What is that popular new cliche that trips off players' tongues so readily in these NHL playoffs: The fourth game is always the hardest to win?
For once, it even proved true. The Vancouver Canucks couldn't close out the Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday night, falling 7-2 to the defending Stanley Cup champions in a game that was an all-around stinker for the NHL's No. 1 regular-season team. Best to press 'delete all' instead of watching the video and move on to Game 5 Thursday night, where the Canucks can wrap up the series on home ice. Last night's loss sliced their lead in the Western Conference quarter-final series to 3-1.
Canucks captain Henrik Sedin put as positive a spin as you could on so decisive a loss, acknowledging: "It's playoffs. You get one win, you get life. We didn't think we were going to beat them four straight. They were too good a team to do that to, but at the same time, we didn't come up to our standards tonight.
"Our forecheck wasn't good. They got a lot of two-on-ones and three-on-twos - bad changes. We weren't at the right spot at the right time. That's usually not what happens to our team, but tonight it did and it's something we need to fix."
On a night when the Blackhawks played without defenceman Brent Seabrook - officially out with an upper-body injury - they received inspired performances from both returning centre Dave Bolland and the reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith.
Bolland, who had missed 17 games recovering from a concussion, returned to the line-up with a flourish, scoring once, adding three assists and generally showing how badly the Blackhawks missed him during his absence. Bolland is normally cast in a defensive role, and last year drew the task of hounding Canucks' centre Henrik Sedin to distraction whenever possible. Sedin suggested that Bolland's impact on last year's result might have been a tad overblown, but his contributions last night surely couldn't be overlooked.
He began by setting up another returnee Bryan Bickell - who'd been out with a lacerated wrist - for a Chicago goal less than two minutes into play. The Canucks overcame that deficit quickly enough, but never quite seemed to regain their equilibrium, or grasp the momentum.
It all came unraveled for Vancouver in the second period, when the Blackhawks pumped four unanswered goals past Roberto Luongo, who admittedly didn't get much help from the team playing in front of him. With their playoff lives on the line, the Blackhawks summoned up another level of urgency, and had the Canucks back on their heels all night. It remains a long and probably impossible road back for the champs, but last night's victory was the necessary first step in the process.
After Patrick Sharp scored an early third-period power-play goal, coach Alain Vigneault replaced Luongo with Cory Schneider to mop up. Sharp's second of the night, plus a goal from Daniel Sedin late rounded out the scoring.
As is typically the case, things deteriorated in the third period, as the game got out of hand. Canucks' defenceman Kevin Bieksa picked a fight with Viktor Stalberg, but no instigator penalty was called, so he should be good to go on Thursday night. Bieksa said he engaged Stalberg because Stalberg speared Maxim Lapierre.
"It's playoff hockey obviously," said Bieksa. "Not to say we want to make a statement going into the next game, but we wanted to finish the game hard and finish it physical. That's been our game plan all along, so that's what we did."
Bolland took the concussion tests a week ago, in the hopes of being ready for the opener, but failed the test. "Heartbroken," is how he felt. He took another yesterday morning and passed.
"I knew I was ready once I did the tests," said Bolland. "You never want to get in too quickly with these things but I knew that my head was 100 per cent."
"The first game back is always the one you worry about."
Keith had talked the day before about the Blackhawks' pride, and the need to channel that, but this one almost seemed personal. Seabrook is his good friend, who sat out the game after getting hit in the head by Raffi Torres two nights before. Seabrook and Keith came up in the Blackhawks' system together and for most of their NHL careers, have played as a defence pair. Keith won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's outstanding defenceman last season, a breakout year for him in which he also won an Olympic gold medal for Canada, a Stanley Cup and had seven teeth memorably knocked out of his mouth in the semi-final sweep of the San Jose Sharks.
Keith didn't have nearly the same impact on the Blackhawks this year - it would be safe to say that Seabrook was probably their best defenceman from beginning to end - but he certainly played a motivated brand of hockey last night. In the sixth minute of play, Keith gave Torres a serious two-hander across the legs and earned a two-minute minor for his efforts. Chicago killed that one off, but they couldn't kill off a Bolland elbowing penalty seconds earlier that resulted in a Sami Salo power-play goal.
As it turned out, it was the only time Vancouver threatened to make a game of it.
"We haven't won anything yet," said Canucks' winger Mikael Samuelsson "and sometimes we acted like we did. We have to dig deeper, work harder than we did today, that's for sure."
Bieksa said the team would quickly regroup in the next 48 hours and put this fiasco behind them.
"I think you have no choice in the playoffs," he said. "You can't let momentum carry over. Game 5 is a new game. It's in Vancouver. We regroup and we get back to playing the way we've been playing the last three games."
The Sedins were a combined minus-7 on the night, playing mostly against Bolland's unit. In Vancouver, coach Alain Vigneault will have a chance to get the match-ups he wants.
"It's fun playing against them," said Bolland. "Probably the two best players in our league right now."
Bolland now has 15 points in 13 playoff games vs. Vancouver, and the Blackhawks hold a 9-4 record in those games. Bolland played on a line with Bickell and Michael Frolik, who also had a big game scoring once on a breakaway and earning two assists.
Bolland didn't participate in the morning skate, but coach Joel Quenneville said he had no worries about his readiness despite the lengthy absence from the line-up.
"He's been ready to play for a while," reported Quenneville. "We've just been waiting for him to get clearance to play. He feels really good about himself and that he can handle the responsibility and he's going to get some tonight."
Did he ever.
"What you see tonight, we're going to do the same thing in Van," said Bolland, one of many Blackhawks' players were busy remembering how the Philadelphia Flyers were in similar dire straits a year ago - down three games to the Boston Bruins and seemingly out of hope. Instead, the Flyers produced a comeback for the ages, won four in a row, and didn't stop until they were grounded by the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final.
The Blackhawks' theory: If Philadelphia can do it, so can they.
It may have sounded a little hollow on the morning of the game. After putting it all together later that night, their message of hope rang just a little more true.