VANCOUVER - Think of the Presidents’ Trophy as Moby-Dick, and the Chicago Blackhawks as Captain Ahab.
Does Ahab keep trying to capture the whale, even knowing that it might sink his boat and bite his leg off?
Well, naturally. This is hockey, not poker. Odds, schmodds.
No matter how many boats have been sunk in the past, no matter how many captains are now walking around on peg-legs, you don’t give the whale a miss just because he might be bad luck.
“To say it’s a trophy you don’t want to win because of the track record would be stupid,” said Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks’ slippery 24-year-old right winger, who -- like all the Hawks -- is fully aware of the statistical downside of being the NHL’s top regular-season juggernaut.
Monday night, it was more naught than jugger, when they ran into a Vancouver Canucks team playing its best hockey in weeks, if not a couple of months, and were comprehensively spanked 3-1.
But the data is readily available, and the Blackhawks might know it by heart, if only because the Canucks are the most recent team to win the Presidents’ Trophy, a year ago, and promptly lose in the first round of playoffs.
In the 26 seasons the trophy has been presented, only seven of its winners have gone on to take the Stanley Cup. Six have lost in the first round, including three of the last four years. Detroit, in 2007-08, is the only one of the last nine Presidents Trophy teams to win the Cup in the same year.
“I know the Presidents’ Trophy winner hasn’t really had a good track record the past 10 seasons or so, but you still want it, it’s still nice to have home ice advantage throughout the playoffs,” Kane said. “We know how well we can play in the United Center, and maybe some teams can be intimidated coming in to a series we’re (starting) in our home barn, so that’s huge for us.”
When you think about it, it would be a massive waste of a great season -- historically great -- for Joel Quenneville’s team not to punctuate it with the trophy, even if it’s not The Trophy Even after losing Monday, the Hawks’ 34-6-5 record represents the No. 4 all-time points percentage, .811, behind only that of the 1929-30 Boston Bruins (38-5-1, .875) and a pair of Montreal powerhouses.
Of course, the stats are all skewed by overtime and shootout wins, and loser points to replace the points formerly awarded for ties. No doubt, fans of the Canadiens will be incensed to have these Hawks placed alongside Habs teams that lost just five of 50 games in 1943-44 and eight of 80 in 1976-77.
But any way you slice it, Chicago -- now just three points ahead of Pittsburgh for first overall, with three games left -- is in the late stages of a season for the ages, one that began with a 24-game unbeaten (in regulation) streak that included 16 one-goal decisions.
Pick a team, any team, and its coach will able to recall nights when the players’ heads just weren’t in it, or they had no legs, no anything.
At noon, the Hawks hadn’t had any of those all season.
By 9:30 p.m., they’d had one.
“That was the one game this year that we can say we weren’t at the level that’s needed. Start to finish,” said Quenneville. “We got outworked. It was one of those games played with playoff intensity and we didn’t respond.”
Earlier, he couldn’t name a single game where it had happened to the Hawks.
“We’ve had periods ...,” he said.
“Three, I think,” said the coach. “Second period in Colorado, first period against Edmonton, and third period against Calgary. Those are the three periods when we definitely ... if you put those together, I don’t know what the score would have been.”
Answer: 10-2. Against, let’s face it, opponents for which a good club’s give-a-damn meter would be registering pretty low. They gave up four unanswered to Edmonton, four unanswered to Colorado -- in a 6-2 loss that ended the 24-game streak -- and were outshot 24-6 in the third period in Calgary, but even that game, in which the Flames took a 2-1 lead at 19:25 of the third period, Marian Hossa scored with three seconds left in regulation and Chicago won in a shootout.
But Monday wasn’t against a team the Hawks could, or did, overlook. Their effort wasn’t great, but the Canucks were very, very good.
“They came out hard in the first, and never really gave us a chance to get in the game,” said Chicago defenceman Brent Seabrook. “They came out physical, banging and crashing -- we’ve got to be better than that.
“I mean, I think the playoffs bring that out of you, but we’ve got to get in that mindset right now, play the last three like it’s a best-of-three series, and come out battling.”
“We’ve been doing a good job of playing with good habits and not getting away from our game plan, whether it’s 5-on-5 or special teams,” said captain Jonathan Toews, a classic power forward and arguably the game’s most complete player.
But he was very quiet Monday night, and it was not one of those games where the Hawks hung around and hung around and pounced on an opportunity, and found a way. They were the second best team, period.
Toews said “the potential is there” to be better than the 2010 team, “but we still have lots to prove.”
Kane, though, thinks there is grounds for comparison.
“I think one difference this year is the goaltending isn’t really a question mark like it was in 2010,” he said.
Three years ago, Antti Niemi was a relative newbie just taking over from Cristobal Huet as Chicago’s main backstop. These Hawks have Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, and both have been superb. Crawford kept the score from being a lot more lopsided Monday.
So now it’s just about figuring out how hard to keep the foot on the gas down the stretch. It’s an inexact science. Like the Canucks who, even after an up-and-down season, are the West’s No. 3 seed after clinching the division, the dilemma is how to rest players without losing the edge.
Quenneville said he’d rather have his team in the position it’s in now.
“It’s something we wanted to avoid, being life and death to get into the playoffs like we were the last couple of years -- it can be very taxing,” he said.
The 24-game streak, Toews said, was wonderful for giving the team an early goal, something to keep them sharp every night. But it wasn’t playoffs.
“I think as the season’s gone along we’ve done a nice job of not looking too far ahead, just focussing on the next task,” he said.
Monday was a stumble. They trust it’s not more than that. But not many teams have put a dent in Chicago this season. The Canucks did.
“The teams that have the ability to take it up a notch are the ones that do well in the playoffs,” Toews said, “and we like to believe we’re one of those teams.”
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun