John Madden knows something about the nuances of defensive hockey, having served the majority of his NHL career in New Jersey, where, for decades, the Devils mastered the art of smothering the life out of a game.
So Madden, now the Chicago Blackhawks' checking-line centre, knows exactly what happened to his team in Sunday's unremarkable 4-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, a defeat that prevented them from clinching their Western Conference playoff series.
The Canucks ripped a page out of the Devils' book and slooooowed everything down. They received a free goal when Antti Niemi mishandled a dump-in from the point in the opening minute, and from that moment on, played an ideal road game. They took no chances of their own and surrendered few the other way. Goaltender Roberto Luongo had a decent night, but the Grade-A scoring chances that the Blackhawks' snipers manufactured in earlier games as they took a 3-1 lead in the series never materialized.
And Madden can put his finger on exactly why.
"It was a slower-paced game," said Madden, "and they did a lot with the way they trapped. They dumped pucks. They got good changes. They out-changed us for the most part.
"Most of their lines were playing half shifts against one of our lines and when you do that, you wear them down. They had a great game plan and they stuck to it and that's why they won."
As the visiting team, the Canucks were required to change on the fly in order to get the matchups coach Alain Vigneault wanted. That has been an ongoing concern in these playoffs - often teams have taken bench minors as a result of confusion at the benches, caused when coaches shuffle players on and off the ice.
But on this night, the Canucks did it flawlessly. Instead of trying to be creative and/or imaginative through the neutral zone, they were content to dump pucks in the corners and force the Blackhawks defencemen to scurry back and retrieve them. If the opportunity to get in quick on the fore-check was there, they seized it. If not, they were content to linger in the neutral zone to meet the Chicago attack, crowding the zone and daring the Blackhawks to weave their way through the gridlock.
It was what Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane called a "fake fore-check" - the Canucks made it look as if they were coming hard, but then backed right off.
"They played a little different," said Kane. "They sat back and waited for us to make mistakes. The biggest thing was they scored a minute in and got themselves some life and waited for us to make turnovers or dump it in and then not get it back.
"If they play like that, we need to do what we did against Nashville, and just play patiently and capitalize on the chances we do get."
Coach Joel Quenneville complained that his team couldn't complete a pass, a tribute to the sheer congestion created by Vancouver. Madden likened it to chess on ice and said: "Hopefully, we make the right move in the next one and come out on top."
To that end, the Blackhawks gathered at a private airport terminal here in the early afternoon Monday to board their charter flight to Vancouver, with a 3-2 lead in the series and a view to clinching matters tonight. Thus far in the series, the visiting team has won four of five games.
Usually in these playoffs, early leads have been easily overcome, but not on Sunday - it was an old-school game, poached from a different era.
Understandably, the Blackhawks would like to see more typical, postlockout theatre on display tonight. Kane, for one, hoped that the Canucks would be tempted to speed it up at home, in front of their own fans.
"They're probably pretty happy with their game and they're going to stick right to it," said Kane, "but I know what you mean because at home, you want to get the crowd into it and play an exciting game. Hopefully, that's what they do because when they do do that, it makes it a lot better for us."Report Typo/Error