VANCOUVER – With their confidence bruised and their conviction being questioned, the Vancouver Canucks boarded a flight to Chicago on Friday for a playoff game they hoped wouldn’t be necessary.
The Canucks thought they had their NHL Western Conference quarter-final series against the Blackhawks on ice after taking a 3-0 lead. But after being thrashed in consecutive elimination games the Canucks are trying to avoid one of the most embarrassing meltdowns in the team’s history.
“We have to settle down as a team,” said Canuck captain Henrik Sedin, who hasn’t recorded a point in two games.
“We haven’t played up to our potential in the last two games and we know that. We are going to make a few changes.”
Vancouver still leads the series 3-2 and can finally kick the Blackhawks to the curb with a win Sunday (CBC, 7:30 p.m. ET).
Centre Ryan Kesler said the Canucks need to finish off the Hawks in Chicago. He doesn’t want to return to Vancouver for a Game 7 on Tuesday night.
“We are playing this like a Game 7,” said Kesler, who had 41 goals during the season but hasn’t scored in the playoffs.
“We are going to play like we are playing for our lives. We are going to throw it all on the table.”
The warm sense of certainty Canuck fans felt last week has been replaced by cold anxiety and shaken nerves following Vancouver’s humiliating 5-0 loss Thursday night at Rogers Arena. That came on the heels of a 7-2 thumping Tuesday in Chicago.
In two games the Blackhawks outscored Vancouver 12-5. Goaltender Roberto Luongo, who watched the end of both matches from the bench, has allowed 10 goals on 40 shots.
“They came out and took it to us,” said Luongo, who turned up at the airport with his playoff beard shaven off.
“It’s just about us playing our game and making sure we are ready right off the hop.”
It didn’t take long after Thursday’s loss for callers to radio sports programs, and some members of the media, to suggest backup Cory Schneider should get the start for Vancouver in Game 6.
Coach Alain Vigneault made it clear Luongo, a Vezina Trophy finalist, will be in net Sunday.
“Roberto is the guy,” said Vigneault. “He’s our goaltender.
“He’s been there in the great times for us. We expect him to play real well.”
The Canucks rolled into the playoffs riding the enthusiasm of the best season in franchise history.
Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy for being the top team in the league. The club set franchise records for 54 wins, 117 points and 27 road victories. The Canucks scored more goals than any team in the league and allowed the fewest.
Daniel Sedin led the league in scoring with 41 goals and 63 assists for 104 points.
To beat the eighth-seeded Blackhawks in the first round would be sweet revenge. The defending Stanley Cup champions have knocked the Canucks out of the second round of the playoffs the last two seasons.
Dreams of a Stanley Cup parade have been replaced by the nightmare of a first-round upset.
The Canucks started the series playing a hard-hitting physical game. The retooled defence cleared space in front of the goal so Luongo had a clear view of shots. The forecheckers prevented the best Hawk players from controlling the puck.
That began to unravel in Game 4. The Hawks are gaining the middle of the ice. They are backing the defence back onto Luongo. There’s traffic in the crease.
“They are outworking us,” said forward Raffi Torres. “They’re beating us one-on-one.
“You’re not going to beat a team like that, that’s flying and really confident, if you don’t compete.”
Mike Gillis, the Canuck general manager, said his team has to regroup and refocus.
“Our best players haven’t been our best players the last couple of games,” said Gillis.
“We have been confident all year in our team and confident they will step up here and be our best players. If they are, we have beaten every good team in this league. That’s what I am looking forward too.”
Perception can sometimes be reality in sports. The Blackhawks are still in a hole, yet momentum seems to have swung their way.
“We are all working hard, we are on the same page,” said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews.
“We are finding a way to expose them, and force them to make mistakes. The more you do that, the more chances you get. We have confidence now compared to those first three games.”
Only three teams in NHL playoff history have trailed 3-0 and managed to win a series. The Philadelphia Flyers did it last year, overcoming a 3-0 deficit to beat the Boston Bruins.
“It’s tough to win four straight in any series,” said Hawk defenceman Brian Campbell.
“That’s what we have to try and do now. We believe in ourselves. It’s a challenge. You look at it over the years and it doesn’t happen a lot. We will give it a good shot and see where it goes.”
The Canucks have two chances to win one game. The odds are in their favour.
Henrik Sedin doesn’t want to test fate in a Game 7.
“We should treat (Sunday) as a must win,” he said. “We can’t go there and think we are going to get another chance at home.
“We want to finish them off.”