Thursday, April 28, 2011

Five reasons to root for the Canucks

As a lifelong Blackhawks fan, the team's having been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Vancouver Canucks was not exactly what I hoped for. Yet as a hockey fan, with the exception of the outcome, the series exceeded my wildest expectations. It had everything one could hope for, magnificent skill and speed, big hits, raw emotion, good guys and bad guys (depending on which side you were on), failure and redemption, and most of all, high drama. It ended in perhaps the most compelling and exciting scenario in all of sports, sudden death overtime in game seven of a hockey playoff series, the entire season on the line, everything hinging on one goal, the next one.

In the end, certainly everyone must agree that the better team won. The Canucks ended the season with the best record in the NHL. The Hawks finishing with a respectable record, nonetheless stumbled into the playoffs. Yet in the first round of the playoffs, the Blackhawks played with grit, determination and heart, and came within an eyelash of stealing the series. I think it will go down in history as one of the greatest playoff series of all time, it was the kind of stuff upon which legends are made.

As with all good rivalries, there is much to dislike about the opponent. After game seven, Vancouver's star forward Daniel Sedin claimed that the Hawks probably didn't "deserve" to make it as far as the seventh game of the series. An interesting comment given the fact that over the course of the series, the Hawks outscored the Canucks 21 to 16. Sedin's remarks may have been born out of personal frustration as together with his linemate and identical twin Henrick, the Sedins finished the series with a pathetic combined minus 13 rating.*

By contrast, the stars of the series for Vancouver, Alexandre Burrows who scored both goals for his team in the final game, Ryan Kesler, who set up Burrows' first goal and held Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews in check throughout most of the series, and their much maligned goaltender, Roberto Luongo, who made the most important save of the series by stopping Patrick Sharp's point blank shot in overtime of game seven, all were generous in their post series comments about their worthy opponents.

Some sports fans feel compelled to root for the team that beats their team so they can at least say: "we were beaten by the champs". For me personal bias usually gets in the way, but not this year. I'll be rooting for the Canucks to win the Stanley Cup. Here are five reasons why:

  1. The better team won. The NHL is often criticized for being the easiest league in professional sports to make it into the post-season. Back in hockey's "golden era", when there were only six teams, four of them made it into the playoffs. An entire season was devoted to eliminating two teams. Today, a slightly smaller percentage of teams get into the post-season, and in the Western Conference, the team with the worst record to make the playoffs, the Blackhawks, finished the regular season with a respectable 44 wins, 29 losses and 9 ties. The Canucks on the other hand had the best record in the entire league, and for credibility's sake, it would be nice if the team with the best record could win it all. It seldom happens.
  2. Oh Canada. Ice hockey is Canada's game. The NHL is composed primarily of Canadian players, yet only 6 of the 30 teams in the league are based in Canadian cities. The Montreal Canadiens were the last team from north of the border to win the Cup and that was way back in 1993. The Canuck's next opponent are the Predators from of all places, Nashville. Give me a break. Montreal by the way was eliminated last night, and all the other Canadian teams have been on the golf course for the last two weeks. I think it's about time that Canada took back the Cup.
  3. Roberto Luongo. Hockey goalies are special people. As an old radio commercial for the Blackhawks put it: "The puck is flying at you at over 100 miles per hour. Not only do you have to see it, you have to stop it." As a goaltender, your team, your city, and in Luongo's case your entire country's hopes all rest upon your super-human reflexes. And Roberto Luongo is one of the best in the business. But he has one achilles heel, he succumbs to pressure in big games, especially it seems against the Blackhawks. In other words, despite all his hard work and God given talents, he's human like the rest of us. Despite being shaky in the series, even terrible at times, in the end, under more pressure than anyone of us could ever possibly imagine, he came through and made that great save against Sharp. Am I a fan of his? I am now.
  4. The Pathos Factor. What do an animal in distress, a drunk person walking face first into a building, and the 2003 Chicago Cubs have in common? They are all pathetic images that no decent person should be forced to witness. The good people of Vancouver have been chomping at the bit for three years now to defeat the Blackhawks. This year the Canucks won the first three games of the series and looked like a shoe-in for crushing their long time adversary. That is until their hopes all but crashed and burned when the Hawks came storming back in the series and forced the Canucks to the brink Tuesday night. Had the Canucks lost, their collapse would have been of dare I say, of biblical proportions.
  5. Let the Rivalry Begin. It takes two to make any good rivalry. Up until this week, the Canuck/Blackhawk rivalry was one sided, we were their rivals, they were our lap dogs. Not any more. If the Canucks were hungrier than the Hawks this season, next year will be another story. As the Blackhawks found out, it's tough to be champion, every team brings it A game against you. Even the best teams have only so many A games a season. If the Canucks win the Cup, they'll find that out next year.
I can't wait.

*The difference between the number of goals scored for and against a player's team while that player is on the ice.

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