This Time Things Are Different…

Jonathan Willis
April 08 2011 06:01PM

The Canucks first-round opponent has yet to be determined, and given the congestion at the bottom end of the Western Conference playoff race anything is possible. However, for the past few days it has looked like an old foe might be their opponent in the post-season’s opening stanza, as the Chicago Blackhawks have settled into eighth in the conference.

The Blackhawks, last season’s Stanley Cup champion, are no strangers to the Canucks. The two teams have met each other in the second round of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, with the Blackhawks knocking the Canucks out in six games on both occasions.

Because of that playoff history, and the fact that the Blackhawks are a much better team than is typically found in the final playoff spot (they sit third in the West in terms of goal differential), I expected the typical Canucks fan to be hoping for a different matchup in the first round. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Take my father as an example: a Canucks fan from the early, early days of the franchise, he relishes a playoff rematch between the two squads. He isn’t alone either. A poll conducted earlier today at ‘Nucks Misconduct showed the Blackhawks were the second most popular first round opponent among voters (behind the inferior and likely to be eliminated Dallas Stars).

I can understand that reaction. Fans have confidence in this team. They believe it to be the best in the NHL. And while I’m sure Mike Gillis hopes for the easiest possible matchup early, the fact is that the dynamics of the relationship between the Blackhawks and Canucks have changed.

In 2008-09, the Canucks were the higher seed and got home ice by virtue of their divisional win, but they never should have been regarded as the favourites. Not only was the season series tied, but the ‘Hawks finished the regular season with more wins (46 vs. 45), more points (104 vs. 100) and a vastly superior goal differential (plus-48 vs. plus-26). Their win over Vancouver was not an upset.

It was a similar story in 2009-10. This time Chicago had the higher seed and home ice, with three more wins and nine more points than Vancouver. The Canucks were a strong team; they had tied the season series with Chicago, and their goal differential (plus-50) was impressive, if not quite up to the Blackhawks’ number, a Western Conference-best plus-62.

The playoff battles were close in both years, with both teams recording lopsided wins, and the Blackhawks narrowly outscoring Vancouver. In each time, the team that had performed better during the regular season (Chicago) was victorious.

Although the Blackhawks remain a strong team, with more in common with the Western Conference leaders than the laggards, they’re the clear underdogs in a series against the Canucks.  For the first time in three seasons, Vancouver has a slight edge in the season series, with two wins, one loss and one shootout loss. Vancouver also has an edge of 20 points and 10 wins on the Blackhawks, and while Chicago’s plus-32 goal differential puts them in the league’s upper echelon, they aren’t close to Vancouver’s incredible plus-76.

In short, there are two ways of looking at a potential Vancouver/Chicago playoff clash. The first way to look at it is that the ‘Hawks have beat the Canucks in consecutive seasons. The other way, the more favourable way from a Vancouver perspective, is that the better regular season team won both matchups.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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