CHICAGO – Faced with mounting pressure to eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, the Vancouver Canucks loosened their collective collar for practice on Saturday afternoon at the United Center.
Using tennis balls instead of pucks for their warm-ups, the Canucks instantly sparked questions in the minds those watching it take place. Were the Canucks giving goalie Roberto Luongo a new form of practice stopping odd-bouncing shots? Were they trying to get some practice controlling the puck on the United Center’s ice, which is often said by players to cause weird bounces?
The answers, officially, were no and no.
"It's just a fun thing to do sometimes," Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said, as Vancouver prepares for Sunday's Game 6 of this Western Conference Quarterfinal series up 3-2 in games but trailing in momentum. "Sometimes you can get caught up in the playoffs and the media attention, and you're forgetting that it's hockey you're playing and what you're supposed to do out there."
So, basically, the Canucks were just trying to lighten it up a little. The pressure is mounting on them now, after taking a 3-0 series lead and then twice getting blown out trying to close it out. So, Vancouver's players and coaches met on Saturday before practice and decided to treat Sunday's game like it's actually a Game 7 situation – trying to instill the same desperation that Chicago's had for two games.
Then they threw the tennis balls onto the ice and got to work. It was an interesting dynamic, to be sure – but probably a good approach. Most of the media attention is focused on the Canucks' perceived confidence loss and the Hawks' ability to take up residence inside the heads of Luongo and the Sedin twins.
In order to get away from that talk, the Canucks decided to just hit the reset button. Having an extra day off in between games might actually help Vancouver regain its senses after being drilled 7-2 and 5-0 in consecutive games – including the last one at Rogers Arena.
"If we're clenching our sticks, I don't think that's going to help anything," Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. "Not to say that we didn't have our times where (we yelled) and ... reflected on the game and how poorly we played. We discussed that. We said our peace that way and I think everybody's on the same page and we're moving on now. It's a fresh start for us and (we're) getting back to being positive."
Part of that positive thinking is the chance to get back at the team that's knocked them out of the playoffs the previous two seasons and continues to pester the Canucks now.
"It's going to be a fun game for us," Bieksa said of Game 6. "We've got a great opportunity to eliminate these guys on their home ice. At the end of the day, we're playing the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's a great feeling, so we're going to enjoy it."
Unless, of course, the Hawks continue to haunt them with a spate of early goals against Luongo followed by a blowout win and the chirping that often accompanies it. That won't be very enjoyable at all, especially if it happens a third straight time.
"The last two games have not been close to good enough," Sedin said. "It's something we have to change. We just have to play better. That's the only thing. It's not what they do. It's up to us to get things going. We've done it before, so (Sunday) it's going to be (different)."
Mason Raymond concurred.
"There's no secret potion or anything like that," he said of reigniting his line. "It's just from within us. It's not just the twins. It's not just whoever. It's everybody. We all can put a better effort forward and we have to do that. It's desperation now for us, and we've got to play our next game like it's our last."
If they don't, they'll still one last try at home to down the Hawks – but nobody in blue, white and green even wants to think about that.
"At the end of the day, our actions on the ice have to speak for ourselves," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "We all know what we need to do and how to do it. I could stand up here in front of everybody and say, 'We're confident that we're going to get it done,' which I am, but the actions on the ice … that's the most important talking."