Canucks, Blackhawks renew battle

The Vancouver Canucks will get the perfect measuring stick for how far they've come in a year, with their Western Conference semifinal rematch with the Chicago Blackhawks starting Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET).

The Vancouver Canucks will get the perfect measuring stick for how far they've come in a year, with their Western Conference semifinal rematch with the Chicago Blackhawks starting Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET).

The series, which will start in the coming days, was made a certainty with Chicago's 5-3 win over Nashville on Monday night. The Blackhawks rallied from 2-1 down to win the next three games of their opening round series, capping things off one night after Vancouver eliminated the Los Angeles Kings in six games.

It all set up a rematch of clubs that have developed an intense rivalry over the past two years.

"That's what we were waiting for. That's what I told [Chicago's Patrick] Kane after the [Olympic] gold-medal game, that I'd see them in the playoffs," Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo told Hockey Night in Canada.

Chicago, of course, trailed Vancouver 2-1 in last year's playoff series before going on a run of three straight wins. While this year's Canucks have made a habit of third-period shows of strength, it was the Blackhawks who were built to last in the 2009 meeting between the clubs.

Vancouver led after the second period in each of the last three games of the series, only to see Chicago win all of them. The Blackhawks outscored the Canucks 7-2 in the third period of those games, capped off by a four-goal outburst in the 7-5 capper in Game 6.

As so often happens in the NHL playoffs, a Game 4 overtime resulted in two-game swing. What could have been a 3-1 Vancouver lead was not to be, with Andrew Ladd deflecting a shot past Luongo to tie the series and give the Blackhawks new life.

How soon they forget

Luongo was particularly distressed by the way the 2009 season ended, as hockey observers quickly forget his strong post-season play of two years earlier with the third-period collapse so fresh.

The season series saw a split of four games and only heightened tensions between the clubs. In the first game of the season, Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell wobbled Chicago captain Jonathan Toews with a clean hit, while Vancouver's Rick Rypien, unimpressed by the Ben Eager hit last spring that skirted the line, was quick to drop the gloves with him in the second game.

Vancouver forward Ryan Kesler and Ladd, who was born in Maple Ridge, B.C., traded blows and barbs over the course of the year.

The final game of the season series on March 5 saw Luongo pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots, though the Canucks would undoubtedly point to the fact that clash took place in the midst of Vancouver's epic road slog — and just days after the goaltender had been through a gruelling Olympic load as Canada's gold-medal goalie.

Vancouver believes they've improved their offensive depth this year to contend with the Blackhawks, and even with Kesler and Alex Burrows not able to score except into an open net, the Canucks poured in 15 goals on Los Angeles netminders over the final three games of the series.

But the flaws Vancouver displayed in the first round against the Kings hit on areas that Chicago exposed last year.

Vancouver allowed 10 goals on 26 Los Angeles power plays, improving on the penalty kill somewhat as the series went on.

You can cede Canucks coach Alain Vigneault's point that the Kings got some fortuitous bounces on a number of those power plays, but Vancouver only prevented Chicago from scoring a power-play goal in one playoff game last year, giving up seven in total.

While Luongo bore the brunt of scrutiny over the final period of last season, less commented on was the fact that the speedy Blackhawks forwards made the Vancouver defence look as if they were stuck in quicksand.

Niemi's turn

While Christian Ehrhoff has improved the mobility on the back end for the Canuck defence, the team's depth on the back end has been hit with the injury to Mitchell. No. 6 man Andrew Alberts played just over 10 minutes in the series clincher against Los Angeles, with Aaron Rome and Nolan Baumgartner making cameos in the series. 

There is one significant difference in this year's matchup on Chicago's end, which will go a long way to determining the eventual outcome.

Nikolai Khabibulin carried the load in net in the 2009 playoffs for the Blackhawks, and then bolted in the summer as a free agent for a deal in Edmonton that the Oilers may live to regret.

Chicago netminder Antti Niemi was at turns vulnerable and impenetrable in the series win over the Nashville Predators. The Finn was the only NHL goalie — with two games to play in the first round — to record two shutouts in the opening-round series.

In the other four games, he allowed 13 goals on 108 shots for a .880 save percentage.

Buoyed by the deep Chicago defence, Niemi has now recorded nine shutouts in just 41 starts in his first full NHL season. He recorded his second NHL shutout against Vancouver early in the season, but the next time out against Chicago the Canucks chased Niemi from the net early en route to a 5-1 victory.

In the 6-3 Chicago win March 5 that saw Luongo yanked, it was Cristobal Huet in net for the Blackhawks.

Mikael Samuelsson, who leads NHL playoff performers with seven goals, also led the Canucks with three goals against Chicago in the season series. Daniel Sedin notched two goals and added two assists.

Vancouver kept Kane without a goal in the four games, but eight players accounted for Chicago's 10 goals on the Canucks this season. Norris Trophy finalist Duncan Keith and Troy Brouwer each scored twice.


Chris Iorfida

Senior Writer

Chris Iorfida, based in Toronto, has been with CBC since 2002 and written on subjects as diverse as politics, business, health, sports, arts and entertainment, science and technology.