For those wanting to see an early test of the Canucks’ presumed new playoff mettle, you have been granted your wish. As the prize for being the conference’s first seed, they get to face the defending Stanley Cup champs and their nemesis, the hated Hawks.
And while we’d love to see the Canucks put the boots to Chicago as much as anyone, we’d have preferred it happened in a later round with their recuperated defense firing on all cylinders, not to mention the full time availability of Raffi Torres and his post-season proven grinding, which will be absent from the first two games of the first round.
The Hawks effectively backed into the post-season today, losing to Detroit while the Dallas Stars failed to be masters of their own destiny - another Marc Crawford choke job (as an aside, just how many coaching jobs does one early career Cup win get you?). So this combined with a season of mostly indifferent play from the defending champs would seem to indicate that they should be an easy mark for the first overall Canucks.
Clearly, these are not last year’s Hawks. Gone are the reliable grinders who managed to easily find their way into the Canucks’ collective kitchen. Gone is Antti Niemi, who outgoaltended a slumping Roberto Luongo a year ago. But the front end talent is still intact. And that is cause for concern. You can bet that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane couldn’t be happier to see Roberto Luongo one more time. On paper, the Hawks first two lines are on par with the Canucks. And we must mention Joel Quenneville’s seeming mastery over Alain Vigneault, who in successive playoff series has been out line-matched in his own building.
On the Canuck side of the ledger, Roberto Luongo is on top of his game. Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows are presumably healthy. And the defense, which was badly depleted a season ago, is deeper and on the verge of being completely healthy for the first time all season. The overhauled third line, now grittier and quicker, was to be a huge component of playoff success but ceases to exist as the series starts with only unsung hero Jannik Hansen still standing. This along with the uneven play of the second line in recent weeks is a cause for concern.
So what do we expect? Yikes. We would have guaranteed a first round victory for the Canucks against any of the other possible opponents. This one makes us a little nervous. It will be another long series, six or seven games. This encounter will write a dramatic story either way. Another Canuck loss to the Hawks and the sky will have proverbially fallen; another summer of discontent to mull over fixes, this time to a President’s Trophy winner. And should the Canucks succeed, having faced their demons early, will be one step closer to completing a storybook season; whose ending, at times, has seemed preordained…