Right now, in two hotels in two different cities, about 50 NHLers are doing a lot of soul-searching. As members of the Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals, their seasons are very close to ending – and they’re not ready to stop playing hockey just yet.
In both cases, a series has slipped away. The reasons therein are different, however.
For the Canucks, who will go into the raucous United Center to take on the Chicago Blackhawks Monday, reverting to bad old habits has backed Vancouver into a 3-2 corner.
The conventional wisdom that a young, peppy Hawks team would be no match for Vancouver has now soured, much as the same wisdom that dictated Chicago would lose to Calgary in the first round did when that failed to come through.
Far from being rattled, it is the Blackhawks doing the rattling against Vancouver - and for the Canucks to reverse the trend they must escape their own defensive mindset.
Vancouver was outshot 31-21 in Game 5, putting just 10 pucks toward Hawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin in the final two periods combined. The Nucks also took six minor penalties to Chicago’s two in that span, meaning they didn’t exactly give themselves an out.
This was preceded by a 2-1 overtime loss in Game 4 when even the most novice hockey fan realized the Canucks tried sitting on a lead instead of building on it, ultimately letting the game (and perhaps the series) slip away in a matter of minutes. Vancouver has the horses to put offense up on the board, but mindset is going to be crucial: Is this a team content to let goalie Roberto Luongo do the heavy lifting, while the offense hopes for a 2-1 victory? It didn’t do much for them last year when they missed the playoffs altogether.
But if this is a team that cycles with the Sedins, performs on the power play and gets a goal from a Steve Bernier, Ryan Kesler or Mason Raymond, the last Canadian team standing will have a new lease on life.
A little bit east in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals are also wondering what went wrong. If anything, their road should have gotten easier in Game 4, when Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar was knocked out of commission (knee) by Alex Ovechkin. But the Gonchar incident has been more curse that luck, as the Caps have been snake-bitten ever since.
Game 4 was a damning indictment of Washington’s defensive shortcomings, especially with lead dog Mike Green being torched on nearly every Pittsburgh goal. The follow-up contest was better, but still led to a Penguins victory in overtime, where Washington looked to be a step behind Pittsburgh in the energy department.
Let’s revisit that statement: A team with Ovechkin on it coming out behind on energy? Blasphemous, but true.
Regardless of your opinions on penalties in overtime, Washington’s Milan Jurcina was forced to haul down Evgeni Malkin when the Russian dynamo could not be contained, which led to No. 71’s overtime-winner that deflected in off Tom Poti’s stick.
Fast hockey becomes opportunistic hockey and that is what the Penguins have played. For Washington to steal a game at Mellon Arena and book a Game 7 back home, they must snap out of their funk and realize skating hard and putting the Pens on their heels is what got Washington a 2-0 series lead that seems ancient right now.
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Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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