The Blackhawks’ resurgence and an exciting playoff series against the Canucks last spring have sparked a nice rivalry between Chicago and Vancouver.
The Hawks won the playoff in six games after Vancouver was moments away from taking a 3-1 stranglehold. They lit up Roberto Luongo for seven goals in the final game and the whole thing left a bitter taste with the Canucks. So they’ve played the Hawks with a little something to prove this season.
Vancouver won the first meeting in Chicago 3-2 without a point from the Sedins. (The same game where Willie Mitchell hit Jonathan Toews so hard he thought he was Jonathan Winters).
The second game in Vancouver was a terrific example of how low scoring hockey can be big fun. The game was quick, hard hitting, had one fight and just one goal. Bryan Bickell scored it, but Hawks netminder Antti Niemi was the star of the night with a 30-save shutout in a 1-0 Chicago win.
So we’ve got two teams that think they can win the West and that don’t like each other much at all. Five of the highest scoring forwards in the league will be on display - the Sedins, Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa – as well as a dozen Olympians three weeks from the Vancouver Games. Oh, and the visiting team features nine Western Canadians including four who make their home in the Vancouver area.
It would be extremely disappointing if we don’t get the proverbial barn burner out of this one.
On the hot stove:
Vancouver has a decent two-line game going, but the third line has been, how shall we say, fluid. If Kyle Wellwood and Pavol Demitra can get going offensively then the Canucks will have three lines that can score. They better do that because they’re not likely to be part of a shut-down line and neither will scare anybody with their physical game.
Demitra is just back after missing the first 47 games of the season with shoulder problems, so we will cut him slack. In four games he’s played just over 15 minutes on average and in the last one he finally got a shot on goal.
Wellwood is an enigma. On Thursday he scored a beautiful breakaway goal - his first in 10 games - and probably narrowly escaped being a healthy scratch again. He’s skilled, wins faceoffs and has great hands but doesn’t score much. A big part of the problem is he’s played 43 games and has just 42 shots. The third line needs an identity and doesn’t really have one right now.
ISO camera on:
If NHL goaltenders had a meeting with the referees (can players and refs talk?), they would unanimously complain about Dustin Byfuglien. He’s a house of a man at 6’4, 250 pounds and is as solid on his skates as any player in the league, yet manages to lose his balance and fall on goaltenders almost every game. Roberto Luongo knows him well from the playoffs and is irritated by the big man more than he’ll publicly say. Byfuglien, the artful stumbler, could be penalized for goaltender interference at least once in every game.
We will most assuredly have a camera on Henrik Sedin. The league’s leading scorer now has 22 multiple-point games and his line with brother Daniel and Alex Burrows has 18 goals and 45 points in the eight games of January. Do you think Toews, Kane and Brower might want to try and outplay that group?
What a shame this Blackhawk team just won’t be able to stay together as it’s currently composed. The dreaded salary cap means that priority player decisions must be made and some good players will have to move.
The Hawks seem to have a little magic happening right now so, despite their youth, this season might just be their best shot at going the distance.
Vancouver’s shutdown D-man Willie Mitchell is out with an undisclosed (back?) injury, Kevin Bieksa is out with a skate cut and Sami Salo got hurt in the Dallas game, so this is a time when the team needs Alexander Edler to step up. Edler hasn’t had a great season but he had an excellent night against the Stars’ top line and will likely log big minutes against Chicago’s Kane and Toews.
From the stat pack:
Could young Finnish goaltender Niemi take over the top job in goal from incumbent No. 1 Cristobal Huet? Niemi won again in Calgary and now has an impeccable record of 13-3-1, 1.85 goals-against average and a save percentage of .923. He hasn’t played a great deal but he seldom loses. He’s also 6-1 this season on the road.
Here’s how the two Chicago goalies compare in January (win-loss record, GAA, save percentage):
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