Following their 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3, the Canucks have essentially one option in Game 4: Win.
Although the Minnesota Wild managed to come from behind twice in one playoff run while down three games to one (against the Colorado Avalanche and our beloved Canucks), it is the exception, not the rule in the NHL. Very few teams are able to win 3 straight games in a series, particularly when the opposition has dominated them in the early going. Already having lost the ability to claw home ice advantage away from the Blackhawks, much more is at stake tonight in Game 4. The Canucks, who owned one of the leagues best home records (30-8-3) during the regular season, are finding it much more difficult to win at home in the post-season. Unfortunately, with 3 games in books already, many fans can’t help feelings of deja vu from their series with the Hawks from last season. Vancouver won Game 1, were up 2-0 early in Game 2, but lost the lead, lost momentum while Chicago gained it, and went on to play from behind the rest of the series. With these “sinking feelings” (as Team 1040 Radio polled listeners about yesterday), I want to examine 4 crucial aspects of Game 4.
Defensive match-ups: Alain Vigneault already has his hands full matching his forwards against the suddenly gritty, physical Hawks. Therefore, Rick Bowness’ value to the team is immeasurable right now, as he will try to adjust to the Hawks crashing style of attack. The defenders down low have been losing a lot of the one-on-one battles in the corners, and that has to be corrected if Vancouver has any hope remaining in this series. Three of the Hawk goals were scored because Canuck defenders either couldn’t keep pace with, or physically handle the forecheckers. It’s glaringly apparent that Vancouver cannot keep Chicago forwards from going hard to the net, nor do much about it when they have done it, so it’s key to limit the opportunities where the puck gets to the net, with more than one Hawk in front of Luongo. This all starts by keeping the puck from getting there, with the board-play being the catalyst for that.
Offensive zone net presence: Canucks fans can complain till they’re blue in the face about Chicago not getting called for goaltender interference, but it won’t change referee’s minds. I’m also not certain about Vigneault’s seeming change of heart on the matter; for whatever reason, the refereeing seems to favor the Hawks thus far in the series. Though I thoroughly believe they need more traffic in front of Niemi, I feel Vancouver’s luck would dictate penalty calls against them should they try Chicago’s pushing and shoving ways. But Niemi is getting far too good of looks at the puck when Canucks get them through (more on this in a moment), and that MUST change. You would be hard-pressed to find any proof from Game 3 that the Canucks have established the same presence around the net that they thrived on during the regular season. Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and Steve Bernier need to get closer to the blue paint for the Canucks to stand a chance tonight of evening the series.
Getting shots through to the net: Particularly is this vital on their suffering powerplay. It’s hard to recall a time when the Canucks had so few shots make it through on goal. Perhaps it comes down to the Blackhawks wanting it more, but there are Hawks laying down, crouching, going to one knee and even putting their hands out to block shots. I’m not aware of any exasperation on Sami Salo’s part, but there should be. On multiple power-play opportunities, he’s only been able to get the odd wrist-shot on net. His inability to get off that cannonade from the point exemplifies Vancouver’s frustrated attempts on goal. I recognize that the forecheckers are getting to the point in a hurry, but that’s where they need to utilize the fein shot or to fake a pass; anything to buy an extra second to step around and let it off. No shots through, no goals. Because Chicago is very proactive going after the point men, it’s imperative they try to set up more along the half-wall, which eventually should open up room for the point shots, or the down low play.
Luongo’s rebound control: Serveral of the Canucks’ gaffes have occurred when Luongo hasn’t been able to seize control of a loose puck in front of him. No, he isn’t to blame for the puck getting there in the first place, but for some reason he’s not exhibiting that same type of control that helped make him a star. Anttii Niemi should not be outplaying Luongo in this series, but some are stating that he already has. The Blackhawks are purposefully trying to get Luongo to go down, because they feel that is when he is most vulnerable. Of course, most goaltenders are more prone when they’re off their feet, but with the damage the Hawks are doing when Roberto is off his, the signs are clear. Asking Luongo for more than two consecutive saves when he’s committed to playing off his feet is asking for a lot.
The Vancouver Canucks will need to play tonight like their playoff lives are on the line, because the numbers don’t lie: Teams that go down three games to one in the Stanley Cup playoffs are usually golfing within the week. If the above 4 keys aren’t implemented, you might spot one of the Canucks at your local golf course after the weekend.