Commentary

First-round breakdown: Canucks-Hawks

Updated: April 11, 2011, 12:30 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Maybe there are hockey gods, after all. The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks stewed all Sunday afternoon after losing to Detroit, then earned a backdoor route to the playoffs after Minnesota beat Dallas. The Hawks' first-round opponent: their old foes, the powerful Vancouver Canucks.

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville could barely contain himself late Sunday, saying he was like a kid at his first birthday party when he realized the Hawks were going back to the postseason.

"I can't express my jubilation," Quenneville said.

In much the same way the Washington Capitals made a mockery of the regular season in 2009-10, the Canucks were this season's 82-game juggernauts. They established franchise records for wins, points and road wins, while leading the league in goals allowed and goals scored. They also boasted the top-ranked power-play unit and the second-best penalty-killing unit. They are, on paper, unstoppable. Which is exactly where Washington was last postseason before it was humbled by Montreal in the first round.

Vancouver players have been saying all the right things about the regular season meaning nothing, but talk about drama to start what many believe will be a magical postseason for the Canucks, who face the team that ousted them the past two springs.


1. Paybacks: The Detroit Red Wings seemed to need to beat archrival Colorado before they went on to win back-to-back Cups in 1997 and 1998 (and two more in 2002 and 2008). It's not a stretch to view the Blackhawks as such an impediment to the Canucks, physically and mentally, given how Chicago dispatched Vancouver the past two postseasons.

There is a lot of debate about whether the Canucks feared this matchup as the regular season was winding down. In our minds, they should have been embracing it. Confront your demon.

The flip side is the Blackhawks know the pressure the Canucks are under and how they have beaten them in the past. They say knowledge is power, but in this case, knowing doesn't necessarily mean a three-peat.

Quenneville said having a playoff history raises the level of intensity between the two teams. "The rivalry becomes part of the culture," he said.

2. The real glimmer twins: It's almost to the point where you run out of superlatives for twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Or should we call them the Art Ross Twins? Or soon-to-be Hart Trophy Twins? Daniel Sedin took his turn this season, winning the scoring title with 104 points a year after Henrik earned the honor. There's a good chance Daniel will also follow Henrik in winning the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP.

The brothers combined for 198 points this season and make up two-thirds of the league's most dominant line. Their ability to cycle the puck in the offensive zone is without peer. Stopping the Sedins will be a full-time job, but one that must be completed if Chicago is to have any hope of an upset.

3. The national burden: So much has been made of the Canucks bearing the burden of a nation that has hungered for a Stanley Cup champion since Montreal won it all in 1993. The Canucks represent the country's best hope, but this is a team that hasn't reacted well to high expectations in recent years. Throw in the recent failings of Presidents' Trophy winners (Washington, Detroit and San Jose have all exited the playoffs early after being the top regular-season team since the lockout), and the pressure on this squad is enormous. We are curious to see how they respond to that first bit of adversity -- that first blown call, bad bounce or terrible goal.

4. A shadow of their former greatness?: While this matchup is familiar, the Blackhawks themselves aren't a mirror image of the squad that won the Cup last season. The offseason exodus of important role players, along with the loss of No. 1 netminder Antti Niemi, was felt in different ways at different points of the season and was a contributing factor to the Hawks' inability to lock down a playoff berth until the final moments of the regular season.

Offensively, they remain potent, ranking fourth in the NHL in goals per game and on the power play. On the other side of the puck, the team is less dynamic, ranking 12th in goals allowed per game and 25th on the penalty kill. More troubling has been the team's inability to put opponents away and blowing third-period leads; the Hawks were just 28-6-3 in games in which they led after the first period and 24th in efficiency at turning leads into wins. Repeating that kind of pattern in the playoffs will mean a quick ticket home, as the Canucks are 41-2-6 when scoring first and 38-0-3 when leading after two periods.

That means Chicago must get to Vancouver early as opposed to playing catch-up.

5. Mr. Luongo: If you're a glass half-full kind of person, you point to Roberto Luongo's turn at the 2010 Olympics as evidence that he can win the big game. If you are a glass half-empty kind of person, then you point to the fact he has never led a playoff team out of the second round. The game is always more than the play of one person. But with a team as good as this Canucks team is, any of Luongo's failings will be highlighted to the ninth degree as they were the past two postseasons when Chicago left Luongo in tears.

The Canucks netminder once again posted incredible regular-season numbers, tying for the league lead in wins and finishing fourth in save percentage and second in goals-against average. It is clear the Canucks will enjoy a large advantage over Chicago rookie Corey Crawford. Maybe this truly is not just the Canucks' year, but Luongo's year to shed all doubters. Maybe.


• The Sedins versus Chicago's defense: If the Sedin twins represent two of the top four or five skaters in the NHL, then stopping them will be Chicago's top priority. That means you can expect the Sedins to see a healthy dose of captain Jonathan Toews and plenty of Brent Seabrook and either Duncan Keith or Niklas Hjalmarsson. The other interesting factor will be the availability of Dave Bolland (concussion), who was so strong against the Sedins a year ago. It's unknown whether Bolland will be ready when the series starts, but if he does return, it increases the Hawks' chances of neutralizing the Sedins.


• Vancouver: When the Canucks looked like they might be buried under an avalanche of blue-line injuries, it was Christian Ehrhoff, a salary dump by San Jose a couple of years ago, that really stepped forward. Ehrhoff led all Canucks defensemen with 14 goals, six on the power play. If he can keep that production up, the Canucks could be a team of destiny. Ehrhoff also paced the team with an average ice time of 23:59.

• Chicago: Talk about gutsy. With the Hawks' season on the line this weekend in a home-and-home against Detroit, there was Patrick Sharp hobbling onto the ice as he hurried back from a knee injury. Although he missed eight games this season, Sharp finished with 34 goals to top the team in scoring. Will Sharp be mobile enough to help the Hawks as he did a year ago, when he had 11 goals and 11 assists in the playoffs? If he is, an upset isn't out of the question. Quenneville used Sharp with Toews and Marian Hossa in the last three games of the regular season.


• It won't be a popular pick, but I will stick with my preseason prediction that Chicago will return to the Stanley Cup finals. It starts now with a big upset of the Canucks. Blackhawks in seven.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.