Western Conference quarterfinals


Former Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart was at home in Minnesota watching the Blackhawks’ stunning overtime win over the Canucks on Sunday evening when the inevitable graphic flashed on the screen.
It showed the only four teams in professional sports history to lose a seven-game series after taking a 3-0 series lead—and his 2010 Boston Bruins, of course, were on the list.
“It’s just something you can never hide from. You were a part of it – it’s very disappointing,” Stuart told Sporting News on Monday.
On Tuesday night, the Vancouver Canucks will host the Blackhawks in Game 7 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, desperately hoping to avoid that list. For it to happen twice in two years would be unbelievable. It would also shift the focus from the Bruins to the Canucks as the most recent big-time chokers in NHL history.
But even so, Stuart won’t be rooting for the Blackhawks.
“I don’t really wish that on anybody, to tell you the truth,” said Stuart, who now plays for the Thrashers and is preparing to play with Team USA in the upcoming World Championships. “It was one of the most disappointing things we have ever experienced. The players, the fans – it’s the whole city really.”
And now there’s another entire city on edge. Perhaps more than that even. The Canucks represent Canada’s best shot at winning a Stanley Cup, and thanks to the return of Dave Bolland, the return of Chicago’s mental mastery of the Canucks, the return of the shaky Roberto Luongo and the disappearance of Ryan Kesler and the Sedins – that best shot could be in big trouble.
It’s impossible to imagine what the Canucks players are thinking, especially Luongo, who was benched and then re-inserted in goal when backup Cory Schneider was injured.
Only a small group of NHL players—those with the Bruins last season—can relate. Only they know what’s going through the minds of the Canucks.
“They’re probably a little shell-shocked right now, being up 3-0 and giving up that lead,” Stuart said. “There’s disappointment.”
But Stuart added one other thing.
“You’re also pretty motivated,” he said.
Fear can be a motivating factor. The fear of losing to the Blackhawks again. The fear of joining a short list of historical collapses. The fear of spending an entire summer, an entire lifetime, wondering if you blew the best chance you’ve ever had at winning a Stanley Cup.
It’s also an opportunity.
Last year, in the same city in which Vancouver will try to end Chicago’s season, Team Canada struggled early on in the Winter Olympics. They lost to the Americans, they switched starting goalies.
Anything less than a gold medal for that team would have been a huge disappointment. It was the kind of pressure the Canucks are feeling now, but at the time, Team Canada coach Mike Babcock looked at it differently. He constantly said that it wasn’t pressure, it was an opportunity. An opportunity to make history, to win a gold on home soil and to overcome the great disappointment early tournament struggles created.
Luongo was a part of that turnaround, and he has a chance to do it again after coach Alain Vigneault announced he will start Game 7 against the Blackhawks.
Funny thing about the Canadians. Once the gold medal was draped around their necks, nobody brought up that early loss to Team USA again.
The same goes here.
“You win Game 7 and it erases everything else,” Stuart said.
Win and it’s all forgotten.
A timely goal by Kesler erases the fact he has yet to score in this postseason. A big performance from Luongo silences the suggestion he can’t win the big one. A game-winner from Henrik Sedin, and we’ll ignore the glaring minus-4 last year’s Hart Trophy winner sported heading into Game 7.
If they can overlook the crushing result, there was plenty in which to build on in Sunday’s loss. Unlike the previous two blowouts, the Canucks did more than enough to win. They hit two posts, which is a bit of bad luck. They controlled play in the overtime until Ben Smith scored the game-winner.
“If we play like that,” Kesler said after the game, “we’ll be fine.”
And this momentum Chicago has built with three consecutive wins? It disappears with an early goal. So does any mental edge the Blackhawks have enjoyed over Vancouver for so long.
This is one game. The previous three no longer matter. They become meaningless with one more Vancouver win.

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