How many miracles can an NHL team reasonably expect in one season?
The Chicago Blackhawks received one back on the final Sunday of the regular season just to qualify for NHL playoffs and now they'll need another just to advance into the next round. The visiting Vancouver Canucks put the defending Stanley Cup champions squarely on the ropes last night, defeating the Blackhawks 3-2 in front of a raucous crowd of 21,743 at the United Center that grew more muted as the night progressed.
With the win, Vancouver moved out to a 3-0 series lead - and they did so despite an undisciplined interference penalty by Raffi Torres midway through the second period that temporarily knocked Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook out of the game with a blow to the head. While Torres was cooling his heels in the penalty box, Patrick Sharp scored on the power play, tying the game for Chicago.
But with the game on the line in the third, it was Mikael Samuelsson - back in the line-up after a one-game absence - who scored his first of the playoffs to complete the Canucks' comeback and shove the Blackhawks squarely onto the ropes.
"We had a lot of opportunities on the power-play, and we got two big goals," said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews. "But you can't just blame it on that, it comes down to us wanting it 5-on-5. There's a lot of our guys out there that could get hungrier and go out there and create sometime 5-on-5 and we didn't do it. Going into the third tied up, and we've got to have our best period of the series to, pretty much, stay alive in this thing and we give up a soft goal like we did. It's pretty frustrating to see."
Only three times in NHL history - the most recent coming last year in the Boston-Philadelphia series - has a team overcome a 3-0 series deficit to win. Chicago, circa 2011, doesn't look as if it is capable of manufacturing the necessary karma or push to pull it off. The Blackhawks were essentially left for dead on the final day of the regular season, before the Minnesota Wild knocked off the Dallas Stars and unexpectedly put them into the post-season after all. That little gift was supposed to be the rallying cry. Instead, they have been strangely listless this post-season, as if all that playoff hockey over the past two seasons finally wore their core players out.
Ultimately, Roberto Luongo was the biggest difference-maker for Vancouver last night, and he was especially hard on the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane, who had oodles of chances to score on multiple power-play opportunities and time after time, found himself stopped.
Luongo's biggest saves came on an early five-on-three power play, with Chicago already ahead 1-0 in the game.
"These guys are the Stanley Cup champions and they're definitely not going to quit," said Luongo. "Obviously it's going to be even harder on Tuesday and we've got to be ready."
It was a satisfying finish to a sometimes unsatisfying match for the Canucks, triggered largely by an unexpected parade to the penalty box. After taking just five minors in the first two games, they made the trip to the box four times in the first period and were lucky to be down by just one.
Second-period goals by Christian Ehrhoff and Daniel Sedin 54 seconds apart turned a one-goal deficit into a one-goal lead and it looked as if it would be smooth sailing from then on - or until Torres lowered the boom on Seabrook behind the Blackhawks net, and earned a minor penalty for interference. Torres, a repeat offender, may get a call Monday from the NHL's hockey operations department to discuss if it warrants further disciplinary action.
Torres came up playing the game one way - all aggression, all the time - and he will undoubtedly need to modify his behaviour in the same way Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke has promised to be a changed man when he comes back to the Penguins' line-up. The games are too close; the margin of error so small that giving a team too many chances on the power play is a recipe for disaster.
That the Canucks ultimately prevailed doesn't change the fact that these penalties will keep getting called - and the message will eventually need to sink in.
"We talk a lot about staying composed," said Luongo. "It doesn't matter what the score is, you want to keep playing the same way. You don't want to change anything up or down and that's what we did. Obviously, we got up 2-1 and they score a big goal to tie, but we came out in the third and had a pretty good period."
And while Canucks' coach Alain Vigneault didn't think it warranted a call, his Blackhawks counterpart Joel Quenneville called it "brutal, a major absolutely.
I thought it was a major live, and seeing the replay, clearly. We're lucky [Seabrook is]a big Western Canadian kid. Someone else might have been on a stretcher."
Duncan Keith scored the other Blackhawks' goal, five seconds into a first-period power-play, with a howitzer from the point.
Ehrhoff tied it in the second, on a carbon copy goal seven seconds into an interference penalty by the Blackhawks' John Scott. Coach Joel Quenneville inserted the six-foot-eight Scott into the line-up as Ryan Johnson's replacement, in the hopes that he could create a net presence in front of Luongo. All he did was cost his team a critical power-play goal.
Daniel Sedin also scored for Vancouver, on a pretty feed from Alex Edler, to give Vancouver its first lead of the night 10:57 into the second period.
For the second game in a row, Vancouver's struggles in the face-off circle were a troubling trend. On Keith's goal, Toews won the draw cleanly back to the point, resulting in a bang-bang goal. Chicago had a 30-20 edge in Game 2 and had a 33-27 overall last night, with Toews going 16-10.
With Samuelsson also back in, rookie Cody Hodgson and Aaron Rome watched from the press box.
The Blackhawks are a mess physically, playing without Dave Bolland, Tomas Kopecky and Bryan Bickell, though Quenneville hinted all could be back for Game 4.