It is several years past the days when the Chicago Blackhawks were the hated bête noire of the Canucks, a team that Vancouver just couldn’t figure out until Alex Burrows finally slayed the dragon – in the words of the Canucks play-by-play – in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
The next year, sure, there was Duncan Keith late in the season trying to behead Daniel Sedin with a vicious elbow, concussing the Swede. But by last year’s lockout-truncated season, the tilts between the two didn’t feel quite the same as they did back in the day. The teams were moving in different directions, one ascendant, the Blackhawks, on the way to a second Stanley Cup in four seasons, and one fading, the Canucks, no longer among the very best.
So Saturday night in Vancouver, as the Canucks hosted the Blackhawks, all the bad blood seemed like something from the past. No ire was palpable, even if Ryan Kesler jawed after the first period about the rivalry: “We don’t like each other very much, so it’s always a great game.”
Indeed, it is true, the latter sentiment. The Canucks, struggling somewhat of late, matched the surging Blackhawks stride for stride, the two playing a top-flight game of hockey, the pace swift up and down the ice, the time flying, unsullied by constant blast of whistles.
In a duel of defence and goaltending, Kesler was the only person to score in the first 40 minutes and that marker required a five-on-three power play late in the first, with Kesler banging home a rebound, his 10th goal of the year but first in eight games.
But Chicago – the highest-scoring team in the National Hockey League – delivered its punch early in the third, finally cracking Roberto Luongo, who had played well all night until the Blackhawks found the back of the net. Chicago put in two within nine seconds of each other, an ample reward for their controlling play to start the third.
Andrew Shaw scored just after a power play expired, after Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis did a poor job of clearing the puck, and a blink later Marcus Kruger swept in on a two-on-one and put it between Luongo’s legs.
And that was it: Chicago hung on to win 2-1 in the closely fought game, a loss that has to be more deflating than most defeats for the Canucks. It was the first time this year that the Canucks lost after leading after two and their third period was not entirely impressive. They gave up the goals, yes, but at the same time their offensive oomph went limp for an important stretch. Late in the game, a push emerged but Chicago goalie Corey Crawford held off the home team.
"All the losses are frustrating," said defenceman Kevin Bieksa after the game. "None of them are easy to take." And then he had three words, plainly stated, but they felt a little helpless: "We were close."
Coach John Tortorella also had a succinct three-word conclusion, also one that felt deflated: "We beat ourselves."
After Vancouver’s six-goal outburst against the weak Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night, the team once again delivered a one-goal game, their fifth this month and 10th of the year. The strange Jekyll/Hyde nature of the Canucks season goes on unabated. The team is 12-0-3 in games in which they’ve scored two or more goals. In the one-goal outings, the Canucks are awful, winless, 0-9-1.
The win keeps Chicago one point out of first in the West and the NHL, behind Anaheim, and leaves Vancouver fixed solidly in ninth place in the competitive Western Conference, worryingly out of the hunt, even if there is a long way to go to springtime. Four points from eighth might not seem like a big gap but history shows the gap is much bigger than it looks.
So a game such as Monday’s match, hosting the Los Angeles Kings, becomes radically more important than a team would want at this point in the season. Vancouver needs to make up ground and the difficulty to do so remains stiff. Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin was frank about the situation on Friday after the Columbus win, saying of points in the standings: “We need them badly.”