The Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks have a short, but bitter playoff history.
The Blackhawks eliminated Vancouver from the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, taking a Western Conference semi-final series in six eventful games. That included a 7-5 victory in Game 6 - a punctuation mark that left one prominent Canucks player in tears.
As with any NHL postseason series, many of the determining factors will be visible to fans, and take place on the ice. Special-teams play will be critical, with the Canucks needing to improve their atrocious penalty killing.
"Discipline on the ice, in our system, and in our play, and, obviously, playing hard but playing smart [will be key]" Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault said. "Playing whistle to whistle is really important."
But this series will also be decided by hearts, minds, emotions and temperaments.
Here's a look at the history between the two clubs, and some series storylines heading into Game 1 at the United Center tonight in Chicago.
The Blackhawks erased deficits in all four postseason wins last year, not including a three-goal comeback in Game 1, a contest they ultimately lost. They were down three times in Game 6, yet still closed out the best-of-seven series. Vancouver, meanwhile, led the NHL with 11 third-period comeback wins during the regular season. The Canucks had two more third-period comebacks in their first-round victory over the Los Angeles Kings. No lead is safe, in part, because of …
The bad blood between these foes began during a third-period brawl on March 29, 2009, and continued on in their six-game playoff series. The following reads like a report on a school principal's desk, but here's how the boys have paired off: Roberto Luongo-Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan Kesler-Andrew Ladd, Alex Burrows-Duncan Keith, Rick Rypien-Adam Burish, Kevin Bieksa-Ben Eager. Byfuglien delivered a subtle jab to Luongo's chops, which got this whole feud going, and became the Canucks goaltender's net-front nemesis in the postseason. Ladd has broken Kesler's nose and been called a "coward." Burrows pulled Keith's hair. Eager has repeatedly body-slammed Bieksa. And even with a playoff series at stake, Rypien was more concerned with chasing Burish around the ice. (Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell won't play in the series, but he obliterated 'Hawks captain Jonathan Toews with an open-ice hit earlier this year.)
Both teams have rosters loaded with offensively inclined players, and both want to play at a run-and-gun tempo that creates (and gives up) chances. The Canucks emerged as a high-scoring outfit this year, ranking second in the league in goals. That should, at least, clarify their strategy this time around. Last year, the Canucks sat on leads in Games 4 and 5, and wound up beaten. When they opened up in Games 2 and 6, they didn't have enough firepower to prevail. Stylistically, head coach Alain Vigneault was rendered powerless, as neither option worked.
The young 'Hawks got further than expected last year, while the Canucks were not quite ready for the NHL's final four. Vancouver's fragile psyche didn't hold up when a would-be 3-1 series lead turned into a 2-2 tie late in Game 4. Chicago pulled even with three minutes left in regulation, and Ladd scored the overtime winner. The 'Hawks have to eschew entitlement, and Vancouver's nightlife (if Internet photos are to be believed, the city is their pleasure palace). Chicago winger Patrick Kane may also want to carry some loonies and toonies for cab drivers.
Kane scored a hat trick in the decisive Game 6 in 2009, while Toews, goal-less through nine playoff games, got the winner when it mattered most. The Sedin twins also had moments - Daniel had two goals in the final game, while Henrik finished with six points in the series. But the supporting cast was massive. A bloodied Kyle Wellwood was the best player in Game 1, and teammates Sami Salo and Steve Bernier notched game-winning goals. For Chicago, Patrick Sharp, David Bolland and Byfuglien all had two-goal games. Ladd was the driving force behind the Game 4 victory. Even tough guy Eager had a game-winner.
Luongo had his worst professional day in Game 6, allowing seven goals for the first time since his rookie year, and leaving the dressing room in tears. He'll have to return to his series-stealing ways, last seen in 2007, and a sturdy Game 6 performance against L.A. last week was a good omen. Chicago's Antti Niemi is new to the stage. The Finnish rookie, making his NHL playoff debut, had two shutouts in Round 1, but also two poor games against the offensively-challenged Nashville Predators. Niemi is hoping to win supporting actor accolades in a Chicago win, not lead actor distinction in a 'Hawks loss.