The Vancouver Canucks are three games and two defeats into their NHL playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks, and head coach Alain Vigneault is finally conceding that he must make adjustments.
Those tweaks, designed to counter Chicago's piñata treatment of Roberto Luongo, mean the Canucks will try to intimidate Antti Niemi in Game 4 of their Western Conference semi-final on Friday. Speaking to a national U.S. radio program Thursday, Ryan Kesler went so far as to say the Canucks will "run" the Blackhawks goaltender, just as Luongo was smacked around in Games 3 and 4, both Chicago victories.
"We're going to fight fire with fire and see where it gets us," Kesler explained in the dressing room.
Vigneault said the Canucks are losing the series at the front of the net - in both zones - but refused to blame the officiating. He pledged technical corrections, and said his players must demonstrate more "will factor."
On that front, he singled out Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, using him as a dual example. Vigneault said Toews was getting away with the roughest of roughhouse tactics (hint, hint to referees), but also adapting best to lax officiating (hint, hint to Canuck players).
"The guy, probably, going to the net hardest for them, and getting away with the most, is probably Toews," the coach said. "He's pitch-forked [and]run Louie, he's done everything you need to do to create offence."
Canucks management has told Vigneault and the players not to complain about officiating, and that the team's top brass would handle such disputes with the league office. Just 24 hours before Game 3, the Canucks had even talked about their 2009-10 team being calmer, less shaken by adversity, and less prone to bicker with the men in stripes compared to last year's edition.
But that became too tempting in Thursday's 5-2 Chicago victory, a poorly officiated contest by most measures, when the usually subdued Daniel Sedin had - by his standards - an eruption worthy of an Icelandic volcano. Responding to a slash, Sedin hit back at Chicago's Dave Bolland, jawed at him from the penalty box, and touched off another individual feud within this rivalry of individual feuds.
Alex Burrows took what his coach called a "stupid" unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which led to the winning goal, and Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien continued his joust with Luongo, bumping the Canucks goaltender at his leisure, and scoring three times.
The Canucks can clean up the undisciplined play so long as the Blackhawks aren't too deeply under their skin, but winning the net-front battles in front Luongo, and walking the tightrope between goaltender interference and push-the-goalie-into-the-net in Chicago's end, is proving difficult. The Canucks didn't read the officiating temperature in the last two games, and are now banking that it will be called the same way in Game 4.
"We're three games into this series and we know what the referees are calling," Vigneault said. "We know what the limit is. We got to go to the limit."
The Canucks are not known as a brutish team, and became the second-highest scoring team in the NHL this season by scoring off the cycle, off the rush, and on the power play. But Sedin said the Canucks must be in Niemi's face and "show we want to be there."
Kesler conceded that Chicago's crease presence has created a "different series" than a first-round victory over the Los Angeles Kings, but bristled when it was suggested that the Canucks would be changing their style, and playing into the opposition's hands, by focusing on goals in that area.
"We're not changing our game at all ... we're just going to the net more," he said. "We're not blowing up our system. Our system is still intact."