CHICAGO – The captain of the Chicago Blackhawks is not going to concede anything – not the Stanley Cup, not this first-round playoff series, not even that the Vancouver Canucks have become a better team. Not yet.
Jonathan Toews(notes) stood defiantly in the dressing room Sunday night, after a 3-2 loss put the defending champions in a 3-0 hole, when he was asked a simple question: Are the Canucks just harder to play against this year?
“I mean, that’s the thing,” Toews said.
He sighed deeply.
“Everyone wants to look at the stats all year and talk about what they do well and how good of a team they are,” Toews continued. “That’s what’s frustrating. We’re not exposing them for what they really are.”
But maybe that’s the thing.
Maybe the Blackhawks have exposed the Canucks for what they really are – the best team in the NHL, or at least a better team than the one that lost to Chicago in the second round each of the past two years.
And maybe the Canucks have exposed the Blackhawks for what they really are – a fraction of their former selves.
It was no fluke that the Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top regular-season team. They did it by a 10-point margin. They scored the most goals and allowed the fewest. They ranked first on the power play and third on the penalty kill.
It was no fluke that the Blackhawks backed into the playoffs, either, slipping into the eighth spot in the Western Conference on the last day of the regular season only because the Dallas Stars failed to beat the Minnesota Wild.
In the aftermath of their playoff losses, the Canucks added depth and became more businesslike. In the afterglow of their Cup victory, the Blackhawks had to part with 10 members of their championship team – important role players like Dustin Byfuglien(notes) and Kris Versteeg(notes) and Andrew Ladd(notes) and John Madden(notes) – because of the salary cap.
This is the result: The defending champions are not only on the brink of elimination at the hands of the newly anointed favorites, they’re on the verge of being swept.
“I think a lot of people outside this locker room are giving them too much credit, and maybe we are as well,” Toews said. “We know that we can be a better team than them. We just haven’t shown it yet.”
The ’Hawks are running out of time.
They had ample opportunity Sunday to show they at least could make this a series.
The storyline entering Game 3 was how they had fallen behind in both games in Vancouver, gone 0-for-5 on the power play and gotten no production from their top players. Toews, Patrick Sharp(notes), Marian Hossa(notes), Duncan Keith(notes) and Brent Seabrook(notes) had combined for zero points. Patrick Kane(notes) had only a secondary assist.
This time they had the roar of their home fans behind them, took the lead, scored twice on the power play and got something out of their stars. Keith and Sharp scored. Toews had two assists, Kane had another assist and both had plenty of scoring chances.
Still, it wasn’t enough.
Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes), who had struggled against Chicago in previous postseasons, showed he had put the past behind him. Keith blasted a puck by him in the first period, and the fans taunted him and called his name. But when the ’Hawks had a one-minute, 17-second two-man advantage soon afterward, he stopped Toews and Kane – bang, bang – and then stoned Sharp with his right pad.
The ’Hawks tried everything. They dressed John Scott(notes) for his first career playoff game, then threw him out on the second power play unit late in the first, hoping his 6-foot-8, 258-pound frame could bother Luongo the way big Buff used to.
But Scott is no Byfuglien. He played 40 games in the regular season and had only one assist. He averaged one second of power-play time, according to NHL.com. One second. He lumbered around, and the ’Hawks never got set up to use him as a screen for a point shot.
Then Scott took an interference penalty in the second period, and the Canucks capitalized. Christian Ehrhoff(notes) scored on the ensuing power play. Daniel Sedin(notes) struck 54 seconds later. Suddenly, the ’Hawks trailed, 2-1.
“We played exactly how we wanted to play,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said, “until they scored their first goal.”
Consider the Scott experiment over. He didn’t play another shift after his penalty. But this is what it has come down to for the ’Hawks – taking a chance on a guy simply because of his size, playing a rookie on the top line simply because he has shown some spunk.
Give Ben Smith(notes) credit. He scored a key goal when he came up from the minors for the final three games of the regular season, and he scored twice in Game 2, his playoff debut. But Ben Smith, in his eighth NHL game, with so much at stake, playing with Toews and Kane? Ben Smith?
From the first day of training camp, the Blackhawks’ obvious challenge was to replace the heart and soul they had lost in the off-season. They knew their core players would have to carry them. But their core players have been able to carry them only so far, while the Canucks have looked less like last year’s Canucks and more like last year’s … well, like last year’s Blackhawks.
Sharp tied the game on the power play in the second. Early in the third, Toews and Kane had a chance to give the ’Hawks the lead. But Luongo stopped Toews, then lunged to his left and robbed Kane with his glove along the ice. Mikael Samuelsson(notes) scored what would be the winner soon afterward.
“He’s a better goalie, but our team is better in front of him,” Canucks captain Henrik Sedin(notes) said of Luongo. “We didn’t help him a lot of nights last year or the year before. We gave up a lot of chances. We’re a different team this year. We are a different group.”
Even if Toews isn’t ready to admit it. Yet.