An Unbearably Long Road

The question rolling around in your mind as well as everyone’s else is simple: can Vancouver win their series with Los Angeles? Of course they can. But will they? Not a chance.

For one thing, there’s the odds and the unlikelihood of it. You’ve seen the stats by now a bunch of times. A hat trick of times, spread out by 35 years each, it has happened that a team has come from 0-3 to win a series. It probably just seems more likely than it is because it last happened in 2010, Philly versus Boston. That series, you recall, saw a smug Bruins team let the Flyers back in it, and once they had a bite, they never quit.

Their fortunes after, of course, were to go to the Finals and lose. But remember, they pulled their upset in round two, not round one. Exhaustion had not yet set in, and the momentum carried them from the second round onwards. So even if Vancouver manages to pull this off, it’s not going to mean much, because by the time another series and another drags on, they’ll be pretty beat. But wait, we’re ahead here. I’ve just said there’s no way they’re getting out of this round.

In another sport, Boston wasn’t supposed to come back against the Yankees either, and they did, in the playoffs of 2004. So it can happen. Will it?

From the Vancouver side, no. They haven’t proven themselves in any area of the game in their three contests against the Kings. The power play, in particular, has been a disaster. They’ve had the fourth-most chances with the extra man thus far of all 16 post-season teams, and they’ve scored zero goals. None.

And penalties have been their bug-bear the other direction. They have given up 20 chances, second only to Phoenix’s 21, and they’ve been scored on three times. Granted, that percentage doesn’t rank terribly high, but if the stats catch up with them, they’re in trouble. Most NHL teams are happy to kill off 80 percent of their penalties. In the playoffs, this might extend a couple of percentages. Vancouver, though, is just at the halfway mark in terms of PK rankings thus far in the post-season in terms of rankings amongst the teams.

Contrast this to the last time the two teams met in the playoffs. It was 2010, and the Canucks were horrible on their PK, allowing the Kings a stunning 38.5% effectiveness. The trouble was, that was all LA could do, and they lost the series eventually in six games. The scoring pace was furious, with the Canucks pouring in six goals in game four and then seven goals in game five to take a 3-2 series lead. The first two contests had both gone to OT, the teams splitting those in Vancouver.

This time, of course, the key difference is in the LA net. That series, the Kings averaged three goals but gave up 4.17. The only other team even close was Ottawa, which gave up four per game, but those numbers don’t mean much. What you must remember is that Quick was not good, and that the Kings did all their scoring on the power play.

Neither of those things is true this time. Quick is two years older, much more confident, and somewhat less worn-out than he was then (he played 69 games this year, against 72 that former year. Last year, since you’re likely wondering, it was 61. But recall too that that 2010 year was the Olympic year, and he was part of the US silver medal team).

And the team in front of him is more poised. They’re not struggling to score, a refrain that has been heard all year long in the negative. They’ve got a 3-goal per game average going into game four. This ties them for fourth in the playoffs. But they’re also taking advantage more.

They scored two shorthanded goals in one game (two), a sign of both opportunism and confidence. Maybe, you could say, of desperation, if that word can be extended to a team which has marched into the opposition, President’s Trophy-winning building and taken the first game. They knew, it would seem, that if they didn’t pounce, game one would be simply a blip. Going home up by a pair made the chances of an upset much more likely. And so it is.

So to go back to Vancouver, one wonders whether this team is another San Jose Sharks—good in the regular campaign, weaker in the post-season?

The common wisdom is that the President’s trophy is something of a curse. Win it, and you’re pretty sure not to do well in the playoffs. Stats don’t bear that out. Vancouver won it last year, and they made the Finals. Detroit won it twice in a row, as have a few other teams. The Wings had two bad playoff runs after those seasons (2004 and 2006), but the other two times they’ve won it in the past decade, they’ve claimed the Stanley Cup (2002, 2008).

Yet on the more bleak side, fifteen different teams have claimed it in its 26-year existence. Five have been eliminated in the first round. And here again, recent memory probably clouds statistical truth, because since the lockout year, the trophy has been awarded to three teams (two from Detroit, and the Caps) which have flubbed in the first round of that year’s playoffs. But

But choose the decade from 1995 to the lockout, and things look different. Four of the ten winners went to the Finals. Three won the Cup (Dallas, Colorado, Detroit). And to put it simply, whether there’s a trophy at stake or not, the advantage—starting every playoff round at home, always having potential game sevens in your own arena—can’t be surpassed.

In fact, Vancouver used just that advantage last season, when they took the final games of both their Chicago and San Jose series at home. The former was in game seven, about which more in a moment. The latter was a not-so-dramatic five-gamer. The team also won all four of its opening games at home and so never started out a series behind.

It’s likely that this time, they’ve blown their chances burying themselves by three games, but for those holding out hope, the formula for a Vancouver comeback goes something like this: beat the best goalie in hockey four times in a row, get your scoring back on track, improve your power play, and overcome your weariness at having gone to the Finals last year. Then, having done all of this, do it twice more in series against teams statistically better than eighth-seed LA. And that’s just to get back to the big show.

In recent Vancouver, history, there’s precedent that suggests that 3-0, or 0-3, isn’t impossible to recover from. They were up 3-0 against Chicago last year before allowing the Hawks back in it with three wins in a row. The seventh game, too, was right to the wire, with the Canucks giving up a late shorthanded goal (Toews) before winning it in overtime.

But Luongo was pulled in games four and five of that series, and he did not start game six. The equivalent to that series, this year, then, would be that that Jonathan Quick has to hit a huge brick wall, right now, in game four, and stumble his way through the next one, then watch as Jonathan Bernier blows game six.

That is never going to happen. Quick is as cool as ice water. Talk to him, and he often doesn’t make eye contact. Tell him how great his saves were, and he just shrugs, smiles a tiny crooked smile, and gives credit to the team. Sure, lots of goalies do that. He seems to mean it. And there’s no way he’s going to let his glorious season, where he essentially did it all to make this even happen, suddenly go poof! He’s not Luongo.

So no matter what the Canucks do in LA tonight, and it’s hard to believe that they won’t figure a way to make a game of it, if not to win, it’s a long, long, unbearably long road they’ve got ahead of them.

Brian can be found on twitter @growinguphockey. He promises few tweets (since he thinks the whole thing is dumb) but good ones. For more on all things hockey, please read his book My Country Is Hockey.

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