Having recently re-watched Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang as part of my Top 20 Films of the Decade list, this series is starting to remind me of a particular scene from that movie. In this analogy, the Western Conference Final is Michelle Monaghan, the Canucks are Robert Downey Jr., and the Blackhawks… Well, it should be obvious who they are. “It’s past my bedtime,” indeed.
After a hot start to the series, dominating the Blackhawks for the first 65mins, the Canucks have essentially had their asses handed to them for three consecutive games. Of course, you knew that already, but it bears repeating. Now, there is still a chance that the Canucks can come back and win this thing, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to believe that. I want to believe, I really do. 3-1 leads are not insurmountable. Vancouver did it twice on their way to Cup Final in ’94. But it’s not so much that the Canucks have lost three games in a row as it is the way that they’ve lost them.
After the first five minutes of Game 2, all we had to cheer about for the rest of the night were successful clearing attempts on the penalty-kill, and spectacular breakaway saves from Luongo. The lead didn’t last, but how could it? The Canucks generated absolutely nothing after the first period. Nothing. They lost every battle along the boards and could barely connect a pass. Things just got worse from there.
Whatever seemed to be ailing Duncan Keith during the first two games disappeared by Game 3, as the Hawks’ defenseman showed exactly why he’s a Norris finalist. The man was intercepting Sedin passing plays all night, using his speed to come out of nowhere and break up the lane. Credit where credit is due: he has done a remarkable job of making the twins ineffective. Meanwhile, the much-vaunted Dustin Byfuglien lived up to the media hype as neither the Canucks nor the refs could lift a finger to stop him from running over Luongo to the tune of his first career hat-trick.
I don’t want to complain about the officiating in this series anymore. That’s not true actually, I want to complain, I just don’t want to use it as an excuse. Not because it’s the talk of a sore loser, but because it is not just a Canuck issue at this point but a league-wide pandemic. These have been the most poorly officiated playoffs I have ever seen, as every night the officials continue to confound me. Game 3 between the Sharks and Red Wings was probably the worst-called game of the playoffs, but Game 3 of Canucks/Hawks is not too far behind it. It is an absolute joke that Byfuglien’s third goal was allowed to stand, but by then the game was out of reach anyway.
What I really took issue with in that game was Alex Burrows getting a boarding call for chirping with Brian Campbell after the whistle when just seconds earlier Chicago captain Jonathan Toews tackled Luongo to the ice with no call. The Blackhawks were allowed to get away with murder, while the Canucks couldn’t get away with anything. Again, like the Kings’ series, this wouldn’t be such an issue if the Canuck penalty-kill, and Luongo especially, weren’t so abysmal.
Unfortunately the Canucks played right into Chicago’s hands in Game 4, thinking they could get away with a bit of chippy play after the way Game 3 was called. Seeing as there’s absolutely no consistency in what constitutes a penalty and what doesn’t, it blew up in their face and they were blown out of their own building 7-4.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what needs to be improved to make this a series again, because frankly, there have been no positives in the last two games. The Canucks, feeling their season hanging by thread, poured it on in the third period of Game 4, but it was too little too late. This team has made a habit out of leaving things until the last minute this season, and while it’s made for a number of miraculous comebacks, it’s coming back to bite them in the ass now.
Everything needs to be better, and it starts with Roberto Luongo. Every time I have written about him this post-season, the compliments have all been prefaced with one complaint: he is not smothering loose pucks when they’re right in front of his face. I refuse to pin the Game 2 loss on his shoulders, as he played incredibly well and is the only reason it wasn’t another blowout in favour of the Blackhawks. But this loose puck issue has been his biggest downfall over the past two games. He just can’t track them, which is usually one of his top skills. He’s guessing, and it’s leading to a lot of over-committing when he guesses wrong. When the captain of the team is being outplayed by Antti Niemi, something’s rotten in Denmark.
Perhaps it’s not entirely fair to say Niemi is outplaying him, as for the most part, Niemi is not being properly tested. The Hawks are not making things easy for Luongo, and you can’t exactly say the same for Niemi. He has easily exploitable weaknesses (shoot high and it goes in more often than not) that Vancouver has simply not found a way to exploit. They can’t get shots on net. The defense is shooting so far wide it’s embarrassing, and most of the shots with accuracy are being blocked before they can get through.
Goaltending has not been the only problem, however. I believe John Kimble put it best when he said, “YOU LACK DISCIPLINE!” Beyond that, the Canucks’ best players have let them down huge in this series. Not just Luongo, but Ryan Kesler as well. Where is he? After such a strong showing in Game 1 the man has completely disappeared. If the Sedins can’t break through the Seabrook-Keith pairing, Vancouver needs their depth scoring to shine, and Kesler, who scored at near a point-a-game pace in the regular season, has been their biggest playoff disappointment. He needs to elevate his game now, or he might not get another chance to.
If Vancouver can play the entire game tonight the way they played the third period of Game 4, they could very well bring the series back home for Game 6. If they can do that, they’d have a chance to make this a series again. It’s not over yet, but things need to change, and they need to change immediately. Shane O’Brien knows it won’t be easy: “We are in a situation where probably nobody thinks we can come back; the odds are we probably can’t. We are going to give it our best go.” At this point, what else can they do?
Like Fox Mulder before me, I want to believe. Honestly, I do. Just bring it home and give me a reason to.