Exactly one week ago the Vancouver Canucks led the Chicago Blackhawks 3-0 in the Western Conference Quarterfinal and the debate was rather 10 days off between rounds would be a good or bad thing for the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
Three losses later, including a heart wrenching 4-3 overtime defeat in Game 6 at the United Center in Chicago, and the best-of-seven series is even at 3-3 with Game 7 set for Tuesday in Vancouver.
On the one hand, the Canucks are on the verge of becoming the fourth team in NHL history to lose a playoff series after leading 3-0. On the other, Vancouver, despite the loss, should feel good about itself after taking it to the defending Stanley Cup Champions in Game 6. It was easily the team’s best showing of the series.
Play with that urgency, intensity and grit one last time and it won’t be the last time they play this season.
“We played a good strong game today, it went right down to the wire and they got a lucky one,” said Kevin Bieksa, who scored and was a plus-2 in a team-high 36:33 of ice time.
“We liked the way we played in the second half of the game, I think we pretty much dominated it, did everything but put the puck in the net, so we move forward and it’s going to be an exciting Game 7 in our home building.”
Ben Smith was the overtime hero for the Blackhawks as he chipped a puck over a sprawling Roberto Luongo with 4:30 to play in the first overtime.
That’s how the game was won, but the story of how the teams got to that point reads like a twisted Stephen King novel.
Alain Vigneault began the game by blowing everyone in the Windy City away with Cory Schneider starting his first career playoff game in place of Luongo, who had been pulled in back-to-back losses.
The move paid off and gave the Canucks some early life as Daniel Sedin opened the scoring just 2:06 into the first period. Chicago got to Schneider before long, however, as Bryan Bickell tied the game up with 5:03 to play. Then Vancouver took a 2-1 lead with 2:12 remaining in the first off Alex Burrows’ first goal of the playoffs.
There was no sign of Sami Salo to start the second period, so the Canucks were forced to play with five defencemen and all was well until Dave Bolland made it a 2-2 game 15:08 into the frame as the seesaw battle continued.
Bieksa’s fourth career playoff goal, scored 58 seconds into the third, restored Vancouver’s lead, but it too was short-lived with Michael Frolik scoring on a penalty shot 1:32 later to make it a 3-3 game.
Not only that, but on the Blackhawks tying goal, Schneider was forced to leave the game due to severe cramping.
In came Luongo, who stopped two shots to close out the third before turning aside 10 of 11 in extra time.
It was as wild a game as the Canucks have been a part of in years, one that could have gone their way and bid adieu to the Blackhawks had the bounces been more favourable.
“Halfway through the game I thought we took over and should have scored a few goals,” said Henrik Sedin. “Burrows hit the post when it was 2-1 and those are the chances where the games can do either way.”
“Sometimes you deserve to win and you don’t,” added Luongo, “and sometimes you don’t deserve to win and you do. I think we’re really happy with the way we played in the second half of the game; we’re going to take that and try to build on that for Game 7.”
So it all comes down to Tuesday night at Rogers Arena in what is shaping up to be the biggest game for the Canucks since playing for the Stanley Cup in 1994.
Of nine Game 7s played in franchise history, the Canucks are 5-4 and 3-2 on home ice; Vancouver played in four consecutive game sevens from 2003 to 2007, winning two of them.
The Blackhawks have won three straight Game 7 tilts, and four of their last five.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault threw everyone off by starting Cory Schneider over Roberto Luongo in goal, but the decision wasn’t a systematic as one might think.
Vigneault said the move was a “gut decision” – and what a decision it ended up being.
Schneider was stellar in his first career playoff start stopping 17 shots, including what seemed like 300 on a lengthy Blackhawks 5-on-3 power play midway though the second period.
Closing out the game wasn’t meant to be for Schneider, though, as the 25-year-old was forced to leave with 17:29 to play in the third period after overextending himself on Michael Frolik’s penalty shot, which the forward scored on to add insult to injury.
Schneider is fine and ready to start Game 7, should Vigneault look his way again, although he isn’t giving that information up just yet.
“If I tell you who I’m going to play, are you going to believe me now?” smiled Vigneault post-game.
“All year long we’ve used both goaltenders and I’ll tell you the truth, I went with a gut, I thought Cory could give us a good game tonight.”
For Schneider, the cramping he began to feel in the second period is nothing new; he’s battled with the issue of dehydration his entire career and when he went to his right to stop Frolik’s shot, his quad simply locked up.
“We’ve tried to find ways to minimize it and it was effective for the regular season, but sometimes in the playoffs you have a little extra adrenaline and you’re just sweating a little more than you would in the regular season.”
Let the goaltending debate for Game 7 begin, but for what it’s worth, both Schneider and Luongo continue to be extremely supportive of one-another regardless of who starts.
“He was nothing but supportive,” said Schneider of Luongo. “You know it’s nothing personal; it’s just coach’s decision.”
The Canucks are now 22-24 all-time in playoff overtime; Frolik’s penalty shot was the fourth post-season penalty shot in Canucks history – the last came on April 21, 2002 when Todd Bertuzzi was thwarted by Dominic Hasek in a 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings; neither team scored on the power play: Vancouver was 0-for-2, Chicago went 0-for-4.