It is commonly agreed throughout the hockey world that game four is the most crucial, most pivotal game of a playoff series. Sweeps are a rarity in today’s NHL, and as a result, after three games most series sit with one team enjoying a 2-1 lead. The team that wins game four will either put one team on the brink of elimination or knot up the series. One of these two scenarios will play out tonight in the bitterly contested series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks.
After soundly thrashing the Hawks 5-1 in Chicago in game one of the series, the Canucks immediately stole away home ice advantage, and had many proclaiming that their four line offensive attack was too much for the Hawks to handle.
Vancouver came back with more of the same early in game two, again seizing an early lead. However, this time around, rather than folding like a cheap tent, the Hawks showed their intestinal fortitude and scratched out a gritty, come-from-behind win that may ultimately prove to have been the difference in the series.
After the meltdown in game two Canucks fans were quick to point out that their team still had home ice advantage and the Hawks, who’d barely managed a win on home ice, would be in deep trouble once they entered the unfriendly confines of GM Place.
For the first few minutes of the game it seemed as though those prognosticators would be right. The Canucks stormed the Hawks out of the gate, and only a string of spectacular saves by Hawks’ keeper Antti Niemi kept the game scoreless in the early going. The Canucks were unable to maintain their frenzied attack, however, and when Kris Versteeg scored 5:19 in the wind seemed to go out of the sails of both the raucous crowd and the players themselves. Vancouver public enemy #1 – Dustin Byfuglien – scored a powerplay goal late in the first to stake the Hawks to a 2-0 lead. After that, the Canucks fought hard but could never seem to catch up, and when the dust finally settled the Hawks had a 5-2 victory, Byfuglien had a hat trick, and Canucks’ fans were left wondering if they were going to see yet another in a long string of post-season failures.
Leading into game four the Canucks’ players, to a man, seem determined not to let that happen. However, determination can only take a team so far. Execution and the ability to adapt are two other crucial elements that a team needs in order to be successful in the playoffs.
Priority number one for the Canucks is figuring out how to counter Chicago’s relentless net drive. Roberto Luongo was under siege all night long in game three, most notably by Byfuglien, who always seems to save his best stuff for the Canucks. Byfuglien isn’t the only Chicago forward causing headaches for Luongo though. Every single one of Chicago’s forwards, regardless of their size, has been driving the net with a ravenous hunger for loose pucks. Their grit and determination has been paying off, as Luongo has had a hard time holding onto pucks, and rebounds are there for the taking. The Vancouver defenders need to be more effective at boxing out the encroaching Blackhawk forwards earlier to give Luongo a better chance to corral pucks. This might be easier said than done in the case of big Dustin Byfuglien, but they should at least be able to keep smaller guys like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews from crashing the crease.
If they can’t manage to keep the Chicago forwards out of their own crease, then at the very least they should do their best to make Antti Niemi have to deal with the same headache that has been plaguing Luongo all series. Kesler, Burrows, Bernier and the Sedin twins have to start getting their noses a little dirtier, and figure out how to fight through the wall being put up by Chicago’s defenders and get to loose pucks in the crease.
The Canucks will also have to improve their special teams play, another key element that successful playoff teams share. Their powerplay has been ineffective so far, and at the other end, Chicago’s simple strategy of putting pucks and bodies to the net has been marvelously effective. If the Canucks can’t at least equal the Hawks’ special teams play then the uphill climb they face will begin to look more like a trek to the top of Kilimanjaro.
In my opinion, whoever wins the game tonight will ultimately win the series. If the Hawks go up 3-1 they’ll have all the momentum and have a chance of closing out the series in game 5 at home. If the Canucks can square the series at 2 then they steal the momentum from the Hawks. They nearly won both games at the United Center, and if they can get some of their swagger back with a game four victory they’d have to feel pretty good going back to Chicago.
However it pans out you can bet that tonight is going to be one of the most entertaining games of the playoffs to date. Both teams know what’s at stake here, and neither team is going to give an inch in this rivalry that is quickly shaping up to be one of the best in professional sports.