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No place like home in this one - for visiting team

NHL.com @NHL

CHICAGO (AP) -In a town where the gold standard for losing is a century and counting, the Blackhawks are still feeling only so much heat.

Then again, it's been 49 years since Chicago last wrapped its hands around the Stanley Cup. So no one needs reminding the natives are restless. And watching the Blackhawks relax their grip on the Vancouver Canucks in this suddenly competitive Western Conference matchup did little to help the city's chronically fragile sporting psyche.

"Over the course of the game," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews sighed after Vancouver pulled away for a 4-1 win Sunday night and within 3-2 in the series, "they deserved to win that one."

These are two teams that genuinely don't like each other, though most of the blows they've exchanged so far have been in the newspaper instead of on the ice. The Hawks staked themselves to an early lead in the insult derby, and were able to take advantage of a raft of dumb penalties by a frustrated Canucks team to steal both games in Vancouver. But they've now surrendered two of the three games at home.

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville had no explanation for both teams' failures to consistently hold serve, but said of his own club, "I think we're looking for pretty plays instead of simplicity."

The only team in the playoffs left with as much skill and speed as Chicago might be the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. But both the Blackhawks' first-round opponent, Nashville, and now Vancouver, have parlayed early lapses into quick leads and then relied on tight-checking schemes to keep them bottled up.

Unlike the past two games, the Canucks didn't sabotage themselves this time by piling up penalties. A slap shot from the right point by Christian Ehrhoff just 59 seconds in handcuffed Chicago goalkeeper Antti Niemi for a 1-0 lead, and his teammates never quite recovered. It was 3-0 by end of the second period and effectively over after that.

"'Composure' seems to be the word of the series," Vancouver's Shane O'Brien said.

He caught a stick between the eyes from Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien soon after the midway point of the second period, and spilled some blood on the ice. The refs decided - correctly, replays showed - that Byfuglien was following through on a shot and not taking aim. Three different pairs of players from each team nearly came to blows the rest of the period, but only Byfuglien wound up in the penalty box.

"You've got to take a shot to make a play and ... if it's not a penalty, you've just got to keep your mouth closed and go to the bench," O'Brien said. "We did a better job of that tonight."

But that wasn't the only thing the Canucks did well. They've been consistently outshot - and were again, 30-24 in Game 5 - and the Blackhawks have cashed in on more than a few rebounds. After Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo gave up seven goals on second chances in the middle two games, a pundit or two suggested he change his first name to "Reboundo."

It didn't help that Luongo, in the net for Canada when it won Olympic gold against Team USA, was being outplayed through most of the series by Niemi, who drove a truck in the Finnish army and a Zamboni to make a few extra bucks on the side before he finally won a starting job in the NHL. Even Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said about Luongo after Game 4 that "he's the second-best goaltender on the ice."

Yet Luongo shaved the playoff beard he'd been growing on the day off just ahead of Game 5, and if he wasn't noticeably quicker, at least he stopped spilling rebounds in front of his own net.

"Rebounds are a funny thing," Luongo said afterward. "Sometimes you're going to give them up and there's nothing you can do about it. It's a matter of how the puck hits you.

"Unfortunately, in Vancouver, every time there seemed there was one, it was in the net. Obviously, you don't want to give any up," he added, "but sometimes those things aren't in your control."

A day earlier, Chicago's division rival and frequent roadblock, the Detroit Red Wings, were eliminated by San Jose and that buoyed spirits all around town. With baseball's Cubs and White Sox already nose-diving in their respective divisions, an office building downtown has been leaving its lights on at night in the shape of the club's classic Indian head logo and even Mayor Richard Daley was spotted wearing a Blackhawks cap at a gun-control rally over the weekend.

Chicago knows only too well what happens to teams that take a breather at the wrong moment - witness the Cubs - and the Blackhawks promised that won't happen again. When someone suggested to Kris Versteeg that a return to Vancouver for Game 6 at least held out the consolation of added frequent-flier miles, he simply shook his head.

"Yeah," Versteeg said, "but I'm not a member of any programs."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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