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Vancouver Canucks' goalie Roberto Luongo looks back into the net at Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane's third goal during the third period in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal series in May of 2009. (Skip Stewart)
Vancouver Canucks' goalie Roberto Luongo looks back into the net at Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane's third goal during the third period in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal series in May of 2009. (Skip Stewart)

Gary Mason

Blackhawks will face a different Canucks team Add to ...

Perhaps the most enduring image of last year's playoffs, for Canucks fans at any rate, was the tear-stained face of goalie Roberto Luongo as he tried to explain his team's humiliating 7-5 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks that knocked Vancouver out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Luongo could barely talk. He was as broken and devastated as an athlete gets following a crushing, season-ending defeat. That he had contributed to his team's demise in such a conspicuous fashion certainly didn't help.

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Fast-forward 10 months and it is a much different-looking Luongo skating off the ice at GM Place, a gold medal hanging around his neck. He is all smiles. Minutes earlier he had shaken hands with Patrick Kane of the U.S. team that Canada had just defeated in the final. They exchanged words. Then Kane smiled at the netminder he had ventilated for three goals in the infamous Round Two playoff loss the previous spring that sent the Canucks golfing.

"See you in the playoffs," Luongo told the Hawk sniper.

And so it has come to pass.

It's impossible to consider this year's Stanley Cup playoff rematch between the Canucks and the Hawks without regarding it in the context of what happened a year ago and what happened, too, on the ice at GM Place during the Olympics. There are just so many delicious story lines.

The Canucks, of course, were within a few minutes of going up 3-1 in the series last year when the team experienced a legendary meltdown and lost 2-1 in overtime. Vancouver never really recovered after that and was no match for the power of Kane and company in the next two games. The Game 6 loss would go down as one of the most deflating in the Canucks's admittedly modest playoff history.

And in Roberto Luongo's career as well.

So you have to know that the Canucks and their captain goaltender are out for a little revenge. For his part, Luongo is coming off a couple of his strongest outings of the year and likely has confidence he didn't possess even 10 days ago.

And then there is the Olympics connection. Luongo is facing a trio of gold-medal teammates in Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews. It may not mean much on the ice, ultimately, but it's certainly a valid enough talking point. More interesting, undoubtedly, is the match-up between U.S. Olympic teammates Ryan Kesler and Kane.

It may well fall to Selke finalist Kesler to shut Kane down. To get in his face, under his arm pits, in his grill, wherever. This is something Kesler does well. It will be fun to see how he executes this role against someone he admittedly became close friends with during the Olympic experience.

Knowing Kesler, and knowing hockey players in general, that friendship won't mean much once the puck drops. It's doubtful the Canadian Olympians on the Hawks, meantime, can take advantage of anything they might have picked up shooting on Luongo during Team Canada practices during the Olympics either. But all of it does give the series some texture it didn't have a year ago.

While some faces may be more familiar, the Canucks team that Chicago is battling is decidedly different than the one the Hawks disposed of so easily last year. At this point, it doesn't really need to be said what the additions of players such as Mikael Samuelsson and Christian Erhoff have meant to Vancouver. Or that Art Ross winner Henrik Sedin and twin brother Daniel Sedin are having special campaigns.

This Vancouver team is a much more complete squad than the one that faced Chicago in last year's playoffs, even without shutdown defenceman Willie Mitchell. But then, so too is Chicago. The Hawks were supposed to be the team that blew opponents away this season with all their offensive weapons. They certainly have the capability to do that - but so do the Canucks, who scored more goals than Chicago during the regular season.

While the Hawks got through to the second round this year in just as many games as the Canucks - six - they looked more vulnerable than the Canucks doing it. Five on five it wasn't much of a contest between L.A. and the Canucks. You couldn't say that for the series between Chicago and Nashville.

But then every series is organic. What happens in one doesn't necessarily portend what will happen in another. These are two teams that know each other well. This time around they know each other better than ever.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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