On this spectacular spring day in the nation’s capital I saw the sun rise as I awaited the opening of my gym. It was a deeply spiritual moment — I was mere hours removed from the final horn of a gloriously tormenting Penguins’ playoff defeat. But then I thought ahead to Tuesday’s remarkable television challenge: starting my day with a rigorous 90-minute sweat on gym equipment, how in my middle-aged world am I going to make it past period one of tonight’s Hawks-Canucks game 7, which commences at 10:00? And what if it goes into overtime?
Typically I’m a passive observer of the Western conference’s opening round matchups. For one thing, the Caps typically exhaust my energy with their springtime high drama in Eastern time zone starts, leaving me with little in the tank to follow West Coast affairs. But this Hawks-’Nucks series has me seriously sucked in. I may Red Bull it around 9:30 tonight.
The central storyline for me in this series extends far beyond this year’s President’s Trophy winner potentially out-gagging last year’s. With apologies in advance, you’ll recall that last year’s Capitals became the first ever no. 1 seed to lose an opening round series after securing a 3-1 lead in games. This year, the Canucks are trying to one-up the Caps in postseason infamy.
Selfishly, we ought to welcome it.
The Hawks of course are the reigning Cup champions, but young general manager Stan Bowman looked anything but Scotty-like as he jettisoned key support components from his Cup-winning club last summer, in dire acts of cap compliance. They limped into the Western conference’s eighth seed this spring. There was no swagger whatsoever to their Cup defense. The Canucks came to Washington back on January 14 and were never seriously challenged by the in-transition Caps in a 4-2 game. I watched that game from on high in Verizon Center with my new media colleagues and joined them in unanimous assessment: Washington wanted no part of this Canucks club this season. And so I picked the Canucks to sweep the Hawks in round one this month, and a week ago that forecast looked like something I should have taken to Vegas.
But then Dave Bolland returned to Chicago’s lineup for game 4, and this series hasn’t been the same since:
- The Hawks are hitting
- The Sedins are shrinking
- The uber goalie is gagging
- Alain Vigneault looks like he’d rather be coaching hockey in the Middle East. If he loses tonight, he might be.
Now here’s where the fun really starts with this series for me. The Hawks of course have bested Vancouver in each of the previous two springs. Prior to this spring, the matchups came in the Western conference’s second round. This year of course it’s no.1 vs. no. 8. There’s clearly a referendum on the Vancouver organization with this third straight postseason matchup with the Hawks, with President’s Cup pedigree (or is it curse?) engulfing the Whale. There’s a real feud forging that always happens with the NHL postseason whenever two organizations are frequently pitted against one another — and especially when it’s lopsided in outcome and the expectations for the vanquished are annually significant.
Remind you of any other postseason rivalry of the past?
Should Chicago pull off the unimaginable tonight — win a fourth straight over the West’s no. 1 seed, with a watered down lineup relative to what they triumphed with last spring — wouldn’t we in Washington have, at long last, a new template for postseason fanbase terror, a new benchmark for perpetual postseason underachievement? Wouldn’t we have a new poster child for playoff choking? Losing a bunch of 2-0 and 3-1 series leads against you know who is intergenerationally wretched to be sure, but the Caps never gagged on a 3-0 burst of series opening dominance. And like the Caps, the Canucks have never won a Cup (although they did force a game 7 against the Rags in ’94).
Should they prevail tonight, wouldn’t the Hawks be the Pittsburgh postseason party-pooper to the Whale as Washington? (And shouldn’t it mean the demise of Mr. Bettman’s trophy?) And wouldn’t Vancouver, unlike Washington in all of our Pittsburgh-perpetrated agongy of the past, burn down late tonight if that happened? I don’t know if Vancouver even has a CFL team, but if they do, they surely don’t care about them with a scintilla of the passion they do for the Whale.
Yesterday I surveyed 20 members of the hockey media here from print, broadcast, and new, and I could find only six who picked the Whale to win tonight (I was one of them). I found that astounding. The Hawks will have had to win four straight games against a 117-pt. club — all of them elimination games! Vigneault, the mastermind behind the Canucks’ remarkable goaltender drama, was already ghost-white at the conclusion of game 6 Sunday; what might his complexion be tonight if the clock winds down and Chicago has done in his squad again?
Must-see TV . . . even for the middle-aged and morning-ed gym weary.
I will have to keep pried open my eyelids with toothpicks tonight to take it all in. Should Chicago pull off one of the all-time great NHL postseason comebacks — and I think get us in D.C. a bit off the hook in the process — we’ll have reality TV that’s really real: a heavy Canadian reckoning in hockey in spring.
Postscript: Today’s National Post weighs in on the plight of the Canucks. A loss tonight would represent “the worst collapse in team sports history, or thereabouts,” claims columnist Bruce Arthur.