Blackhawks' Cup about to run dry
This season's team never could find its swagger -- and it's nearly out of time
CHICAGO -- Same building, same feeling of confidence and invincibility, same eventual result for the better team in Saturday's case for the hometown Chicago Bulls, and in Sunday's case for the visiting Vancouver Canucks.
The Chicago Blackhawks would debate the issue and did so fairly convincingly for the first period and a half of their Game 3 Western Conference quarterfinal at the United Center. But they lost the argument and, for all intents and purposes, the game and possibly the series in a matter of 54 seconds as first Christian Ehrhoff, on a power play and then Daniel Sedin scored to give Vancouver a 2-1 lead midway through the second.
Neither was the winning goal for the Canucks. Mikael Samuelsson, who missed Game 2, would take care of that seven minutes into the third period on a second rebound off Hawks' goalie Corey Crawford for the final 3-2 margin and a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 series lead.
But in the first period, with a 5-on-3 Hawks' advantage, and particularly in the second, when seemingly good shot after good shot was turned away by Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo, the Canucks flexed their superior muscle and momentum shifted for good.
"We had two huge chances there [in the first] and the goaltender makes two huge saves," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. "Sometimes it just doesn't go in."
Even before then, however, there was never a convincing swagger on the part of the Blackhawks, arguably not since the Stanley Cup banner ceremony back in October, when the concern was that they not rest on their laurels this season.
Trouble was, they were never imposing enough to do that, backing into the playoffs exactly one week earlier and now, allowing this year's winner of the President's Trophy to push them around.
Sunday night, still playing without Dave Bolland and Tomas Kopecky, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville shuffled his deck considerably, moving Ben Smith to his top line with Toews and Patrick Kane, putting Patrick Sharp with Troy Brouwer and Marcus Kruger, and Marian Hossa with Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg.
While it wasn't with quite the sense of futility that would come of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, it had a similarly fruitless result.
Duncan Keith would score for the Hawks five seconds into their first power play on a 56-foot slapshot to give them a 1-0 lead, their first advantage in the series and their first power-play goal in six tries against the Canucks this postseason.
It also gave hope to desperate Hawks fans that maybe this was a signal that the team's stars -- to that point pointless (save for a secondary assist by Kane) -- were finally ready to impose their Cup-winning will.
When Canucks bad boy Raffi Torres -- just back from a four-game suspension for a head-hunting hit on Edmonton's Jordan Eberle -- drew his second penalty for clobbering Brent Seabrook with another scary blow to the head and the Hawks quickly capitalized with a goal by Sharp off an assist from Toews to make it 2-2, there was a vague hope perhaps that the Hawks had a chance on this night.
"Somebody else would have been on a stretcher," Quenneville said of Seabrook's grit.
But with Vancouver's five penalty kills and 30 saves by Luongo, there was only one team in the building that was strutting championship-type stuff in the end, and it was not the home team.
"I think we have more to give," said Sharp in a quiet Hawks' dressing room.
There was also still a measure of pride on the part of their captain when asked if the team the Hawks had eliminated from the postseason in each of the last two years was simply a more difficult opponent this time around.
"I mean, that's the thing," Toews said, and you could almost wring the bitterness from his words. "Everybody wants to look at the stats all year and talk about what they do well and how good of a team they are and that's what's frustrating, because we're not exposing them for what they really are. And I think a lot of people outside of this locker room are giving them too much credit and maybe we are as well.
"We know that we can be a better team than them. We just haven't shown it yet. . . .That's what's frustrating, that we can't show what we're capable of as a team right now."
Can't, not won't.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.