The Chicago Blackhawks were a goal from completely rising from the dead during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so what if they had defeated Vancouver in that first-round series?
The 2010-11 Chicago Blackhawks were an unusual outfit. They were clearly depleted from the previous season’s team, which won the Stanley Cup. They backed into the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, clinching it despite losing their regular-season finale.
And yet, they gave the top-seeded and President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks all they could handle in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Of course, that was after losing the first three games.
Chicago was quite literally a goal away from overcoming a 3-0 deficit and stunning the then-hated Canucks. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Alexandre Burrows ended what turned into a thrilling series with an overtime snipe in Game 7.
For as many sketchy or rough spots as these Blackhawks had (starting “rookie” Corey Crawford in net, having a third pairing of Chris Campoli and rookie Nick Leddy, employing John Scott), this team was that close to making quite a bit more noise in the postseason. So what if the Blackhawks had defeated the Canucks in that seventh game in 2011?
The rest of the postseason path
The core of the Blackhawks, of course, was coming off a Cup win in 2010. Of the 22 skaters Chicago dressed in this playoff series against Vancouver, 11 were key components in ending a 49-year championship drought (12 if you want to count Bryan Bickell‘s four games played in 2010).
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They were clearly a faulty and struggling group throughout the regular season, and things didn’t look a whole lot better early against the Canucks. Still, those first three games were decided by 2-0, 4-3 and 3-2 margins — not exactly blowouts. Then, when Raffi Torres decked Brent Seabrook in Game 3, the Blackhawks had a little extra fuel.
You know how the rest of the story goes, so what would have been the path for the Blackhawks had they upended the Canucks?
First would have come a matchup against Central Division rival Nashville. This was a very similar team to the one the Blackhawks defeated — though also struggled against — in 2010’s first round. The Canucks wound up winning the real-life series over the Preds 4-2.
While the Blackhawks wouldn’t have had home ice (at any point had they defeated Vancouver), the matchup against the Predators wasn’t terribly intimidating. Pekka Rinne was having a solid season in net, but this Nashville team struggled to score, ranking 21st in the regular season in tallies.
Meanwhile, Crow posted a .927 save percentage in the series against Vancouver. While the Preds have been one of Crow’s bugaboo teams in his career, a hot goaltender in the postseason is not one to be trifled with. Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo was ice cold against the Blackhawks and posted a .933 save percentage versus Nashville, so who’s to say Crow couldn’t have silenced the Preds while his teammates continued to fill the net against a well-known opposing goalie?
Next in line would have been San Jose. Again, a very similar team to the one Chicago saw in the 2010 Western Conference finals. However, I think this Sharks team was quite a bit improved at this point, even though the Canucks won the real-life series 4-1. The big issue for San Jose — and the one area that lacked obvious improvement from 2010 — was Antti Niemi in net, as he was just ravaged by Vancouver.
So had the Blackhawks advanced past the Sharks, the Boston Bruins awaited in the Final. This team was solid at both ends of the ice and had a nice mix of youngsters and veterans. Oh, and Tim Thomas went catatonic in net by posting a .967 save percentage against the Canucks.
What if Chicago had defeated Vancouver?
Da Windy City
So we have the background. Now what happens if Burrows doesn’t tally and the Blackhawks complete their rally from three games down?
I think there’s an argument to be made that the Blackhawks can win series against Nashville and San Jose. The Blackhawks would’ve had a ton of momentum, they were getting scoring from across the board (16 skaters had at least one point against the Canucks) and Crow was really feeling his oats.
The Preds were getting superb goaltending from Rinne, but the Blackhawks knew him well and knew how to beat him. If Crow was in the .920s again for save percentage against Nashville, I like Chicago’s chances.
Now you take on another very familiar goaltender in Niemi, and generally familiar team in the Sharks. The Blackhawks probably would’ve needed at least six games to dispatch the Preds, while the Sharks needed seven in real life to upend the Detroit Red Wings.
This series could have been a real battle. Both teams had fantastic top-end talent, both at forward and defense. Things got a little stickier at the bottom end of both areas for both sides. Crow was obviously performing better than Niemi in this postseason, but there would definitely be a “proving point” for Niemi against the team that let him go in the 2010 offseason.
In my mind, this series goes seven games. I would liken it to the 2015 playoff series between the Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks. And like in that series, I think the Blackhawks would have come out on top in this one.
So that just leaves the Boston Bruins and a chance at the first Cup repeat since the late 1990s. This was a real good Bruins team, though. To put it in perspective, it had no idea how to use Tyler Seguin and benched him for a game. Yeah, that Tyler Seguin.
If Thomas was even close to as good against the Blackhawks in this hypothetical as he was against Vancouver in real life, I still think the Bruins win the Cup. The Blackhawks would have been absolutely spent coming into this series, and while Boston was coming off a seven-game conference final against Tampa Bay, they could just throw constant strong lines and defensive pairings at the Blackhawks to support Thomas.
Going beyond the postseason
With that in mind, I’m going to say the Blackhawks would have fallen just short of beating the Bruins in this Final, had they defeated Vancouver in the first round. It certainly changes the perspective of this team, but does it change much for the 2011-12 squad and beyond?
The only major move the Blackhawks made in the 2011 offseason was dumping Brian Campbell, due to his giant contract handicapping the team from a salary cap perspective. I still think this happens regardless of how the Blackhawks finished the 2011 postseason.
General manager Stan Bowman then made small adds from the outside and promotions from within before and throughout the season before acquiring Johnny Oduya in a late-season trade. I don’t see why any of this still wouldn’t have happened either, had Chicago gone as far as I projected above.
So really, the only downside to the Blackhawks running deeper in the 2011 postseason is guys being more tired in 2012. And considering the 2011-12 team ran into a bulldozer in Mike Smith during that year’s playoffs, I don’t know that stamina would’ve made a ton of difference.
Meanwhile, this probably would’ve done a huge number on the Canucks. There’s a fair chance then-GM Mike Gillis might have started a massive overhaul had his team lost to the Blackhawks for a third consecutive postseason, all three teams probably believing his team was equal to or better than the one that defeated it.
Instead of the “will they/won’t they” semi-rebuild the Canucks would go on to engage in, we could’ve seen a Vancouver team that actually had a plan. Gillis could still be GM, maybe, and the Canucks could already be good again after a real rebuild.
So the Blackhawks winning this first-round series in 2011 could’ve had more of an effect on the opposing team than the Blackhawks themselves. How do you like that?