Unleashing the beast in Hammerin' Hank
The beefed-up Canucks found a much softer rival Friday in the Chicago Blackhawks than in wars past
Asked before the game if he has encountered less hostility this season with Zack Kassian on his wing, Canuck captain Henrik Sedin said: “I don’t know, no one has really done anything to us.”
Then Sedin went out and played like Hammerin’ Hank. He had three hits for the Vancouver Canucks Friday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, which says everything you need to know about the type of game it was.
“He was a beast out there,” Canuck coach Alain Vigneault said of his captain.
All the big smashes were in Davis Cup over at the University of B.C., where Canada gooned Spain 2-0 on Day 1.
At the rink, the Canucks have more toughness throughout their lineup than they’ve had in years. Kassian is on the first line. Dale Weise, often the lone policeman last season, is on the third. Aaron Volpatti is on the fourth line.
Kevin Bieksa is the combative defenceman, but blue-liner Keith Ballard will fight and so will depth forward Max Lapierre.
So if there was ever a time to go into the back alley with the Chicago Blackhawks, conspicuous for their shortage of overt toughness only a couple of years after they were about the fiercest team in the National Hockey League, it was Friday.
Naturally, the game was almost a no-hitter.
The most dangerous skater was 20-year-old Chicago rookie Brandon Saad, and the most physical was Sedin, whose only NHL fights have been with brother Daniel over dinner tabs. And the game was decided by 5-8 Vancouver rookie Jordan Schroeder, who has yet to score a real NHL goal but gets credit for the winner in a shootout as the Canucks won 2-1.
With much pre-game talk of revenge or retribution, Daniel Sedin said the best payback for Blackhawk defenceman Duncan Keith’s concussive headshot against him last season would be two points. Daniel got his wish, although his twin seemed to be channelling Dave Schultz on one second-period shift when he threw three hits — typically, a physical month for Henrik — with the last of them toppling Keith in the corner after he was rubbed into the boards by Daniel.
Hey, you mess with one Sedin, you mess with the whole family.
The game had plenty of speed, not so many scoring chances and almost none of the menacing tension some expected.
And this suited the Blackhawks fine.
Ben Eager, Troy Brouwer, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Adam Burish don’t play in Chicago any more, which was forced to purge its payroll after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Officially, the hits Friday were 22-6 for Vancouver.
The Blackhawks have been remade around its elite core into something different, skill over brawn in the depth positions, but still extremely good.
The Canucks have been tweaked as well, and nobody in Vancouver need worry any more about the Sedins being used as a punching bag by Boston Bruin Brad Marchand or anybody else.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen again,” Kassian said after Friday morning’s skate. “That’s one of the reasons I’m playing with them — for that stuff not to happen. I’m going to make sure those guys feel protected. But I don’t need to stand there and be their bodyguard; I need to play with them and make plays.
“I think we have a great group of guys, a unique group, because we don’t have anyone who sits on the bench and gets tapped on the shoulder to go out and fight. But it’s nice to have people with you, like Volpatti and Weise and Bieksa and Ballard, who stand up for each other and have each other’s back.”
Kassian’s effectiveness as deterrent is evident in that he has had to do very little policing.
He fought Eager, knocking him from the Edmonton Oilers’ lineup, two weeks ago and also engaged formidable Ryane Clowe when the Canucks were flatlining in San Jose and trailing the Sharks last weekend.
But he didn’t need to do anything Friday except play because no one messed with the Sedins.
Kassian, displaying the vision and puck poise that has made him a revelation so far in just his second NHL season, found Alex Edler through traffic to set up the Canucks’ only goal in regulation time.
“Sometimes the emotions get to you,” Kassian said of managing his temper and not taking penalties.
“A couple of times in Chicago (in the AHL) they got to me, and I heard about it from (coach) Scott Arniel. So I channel my energy now.”
“I think we are a tougher team, but the big thing isn’t that we have guys who fight but that our guys who fight can also play,” Ballard said. “It’s not like we have a four-minute guy coming off the bench to fight. I think we’re a tougher team this way.”
If you measure toughness in five-minute increments, which is at least a little superficial, the Canucks have seven fighting majors in eight games this season. Last season, they had 38 in 82 games and the year before, 29 in 82.
And all this will be largely irrelevant if the Canucks don’t maintain the level of regular-season success they’ve established the last four years. Friday’s win nudged them to 4-2-2.
Their offence clearly misses injured second-line centre Ryan Kesler, but their defensive game is sharp again and the Canucks are getting a helluva season out of their backup goalie, Roberto whatshisname.
“I always thought we had a few guys who could step up and answer the bell, but now it seems we have more,” winger Alex Burrows said. “Dale and Aaron and other guys can answer the bell and it’s always nice to have that element in your lineup.”
Even when no bells are rung, like Friday.
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