Canucks-Blackhawks: New Era… No Rivalry?

On Wednesday night the Vancouver Canucks come to the United Center to face the Blackhawks for the first time in the 2010-11 season. For the last two seasons, this would be the hottest match-up of the week with players on both sides throwing verbal shots at the other locker room.

But now?

So much has changed for both of these teams.

Andrew Ladd and Ryan Kesler won’t drop the gloves within moments of being on the ice at the same time. Ladd, of course, is in Atlanta now, and Kesler has more pressing issues – like producing. Through six games, Kesler has one point, a goal, and is minus-one with 14 penalty minutes this season. Perhaps he’s feeling the pressure of justifying the six-year, $30M contract extension he received from the Canucks in March.

Willie Mitchell, who always took shots at Blackhawks (both clean and not-so-clean) is now a member of the Los Angeles Kings. His devastating hit on Jonathan Toews cost Chicago their captain early last year, and further fueled the bad blood between the two teams.

And, perhaps the most sad change to this rivalry is the reality that Dustin Byfuglien is no longer paying rent between Roberto Luongo’s ears. After being worthless against Nashville in the first round of the playoffs last season, Byfuglien picked up where he left off with Luongo by tormenting him throughout the Hawks’ six-game knockout in the Conference Semis.

Shane O’Brien is now in Nashville, while Adam Burish and Ben Eager are in Dallas and Atlanta, respectively. The trash talk will be less obvious on the ice this year.

So is the rivalry dead?

Simply: heck no.

Luongo is still in net for the Canucks, and is still easily taunted. Whether or not he’s in net after allowing six goals in 18 shots in only 39 minutes on Tuesday night may complicate the matter, but he’s still on their roster. Luongo is struggling early this year, posting a 1-3-1 record with a 3.38 goals against average and .889 save percentage. He also was forced to give up the Captain title this summer.

The Sedins are also still on their roster. Henrik, the skinny one with red hair, won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP last year after also winning Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer. He replaced Luongo as the Canucks Captain. His twin brother Daniel, who had red hair and is skinny, missed 19 games last year but still posted 85 points in only 63 contests.

Wednesday night is a big game for both teams.

The Canucks were blown out last night in Minnesota by a struggling Wild team, and Rick Rypien made matters worse by assaulting a fan. Rypien’s availability is doubtful for tonight; he was leaving the ice for a game misconduct after a fight, made contact with a referee, took a shot at a player that was already down on the ice, and then initiated contact with a fan.

Another player Hawks fans love to hate, Alex Burrows, is out 4-6 months after having summer shoulder surgery. Sami Salo, who Hawks fans will remember for using his man area to block a shot during the playoffs last year, is out with an injury.

The two big free agent additions the Canucks made this summer specifically to compete with the Blackhawks, defensemen Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, are both doubtful for Wednesday night. Ballard has been struggling after sustaining a concussion, while Hamhuis is dealing with a foot injury.

With all of those top players missing, and coming off a disaster in Minnesota, the Canucks will be desperate. They’re only 2-3-1 to begin the season, and are in fourth place in a Northwest Division they were supposed to win easily.

Tonight will be another first chapter for the new Blackhawks in a rivalry that’s been heated over the past few years. Will Bryan Bickell or Troy Brouwer become the post player that annoys Luongo? Will Jack Skille or Jake Dowell make life miserable in corners for the Sedins? Who will fight Kesler when he takes a cheap shot? There are so many new stories to be written. And yet one remains:

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