VANCOUVER – The faces of some of the foes may have changed but the dislike remains the same as the Vancouver Canucks prepare to play the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.
Some of the more vilified Blackhawks are gone from the team that has eliminated Vancouver from the NHL playoffs the last two seasons. But just the sight of the defending Stanley Cup champions will raise the temperature of most Canucks.
“We still have an intense rivalry against them,” defenceman Kevin Bieksa said after Vancouver’s practice Friday. “There’s definitely still that hate and that bitterness between the two teams.
“It will make for another good game.”
Chicago has knocked Vancouver out of the second round of the playoffs the last two seasons, winning both series 4-2. The Blackhawks beat the Canucks three times in their own building last May by a combined score of 17-7.
“We know what they did last year,” said centre Ryan Kesler. “It’s a team we still have pretty vivid memories of.”
Salary cap considerations resulted in a shakeup of the Hawks roster over the summer. Among the players no longer with the team is Dustin Byfuglien—the player Vancouver fans liked to hate the most—Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, Kris Versteeg, Adam Burish and goaltender Anti Niemi.
“The crest is still the same,” snorted Canuck goaltender Roberto Luongo. “That’s what you look at.”
Feisty forward Alex Burrows, who can trash talk in both official languages, sees a positive in the changing of the Chicago personnel.
“I’m sure I will make some new friends,” Burrows said with a grin.
Even the new Canucks have reason to dislike Chicago.
Defenceman Dan Hamhuis was a member of the Nashville Predators who lost to the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs.
“It was a pretty emotional series,” said Hamhuis, who signed with Vancouver as a free agent July 1. “I probably fit in the same boat of a lot of guys here.
“We have something we want to prove against Chicago and we are looking to do that.”
This will be Chicago’s first visit to Rogers Arena this season. The Blackhawks won the first meeting of the teams, beating the Canucks 2-1 in a shootout at the United Center on Oct. 20.
Beating the Blackhawks may be important to the Canucks physiologically, but practically Vancouver wants to get back on the winning track.
The Canucks have just returned from a five-game road trip where they lost the last two games to finish 2-2-1.
The Canucks’ 10-5-3 record leaves them first in the Northwest Division with 23 points. Heading into Friday night’s play, Vancouver was just two points out of first place in the Western Conference, but also just two from ninth.
Chicago’s record was 10-9-2 for 22 points heading into their game Friday night against Calgary.
On the recent road trip Vancouver trailed 2-0, four times.
“A lot of people think we are playing really well,” said speedy forward Mason Raymond. “I do think we are playing OK, but we’re not really satisfied.
“We are first (in the division) but it can change overnight. We could be out of the playoffs that fast. We have to move forward and get the wins and get some space between us and the division.”
Twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin lead the Canucks in scoring with 24 points. Daniel is the team’s goal-scoring leader with 12 while Kesler has nine.
Grinder Raffi Torres has seven goals, but five of those came in a three-game span. In the last six games he’s managed just one assist.
Burrows, who led the Canucks with 35 goals last year, missed training camp and the first 10 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery. He has one goal and an assist in eight games.
“It’s a process,” he said about regaining his scoring touch. “It takes a few games, some time. Not being around at the start of the year has shown some impact.
“I didn’t kid myself coming out of the gate that I would be a (Steven) Stamkos out there, scoring every game. I have to stick to the process, be positive and work every day. I know how good I want to be.”
Luongo has shown flashes of brilliance some nights and been average others.
He has a 7-7 record. His 2.69 goals against average ranks him 16th among goalies who have played in 10 or more games while his .913 save percentage leaves him 14th.
“We feel we can be playing some better hockey,” said Luongo. “We are making strides in the right direction.”