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Stretch pass a not-so-secret weapon for Hawks

by Mike G. Morreale / Vancouver Canucks
CHICAGO -- Maybe the Chicago Blackhawks are offering their rabid fans a glimpse of what is sure to be one heck of a year in sports entertainment in Chi-town.

In preparing the area's die-hards for plenty of fly patterns off the fingertips of newly acquired Bears quarterback Jay Cutler next fall, the Blackhawks are showcasing their big-play potential at the expense of the Vancouver Canucks during their Western Conference Semifinal series this spring.

There's no denying the fact ice hockey's version of the deep ball -- referred to as the stretch pass -- has taken on new meaning this past week in Chicago. With mobile defensemen Brian Campbell, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Cam Barker, the Blackhawks have been able to turn the transition quicker than you can say "look out!"

"(Chicago's) speed is very similar to what we saw in St. Louis, a team that had great kids with tremendous skill level," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "The difference is (Chicago's) defense. Their defense, their transition and the way they jump up in the play is a lot more challenging to us than St. Louis' defense, which was more defense-oriented."

After being victimized by the Hawks on more than one occasion with the big pass in this best-of-7 series that shifts to United Center for Game 3 on Tuesday, it's becoming apparent the Canucks need to find a pass rush.

"It's a function of their speed and skill up front and also their defensemen," Vigneault said. "I mean, their defensemen did a great job of finding their players up the ice (on Saturday in Game 2). Part of that is our inability to make them turn and go back for pucks; they're always facing the play and are able to hit their forwards with a lot of speed."

The Blackhawks got that home run play in Game 2 while shorthanded and courtesy of Keith, who fired a rope from his own end to forward David Bolland just outside the Canucks blue line. Bolland snuck behind Canucks forward Mason Raymond before skating in and depositing his third of the playoffs to give the Hawks a 3-2 lead.

"I don't know if it's by design, but when you're moving your feet, the seams kind of open up and if the play is there, we're going to make it," Barker said. "It's been there a couple times and I don't know if I've ever seen a consecutive stretch of stretch passes like that in a game but if it's there we'll make it."

But what does it take?

"Obviously, there has to be a breakdown in their forecheck at some point," Barker continued. "You have to beat someone or make a nice play, and whoever takes off has to have a lot of confidence that you're not going to turn that puck over because if you do, it's essentially a 4-on-5 in your end."

Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell admits it's a matter of playing proper positioning and swallowing your pride.

"We're a confident group -- sometimes, maybe too confident," Mitchell said. "If we didn't think we could win, we wouldn't be one of the remaining eight teams, so we do feel we can come in here (on Tuesday) and beat this team, but it'll be a battle and we'll have to play hard in all areas on the ice. Players will have to swallow their pride on a late hit or a high hit and not retaliate. That's important this time of year."

Fellow Canucks defenseman Shane O'Brien is confident the team will turn it around on Tuesday.

"They've got a lot of speed and they're stretching us out, so we've got to find a way to keep our gap a little better," O'Brien said. "I thought (Saturday) was just a couple breakdowns down low. We've got to talk more. Down low coverage has been our bread and butter all year. They seem to be finding ways to pick us apart. We'll go over some video with the coaches and make adjustments."

That's all well and good, but Campbell says video can only do so much.

"The home run pass is a read-and-react situation," Campbell said. "Whenever I skate back for the puck, I'm looking over my shoulder and reading and reacting to make a play I feel fit. It's all about talking with your partner. We watch video and see a little bit, but that only goes so far."

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