First Round Predictions; Chicago @ Vancouver

The time has come for the NHL to drop the puck for the 2011 playoffs.  Staged against the backdrop of springtime in North America, the playoffs have always conjured feelings of rebirth and instantaneous nostalgia that few other things on earth can.  Looking at these playoff matchups and storylines should provide us all with even more of those personal struggles between wanting to stay in the moment and appreciate what we are witnessing, and the real-time tragedy of realizing that each passing second is one that we can never live again for the first time.

Speaking of needing to be present and forget about tragedies past, let’s start in the west with the matchup between the current holders of the Presidents’ Trophy against the current holders of the Stanley Cup.  The Blackhawks made it in by the skin of their teeth and the relentless effort Sunday night by a scorned Minnesota team, whose radio announcers kept italicizing the fact that the new Minnesota team (the Wild) was smashing the dreams of the old Minnesota team that skipped town in the ’90s (the Dallas Stars).  While the backstory there is somewhat intriguing, the result of that game set up this first round series that couldn’t carry more intrigue heading into Game 1.

The Vancouver Canucks wrapped up the league’s best record some time ago, and have adopted that well-known attitude of Stanley Cup or bust that we have seen so many times over the years.  And for good reason — the Canucks have never lifted the Cup.  Outside of hitting the post behind Mike Richter with five minutes to go in Game 7 in 1994, they have never been close.  But this lack of reaching the brink can be excused by the fact that Vancouver has never really been on the short list to win any season’s title.  Sure, they’ve won some divisions and gotten some high seeds, but they’ve never had the complete team that they boast today.  Much of this newfound status as favorites can be attributed to the growth and development of the Sedin twins, who have now each led the league in points one of the last two years, and may in fact end up taking home MVPs for each season as well (Daniel’s main competition for this season’s MVP appears to be Anaheim’s Corey Perry).  Last season saw Daniel hurt for much of the time leading up to the playoffs, and despite Henrik leading the league in points, nobody really thought the 3rd-seeded Canucks should have defeated the #2 and Stanley Cup favorite Blackhawks.  In seasons prior, the Sedins had not quite reached the level that they are at now, and so those disappointments can be understood.  But not this year.  There is not a team in hockey that the Canucks could go against where people will say, “Gee, I really don’t think Vancouver can match up with this opponent over seven games.”  It’s not going to happen.  The excuses will not be there this time. Vancouver has to achieve this spring, or face the wrath of a fan base desperate to see the dividends of a decade of investment, and so far, disappointment.

There are a lot of pundits out there calling for another series victory for Chicago over Vancouver, and claiming that this is the worst possible first round matchup for the top seeded Canucks.  I completely disagree.  I think this is a golden opportunity for the Canucks to turn around this apprehensive undertone that the fan base seems to carry around, always worried about who the next failure is going to come against.  Some say the Blackhawks will be flying around, liberated by the relief of qualifying on the last day.  I think they’re an 8 seed with a rookie goaltender.  This is not to say Chicago is bad, but why shouldn’t Vancouver be the team flying around and playing with the focus of a team in the collective zone?  They are essentially the younger brother who has spent the last two years getting beat up by the older sibling, but now wakes up and finds themselves actually bigger and stronger than the older one.  They should feel like this is a golden opportunity to exact some payback on their scrawnier, vulnerable tormenter.  And I think they will.

Another reason I like this matchup long-term for Vancouver is because many times a great team sets the tone for a Stanley Cup run by fighting through a tough first round series.  Sure, sometimes there are teams that are just too good to be bothered by lower seeds, and end up running through their first one or two series en route to a Cup.  But many times we see early tests for eventual champions.  We saw it last year in the example that everyone is using this week, the one about the Predators blowing a Game 5 lead late in Chicago to Patrick Kane’s shorthanded tying goal.  But this now clichéd example is proof positive that a first round slugfest can invigorate a squad.  It can force them to get out of their own heads and leave them with no choice but to press onward.  Not only did we see it with Chicago last year, but also with the team they beat in the finals, the Philadelphia Flyers.  Sure, the Flyers mowed through New Jersey in the opening round, but their liberation came in the second round against the Boston Bruins, when they used two goalies and a lot of grit to wipe away that 0-3 hole they found themselves in with respect to both the series and Game 7 individually.  Once that happened, there was no doubt in the locker room that they would handle Montreal.  And although the Flyers did not win the Cup, they did dig themselves out of an 0-2 hole in the finals against the Blackhawks, although they ultimately dropped the next two games.

My point is, go big or go home.  That sentiment perfectly applies to these 2011 Vancouver Canucks.  Either they are going to beat the defending champs and their personal beaters early, or they will go home and fail in a huge way.  But at least they won’t cruise through one or two easy matchups only to find themselves in the conference finals untested and increasingly nervous and unsure of their true quality.  This draw allows the Canucks to forget about the talk, avenge the past, and just play hockey.  I think the Canucks do just that, and I peg them for a series victory in either five or six games, depending upon whether they hold serve in the first two or not.  If they do, I’ll give the Hawks the usual Game 3 coming home down 0-2 victory that many capable lower seeds win.  If it heads to that Game 3 tied at 1, I still think the Canucks will be able to show their true quality and fight through a victory (or two) in Chicago, bring the pain at home in Game 5, and close out in 6 if necessary.  Yes, the Hawks would host a Game 6, but let’s not pretend this Chicago team is world beaters at home this year.  In fact, Chicago has a one game better differential on the road than at home this year, and remember they almost let the playoffs slip away Sunday afternoon by losing in regulation to the Red Wings at home.

Coming soon will be my analysis of the upcoming rematch between those Red Wings and the Phoenix Coyotes, as well as a much shorter piece on the unpredictable 4-5 matchup between Anaheim and Nashville, and a couple sentences on San Jose’s exhibition series with the beat up and offensively anemic Los Angeles Kings.  Puck drops is 27 hours, cheers.

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