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SportsMonday: Hawks Back Into Canucks

The Hawks may be backing into the playoffs, but at least they are doing so on skates. And one of the many elemental wonders of hockey is how smoothly NHL players transition into skating backward and how well they can move in that direction.

So at a fundamental level, a hockey fan knows an action that would seem doomed to awkwardness (like, say, propelling oneself butt-first down a sheet of ice) can be redeemed quite quickly.

The Hawks didn't just fail to win their way into the postseason, they failed to knock off their arch-rivals at home (losing to the Red Wings 4-3 in the regular season finale Sunday afternoon - a finale that was meaningless for the visitors from Detroit) when the stakes were highest. Afterward, they found themselves outside of the playoffs looking in.

But after the underdog Minnesota Wild rallied to defeat the favored Dallas Stars 5-3 last night, the Hawks were back. Hard to imagine any of the current members of the Wild really cared, but it was pretty cool that the team that represents the city that was abandoned by the then-North Stars in 1993 was the one that knocked that organ-i-zation out of the playoffs.

And now they get a shot at the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks, a team whose number they've had for a while now. The eighth-place Hawks travel west for late-night games Wednesday and Friday. Win just one of those contests and there is a great chance their foes will start to melt down.

Remember last year's playoffs? When occasional, grazing contact initiated by Hawk forwards sent all-world Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo into a tizzy? And the Canucks, and especially coach Alain Vigneault, became far more concerned with penalties not being called than with finding ways to take advantage of their players' (especially the Sedin twins) copious amounts of skill and speed? Daniel Sedin just wrapped up a season in which he led the NHL in points with 104. At the same time brother Henrik posted a league-high 75 assists.

Then early this season after a rare blowout (the Hawks torched the Canucks 7-1 during the November circus road trip) there was Vigneault after the game, complaining about the Hawks running up the score. There is no better way for someone affiliated with major league sports to tattoo "LOSER" on his forehead than by complaining about a foe not taking it easy at the end of a lopsided game.

You want to complain about someone running up the score in Little League, I'm right there with you. In the majors? Please.

The Canucks had some success against the Hawks later in the season but when the pressure is on, it is still a decent bet that Luongo or even more likely Vigneault will become distracted.

Of course, all is not sweetness and light for the Hawks. They may have lucked into a favorable matchup but several of the things that make it favorable haven't been seen in these parts in a while, primarily exceptionally physical play from their forwards.

The player who did most of the distracting of the Canucks last time around - Dustin Byfuglien - is gone, gone, gone to the Atlanta Thrashers, for whom he was last seen starring at the blue line after playing so well at wing for the Hawks.

The Hawks are paper thin at this point. If it seemed as though defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were on the ice forever on Sunday it was because they were (28 and 24 minutes, respectively). And Joel Quenneville double-shifted Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews and the Patricks Kane and Sharp (who played more than 21 minutes despite the fact that he is still recovering from a late-season knee injury) for most of the second half of the game.

After the game, the camera lingered on Toews' sweat-drenched face for a long, long time. He had given every ounce of effort and his team had still fallen short. It is hard to be optimistic about his team not suffering a similar fate if not in the first round of the playoffs than in the second in the coming weeks.

Bulls Bit
Just wanted to send a quick shout-out to coach Tim Thibodeau, who has made it clear he will not hold players out of games in the final week of the regular season to rest them for the playoffs even though the Bulls have clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

When teams give guys games off when they aren't hurt, they are tanking the game. How is that okay? I have said it before and I'm sure I will say it again that teams that do this damage the integrity of their games. It is hard to understand why people don't get that.

Oh, and resting players is also lousy strategy, unless of course fans really think that sports teams can easily turn off their competitive fire and then just turn it back on whenever they want.

They can't. And we have seen numerous instances of teams that rest late in seasons playing poorly once the playoffs kick into gear.


Comments welcome.

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