The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup the previous spring, eliminating the Canucks from the National Hockey League playoffs for the second straight year. Although their champagne hangover had them scuffling through the first half of the season, the Blackhawks went 15-6-3 down the stretch and ducked into the Western Conference’s final playoff spot on the last week of the regular season.
They were still the team of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, with Joel Quenneville behind the bench. These stars were the Canucks’ reward for winning the Presidents’ Trophy by 10 points, for leading the NHL in scoring and goals against.
Daniel Sedin won the Art Ross Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award that year, Ryan Kesler the Selke, Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider the Jennings and coach Alain Vigneault was runner-up for the Jack Adams.
All that, and the Canucks still had to open the playoffs against the mighty Blackhawks at Rogers Arena.
“Just knowing Chicago had won the Cup the year before and what they had done to Vancouver the previous two seasons, we knew that even though we were the No. 1 seed and they were the No. 8 seed, it wasn’t a one-eight matchup,” former Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis told Sportsnet on Monday. “There was a lot of respect in our room for what Chicago could do. They maybe had a bit of a Stanley Cup hangover from the previous season, but we knew they would be bringing it coming into the playoffs. So we were on edge and ready for them.”
Vancouver winger Chris Higgins said, “It seemed like: OK, this is what we’ve led the entire season up toward. This is it, this is the tip of the spear. Now we’re going to find out if we’re a team or not. We want to win the Cup, and this is a really good team we’re playing against with a lot of history. This is your journey right now; you’ve got to beat these guys. It just seemed like there was such a laser-sharp focus on what needed to be done. To be honest, it was intoxicating.”
Higgins had joined the Canucks six weeks earlier as a trade-deadline pickup from the Florida Panthers, one of the best deals general manager Mike Gillis made during his six years in Vancouver.
Higgins was one of the missing pieces, a two-way winger who brought speed, tenacity and experience in a matchup role alongside Kesler against the opposition’s best players.
And he was all over Game 1, which is being rebroadcast tonight as Sportsnet Pacific and Sportsnet West replay the entire seven-game epic between the Canucks and Blackhawks over the next three weeks.
“Game 1 was probably our most physical game of the series,” Higgins said. “I thought especially in that first period, we showed that this was going to be a series, man. We weren’t going to be pushed around. I thought it was just a great hockey game. It was playoff hockey personified. We dialed up the physical play to show them they were going to have to beat us.
“Playoffs, it’s mostly about matchups. For the most part, you’re always playing against the same forward line, the same D-pairing. You’re always looking for mismatches. The margin for error is so thin against teams that stack up well talent-wise, which we did. The talent level for both teams was sky high. It would be the littlest of things that were going to win that series, so the attention to detail was extraordinary.”
Higgins opened scoring 7:03 into the first period, when he chipped the puck down low to Kesler, who worked it back to the point to defenceman Kevin Bieksa. As both forwards charged to the slot, Higgins deflected Bieksa’s point shot past goalie Corey Crawford.
A little over three minutes later, Jannik Hansen out-skated Hossa on a breakaway and buried a forehand above Crawford’s catching glove to make it 2-0. That turned out to be the final score, as Luongo posted a 32-save shutout.
Higgins, Kesler and Mikael Samuelsson – until Samuelsson was injured and replaced by Mason Raymond – went head-to-head against Toews, Hossa and Sharp.
“We just wanted to win our matchup,” Higgins said. “We’ve got to find a way to at least tie them, then let Hank and Danny (Sedin) win their matchup. That was kind of our mentality: if we could neutralize those guys, our team would have a chance to win.
“We talked about it before the series: ‘Let’s make Toews play defence, let’s make Kane play defence.’ Their (defencemen) on the back end were great puck-movers, but they weren’t great one-on-one in the corners. So that’s where we wanted to play. We were going to play defensively by playing in their end, having the puck and just wearing them down.”
Higgins, who is now the Canucks’ assistant director of player development, said he still gets chills thinking about that game and series.
As a player, Higgins’ most productive seasons were with the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he faced the Boston Bruins in the 2008 and 2009 playoffs.
“That’s one of the all-time NHL rivalries,” he said. “But this series seemed even a little bit more heightened because it was two teams that could win the Cup. It was so pervasive, it seemed like every guy was thinking exactly the same way. You could just tell body language, how guys approached everything. Everything was for a purpose. It was so dialed up, it was crazy, man. Like I said, it was intoxicating.
“I’ve been watching some of the past games on Sportsnet, reading some of the articles. I feel it through my whole body still. I’m still thinking about the crowd, how people waved towels. It was bananas, man. You try to put yourself back in 2011. It’s a nice feeling.”