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Hawks to face a different Canucks team

VANCOUVER -- Let’s get something straight right off the bat: The Chicago Blackhawks are going up against a juggernaut in the 2010-2011 version of the Vancouver Canucks.

There might be parity in the NHL these days but the Canucks stand out above the rest. You need proof?

No team since expansion in 1967 has led the league in goals scored while also being the stingiest in goals against. The Canucks did it this season. Those aren’t some ancillary statistics. Scoring and preventing goals are the whole point of the game!

Their power-play and penalty-killing units are deadly and they led the league in faceoff percentage to boot. Is there anything they’re not good at?

They had a lot of these qualities the past two years, however, and still got bounced in the postseason by the Hawks. Their leadership wasn’t in order. Once addressed, the Canucks did the one thing they had to do to get to the next level and there is no reason to think it won’t happen in the playoffs: they found discipline. They went from 26 to 13 in penalty minutes incurred per game this year.

In homes Games 3 and 4 last postseason, the Canucks took a total of 16 minor penalties and two 10-minute misconducts while giving up five power-play goals. That was the series in a nutshell. Defenseman Shane O’Brien took three penalties plus one of the misconducts. He was subsequently shipped out.

After Game 3 last season, coach Alain Vigneault was at a loss for words as to why his team was taking bad penalties.

“I really don’t have an answer for that,” Vigneault said in May. “I really believe this group is ready for this time. Ready for this moment but obviously our actions right now are proving me wrong.”

But the Canucks have addressed those issues since being bounced and while not saying it outright, Vigneault was more than intimating how they’ve changed.

“I believe if you learn from the past there is a good chance the future will be different,” he said on Tuesday. “We have proven a lot of things in the regular season about the experiences we have learned in the past and now it's our turn to prove it in the playoffs.”

When I asked if that included taking bad penalties he responded, “there is a whole bunch of things. Some of them we’ve learned from the good things that we’ve done to keep doing them. Some other things that we needed to improve I think we’ve addressed.”

Translation: the Canucks won’t take the bad ones anymore. Ryan Kesler said as much as did other players. The Hawks are going to have to win this fair and square, but can they?

Being happy to squeak into the playoffs has to quickly change to wanting to keep playing in them. It means the work ethic has to start high, not build for later in the series. It could be too late then.

“For us we feel like it’s a blessing to be in the playoffs and to get the break we got on the last day of the regular season,” Jonathan Toews stated. “I don’t know, there is something about that which is going to keep us loose. We’re all fresh, we’re rejuvenated and ready to go.”

Loose is fine, careless is not. There is a fine line. When presented with the “just happy to be there” mentality, Joel Quenneville squashed it.

“I don’t think that’s around,” he said. “Absolutely not. We’re not going that route. We should feel fortunate and take advantage of it.”

There is little doubt forward Dave Bolland becomes the “X” factor in the series and if he can’t contribute on some level the Hawks have little chance of winning. Even if healthy enough to play there is no guarantee he can do to the Sedin twins what he did last postseason, but at least it gives the Hawks a fighting chance.

With or without Bolland, the Hawks haven’t proven they can sustain a high level of play for very long anyway. Maybe they were waiting for this day to come to turn it back on but until they prove it, it’s hard to predict it will happen.

The one thing going for them in this series is the matchup. The Canucks let the Hawks skate and play their style. It’s proven a winner in the past and not just past postseasons. Everyone acknowledges these are different teams but no one should forget the Hawks outplayed the Canucks in two games this season in Vancouver. They like it here.

A favorable matchup might not be enough though. Not with Bolland’s shaky status. The Hawks have every right to prove me wrong but the Canucks will take this series. How many games it takes doesn’t really matter but before anyone declares anything definitively, you must remember this is the NHL, and upsets are as much the norm as the exception.

“There is no time to waste,” Toews said. “You get to the playoffs and anything can happen.”

The Hawks wasted a lot during the first 82 games, after sneaking into the postseason, wasting anymore would be a shame.