 NHL Playoffs - 2011 Presidents Trophy winners exorcize their 1st demon. Vancouver Canucks beat the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks to advance to round 2.
April 26, 2011 is a day that fans of the Vancouver Canucks will hold in nearly the same light as June 11, 1994 is, or May 6, 1982. Of course, those dates are known by many fans as the dates of the Canucks last Stanley Cup finals win, game 6 vs the New York Rangers and of course the date that the Canucks won their first Campbell Conference trophy with a 6-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks to advanced to their first Stanley Cup Finals.
The date of April 26th 2011, although it is the date of nothing more than a 1st round victory that enables them to advance to the 2nd round for the 4th time in 5 years is a theraputic date for both the fans & players of the Canucks. It is the day their team was finally able to slay the mental beast of the Chicago Blackhawks.
For the 2 playoff years prior the Canucks ended up with the Hawks in round 2 of the playoffs. In both of those series the Canucks started the series off on top. Being up 1-0 & 2-1 in 2009 was not enough, as they would eventually crumble after that going out in 6 games. In 2010, the chance to get revenge appeared to be there, the Canucks were a better regular season team, but the Hawks, with the extra year of playoff experience were a more formidable opponent & despite giving the Canucks game 1, would eventually again end the series in 6. That version of the Hawks went on to win the Stanley Cup. Of course, in the salary cap era, many notable pieces of their cup run like their heroic goalie Antti Niemi, scoring depth forward Andrew Ladd & power forward extraordinaire Dustin Byfuglien were tossed aside to make cap space.
Fast forward to 2011. The Canucks win the Presidents Trophy for leagues top regular season team. They win the Jennings trophy for best team goals against. For the 2nd year in a row they have an Art Ross Trophy winner, as Daniel Sedin equals his brother Henrik in that category. The top Power Play in the league, top in goals, and top in goals against. The Canucks appeared almost unbeatable. On the other side stood the Chicago Blackhawks, a team who backed into the very last spot in the playoffs after they failed to win a "win & your in" game & had to watch hopelessly as another team, the Dallas Stars failed the same task, giving the Hawks the 8th seed.
Many wondered if the Hawks of old would mentally phase the Canucks of now. In the 1st 3 games of the series, it looked absurd to think it. The Canucks won those meetings, taking a seemingly insurmountable series 3-0 lead. Then "it" happened. Somehow, somewhere, the nagging ghosts of the past got into the Canucks heads. For games 4 & 5, it seemed like the wheels had completely blown out on the Canucks road to the cup. Losing by a combined 12-2 over those two games, and seeing their Vezina candidate goaltender Roberto Luongo chased in both games. In game 6, they gave rookie Cory Schneider a chance to run with it. The kid did well, although 2 glaring gaffes gave the Blackhawks enough life, that eventually they would go on to down the Canucks in OT 4-3 when rookie Ben Smith added to the cities misery with a lucky backhand flick of his stick. While this game saw a far better Canucks effort, including that of Luongo, who came in for relief duty from Schneider after a minor injury. The consensus being they were the better team & were perhaps robbed by suspect reffing, the fact was, they were finding themselves in a do or die, game 7 against a team that has managed to come from behind 2 years in a row to steal a series from them.
On April 26, 2011, game 7 would take place at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. The visiting Hawks came in with little pressure on them....
Allow me to sidetrack this for a moment. As an autograph hound, we often get to observe players in ways many others, including media & other players dont. It was evident to me, a veteran of seeing playoff hockey teams in various stages of preparation, they were TOO focussed. The little things were clearly an aggitation to them. They werent loose like in game 5, they were trying to avoid interaction with people, trying to look serious & all in all, trying too hard to be focused on the task at hand. The lack of relaxation & carefree attitude they showed prior made me think, they are nervous going in. They went from carefree & relaxed, to nervous & trying too hard to focus.
Ok, so back on to the events.
The game started with an early chance for the Canucks when goalless in 13 playoff games against the Hawks winger & 41 goal regular season man Ryan Kesler made a great solo effort to get close to the goal before he made a diagonal pass behind him to Alex Burrows who snuck in & planted it behind rookie goalie Corey Crawford. The Canucks would seemingly dominate most of the game after that. yet were unable to bury many chances. There was first Henrik Sedin inexplicably passing to Burrows on a chance where he clearly had the more open shot, Alex Burrows missing a penalty shot, and of course snakebitten Ryan Kesler having the best chance on a 2nd rebound chance late in the 3rd period that he put directly into Crawfords glove. With only 3:17 left in the game the Canucks got what many expected was the nail in the coffin. The Hawks Norris winning defenseman Duncan Keith would go off for a tripping penalty. The Canucks would have 2 minutes out of the last 3:17 with a power play. Game over, right? Wrong. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, himself goalless in the playoffs made a great rush towards the net that saw the puck eventually go to Marian Hossa who would direct a shot on goal, leaving a rebound for the opportunistic Toews to bury behind Luongo shorthanded with only 1:56 remaining in regulation time.
With the city of Vancouver's ego quickly deflated, Canucks nation sat nervously waiting for the start of OT. Once OT started they got some scary news early. Mr. Everything in the game Alex Burrows went off for 2 minutes for holding just 24 seconds in. But the Canucks managed to kill that penalty. Less than 3 minutes after Burrows penalty expired, he would taken a lucky break from a Chris Campoli mistake, cut in towards the middle of the empty attacking zone ice & slap a shot over the shoulder of Corey Crawford into the back of the cage & the game, the series, and the questions & demons were OVER.
The city that wanted this revenge so bad that they coined the term "3Venge" on twitter got their result from a hero they earlier in the series (myself included) criticized for his lack of offense. Alex Burrows had 3 goals in the final 2 games, and of course, the biggest being the series clinching game 7 overtime goal after taking the only penalty of OT.
Next up for the Canucks is Nashville Predators. While no one will admit it, and they really shouldnt. many Canucks fans are right now so thrilled with the result in hand they are willing to say "if we somehow lose to Nashville, its still a good year imo because we beat Chicago finally".. its a mentality that hopefully the Canucks themselves dont have. Because a team that wont practicallyeverything in the regular season shouldnt be happy with 1 playoff round victory... even if it was against their biggest demon.
For the record, there is a new demon to exorcize. The Canucks havent passed round 2 since 1994. In that time they have got to round 2 FIVE TIMES, losing to the Hawks three times, the Ducks once & the Wild once (which I was forced to witness in person during a game 7 collapse). But, until that demon comes to town...lets celebrate slaying this one.
Its almost June & only 2 teams are left playing in the NHL. The Philadephia Flyers, a team few people expected to still be playing, and the Chicago Blackhawks, a team many people, myself included expected to possibly be playing still.
When this season started, the Chicago Blackhawks (even though I didnt like admitting it, still fresh off the sting of them beating us in the playoffs the year before, I was still a bit bitter) were my team to win the West....of course, it wasnt a resound vote of confidence. I did have my fingers dipped in several bowls, including the Calgary Flames (before they tried to build a team out of 3rd & 4th liners).
It came as little shock to anyone that the Blackhawks finished tops in their division & 2nd in the Western Conference this year. A lot of people expected the Hawks to take over the reigns from the long time Central Division champs, Detroit Red Wings.
I had the team getting this far possibly...I just didnt know who the goalie was that was going to get them here. Upstart Finnish goalie Antti Niemi has stolen the job from the greatest goaltender ever from France, Cristobal Huet. That is saying a lot for Niemi. Afterall Huet stole the job from superstar Nikolai Khabibulin & subsequently was responsible for the former Cup champion being run out of town. Now Niemi might do the same to Huet.
Round 1, the Hawks had a date with the Nashville Predators. I never took the Preds serious all year long, and in the playoffs that didnt change. I expected the Hawks to dispense of them quickly, so you could imagine my surprise when the boys from the Windy City were down 2 games to 1 from a place that thinks when someone says "puck" it must be someone with a speech impediment swearing at you. But eventually calm was restored & the Chicago Blackhawks got out of round 1 4 games to 2.
For their next match up, they were going to try & recreate history. The Vancouver Canucks, the Hawks 2nd round opponents of a year ago were back looking for revenge. With an Art Ross winner & improved scoring all around, the Canucks were seemingly silenced offensively by the defensive pairings of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as well as Nik Hjarmalsson and Brian Campbell. The offense that was so explosive for the Canucks seemed missing, while the Hawks wasnt. Jonathan Toews stepped up in the series & started an offensive streak that is still in tact at this point. Dustin Byfuglien & Dave Bolland seemed too much for the thin & undermanned Canucks defense to handle. While offensively Patrick Sharp & Pat Kane did what was expected of them. The rematch ended the same way, on the same date a year later. Chicago Blackhawks win 4 games to 2
While the Hawks were running thru the west, another team San Jose Sharks were doing something most people didnt expect...they were also winning. With wins over the Colorado Avalanche after being down in the series, and a more shocking win over the surging Detroit Red Wings, who were starting to look like the Wings of old in the weeks prior, the Sharks seemed a formidable opponent for the strong Hawks team. The Sharks, known for being a great regular season squad, but always faltering come playoffs saved their predictable collapse for the Conference finals this time. The #1 team in the West in the regular season was beat down by the bigger and faster Hawks squad. While playoff choke artist poster child Joe Thornton was scrounging up 1 measely point in the 4 games, Jonathan Toews was busy getting 6 pts in that same time span, including game 2 GWG & assisting on 2 other GWGs. All the same suspects from the Canucks series were responsible in gutting the Sharks. Byfuglien, Bolland, Kane, Sharp, Seabrook & Keith did much of the damage. With the exception of Patrick Marleau & Dan Boyle, the Sharks were dead in the water from the word go of this series. The Chicago Blackhawks beat the top seeded Western team 4 games to 0 in the Western Conference Finals and took home the Campbell Bowl. With a sweep in the books, the Hawks started to set their sights on their ultimate goal...the Stanley Cup.
The Chicago Blackhawks are where many thought they would be. In the Stanley Cup Finals. Maybe just not against who lost thought they would be there against. They will face a foe that was 24 points behind them in the standings. A team that would have finished 11th in their conference. But the Hawks wont take them for granted I suspect. Afterall, the only meeting these two teams had this year, the Hawks lost, and not all that long ago, back on Mar 13th.
Chicago will hope for youngster Antti Niemi to hold up the incredible performance he has put in for just 1 more round, while hoping out of the blue wonder Michael Leighton doesnt do the same on his end for the flyers.
With Jonathan Toews running amuck, already tallying 26 pts, it really seems they dont need anyone else to get the job done. But others are getting the job done. Patrick Kane has quietly put together 20 pts, while Patrick Sharp has been alright too. Even Marian Hossa, who many have seen as unproductive these playoffs, still has 11 pts himself. Then theres the big Bs. Byfuglien & Bolland. Duncan Keith was slow starting offensively these playoffs, but is now up to 10 pts. Brent Seabrook, Nik Hjarmalsson, Brent Sopel & Brian Campbell have done a decent job at adding some offensive jump to an already strong line up from the back end. As long as John Madden & his rotating group of checkers keeps doing their job, the lethal Philly offense shouldnt have too much luck against Niemi.
Coach Joel Quenneville will expect victory from his players. A Campbell Bowl isnt enough to quench the thirst these guys have right now. They have recent Olympic Champions who know how victory tastes. They have other recent Olympians, liek patrick Kane looking to get the bitter taste out of his mouth of a near victory. he doesnt want to go thru that again I assure you. While its clear Toews, Kane, Keith, Byfuglien, Sharp, Seabrook and Niemi want this championship badly. So do the rest. Ben Eager and Troy Brouwer are just as hungry. They know this moight be the closest they ever get & there is no waiting for the next chance. Marian Hossa is at the finals for a 3rd consecutive year, with his 3rd different team. He is 0-2 so far, he certainly doesnt want to go thru the pain of losing in the finals again.
I believe Chicago Blackhawks will win this series. The Flyers might have proven me wrong 4 times already this year, but at the same time, the Hawks have proven me right just as often.
As much as the city of Philadelphia might want this after the long wait they have had. Chicago is even hungrier. Philly hasnt been a champ since 1975, Chicago 1961. The Hawks fans have had to suffer thru the horrid ownership of Bill Wirtz, a man who probably would have played the games without electricity in teh stadium if it were leglally allowed. This franchise has had no chance to be a serious competitor too often in the past couple decades. Missing the playoffs 9 of the past 11 seasons prior to now, the Hawks have suffered longer then Flyerrs fans. Two generaltions of Hawks fans havent seen a Cup hoisted, while only 1 generation of Flyers fans havent seen it happen. The Hawks have had only 3 other Cup appearances since the last win in 61. The Flyers in comparison have only missed the playoffs 6 times TOTAL since winning the Cup & have been to the Finals 5 other times since their last Cup win. Everything about this series suggests Hawks fans have suffered longer, and deserve this more.
Whoever wins the 2010 Stanley Cup will have ended some long suffering for its fans & will have prolonged the other fans suffering a little longer. For what its worth, I think it will be the fans of the Chicago Blackhawks who will have the celebratory party, and I suspect it will be after game 6.
Slovakia comes into 2010 ranked 9th. Just 6 years ago they were ranked 3rd. In 2002 they won the World Hockey championships and they medalled in 3 of the 4 championships from 2000 to 2003. But after that they have regressed quickly. Falling to an all time low of 13th just in 2008.
This team has a lot of NHLers & former NHLers making it up & on paper a casual hockey fan might see them as a good team still. The reality though is, they are top heavy on strong top end talent, and their bottom end talent, although having NHL fan familiar names scattered thru, arent at that level right now.
The Slovaks probably still have dreams of a medal round appearance, and truthfully, in a single knock out system, they have a narrow chance. A very narrow chance, but a chance still. Realistically though, they are probably aiming for a top 6 finish & pushing their world rankings up a bit.
Jaroslav Halak- MONTREAL CANADIENS (NHL) Possibly the best goalie the Habs have will get his chance to shine in Vancouver & will very likely give this team a chance every night to win.
Peter Budaj- COLORADO AVALANCHE (NHL) Might get a start or two against the weaker teams, Peter will be the unchallenged back up most likely.
Rastislav Stana- CHEREPOVETS SEVERSTAL (KHL) He will be there waiting eagerly to get a chance if 1 of the NHL goalies falters.
Zdeno Chara- BOSTON BRUINS (NHL) With a Norris Trophy for leagues top defenseman recently placed on his mantlepiece, Zdeno has no worries about making the team. His only worries will be about how he can carry his team to greater heights than people will expect of them.
Lubomir Visnovsky- EDMONTON OILERS (NHL) One of the NHLs top power play specialists, Lubomir will give Slovakia a powerful PP unit.
Andrej Meszaros- TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (NHL) A couple years ago Andrej looked poised to become an elite NHL defenseman. Since being traded hes settled in as an adequate defenseman. Still good enough to make this teams top 4 unit, this Olympics might be more important for Andrej whole career than just the Olympic team, as he looks to regain some of the flash he was developing early in his career.
Milan Jurcina- WASHINGTON CAPITALS (NHL) This 6'4 240 lb tough hitting dman will give the Slovaks a formidable force out there when Zdeno isnt out there.
Andrej Sekera- BUFFALO SABRES (NHL). Hes improved each season in the NHL so far. This tourney might go a long way into boosting his self confidence. Might battle Meszaros for top 4 minutes if he struggles.
Boris Valabik- ATLANTA THRASHERS (NHL). At 6'7, the Thrashers 2004 1st round pick is expected to be a Chara type player down the road. This tourney might give the Atlanta brass some insight into if hes developing that way.
Martin Strbak- BALASHIKHA MVD HC (KHL) Martin is having a decent year in Russia & is probably going to be the teams #7 dman.
Marian Hossa- CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (NHL) Often considered the greatest forward from Slovakia, this year Marian has gotten off to a slow start because of injury, but still has a cemented place ont his team....barring more injuries.
Marian Gaborik- NEW YORK RANGERS (NHL) The often injured potential super star is finally having an injury free year so far, and is amongst the top scorers in the league. 1st line is a lock.
Marcel Hossa- RIGA DYNAMO (KHL) The leading scorer on his team, Marcel is making lots of noise to be the other top line piece for the national team.
Branko Radivojevic- MOSCOW SPARTAK (KHL) Like Marcel, top scorer on his team. branko will definitely be a 2nd line lock, if not first line.
Michal Handzus- LOS ANGELES KINGS (NHL) Michal will be expected to play a strong 2 way game on 2nd or 3rd line.
Marek Svatos- COLORADO AVALANCHE (NHL) Marek has regressed some in recent years, but is still a capable energy line type player.
Josef Vasicek- YAROSLAVL LOKOMOTIV (KHL) Having a solid year in Russia. Probable top 2 line player, at worst 3rd line.
Josef Stumpel- ASTANA BARYS (KHL). Having a solid year offensively. Should contribute decent 3rd line minutes.
Zigmund Palffy- SKALICA HK 36 (SLOVAKIA)- The leagues top scorer will make the team, but will likely pull in only 3rd line minutes. But with the talent he possesses, he could be pushed into a top line spot if needed & likely adjust quickly.
Tomas Kopecky- CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (NHL) Is not having a very productive year in Chitown, but will still make the team
Richard Zednik- YAROSLAVL LOKOMOTIV (KHL)- 200 NHl goals, 700+ games will make him valuable for experience & will probably get in a few nights as a 3rd line or checking line player.
Stefan Ruzicka- MOSCOW SPARTAK (KHL)- Having a decent year in Russia. Will be most useful if he can play a checking game as they have far more qualified scorers.
Roman Kukumberg- TOLYATTI LADA (KHL)- Also having a decent season. Will also be more valuable for checking line status than scoring, but has scoring capabilities if called upon.
Maybes- Ivan Baranka, Peter Olvecky, Mario Bliznak, Tomas Tatar, Juraj Simek, Martin Cibak, Robert Petrovicky.
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From time to time I have something to say on hockey. Whether its the Vancouver Canucks, NHL in general, Womens Hockey or International Hockey...if I have something to post, it will be in here.