VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The end came quickly -- but painfully -- for the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night.
The Canucks saw their 2009-10 season conclude as the Chicago Blackhawks blitzed to a 5-1 victory in the sixth game of their Western Conference semi-final series. Chicago took the best-of-seven affair by the same 4-2 margin it did while eliminating Vancouver last spring.
"Obviously, it's very disappointing," said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. "We wanted this opportunity. We wanted this challenge, and for the second year in a row we weren't able to get it done."
Vigneault and players alike struggled to figure out how the club suffered its third straight home loss after posting a franchise-record 30 wins at General Motors place during the regular season.
"That's the part that's been tough to understand," said goaltender Roberto Luongo. "We were so dominant at home all year. We go into Chicago to win all three games and we come home and we're not even close."
The Blackhawks scored two goals 36 seconds apart in the second period, from Troy Brouwer and Kris Versteeg, and produced another pair within 25 seconds of each other, courtesy of Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien.
But the turning point in the game -- and ultimately Vancouver's season -- came in the final minute of the second period when Pavol Demitra, playing the point on the power play, coughed up the puck at the Chicago blue line. Dave Bolland picked up the disc and beat Luongo on a breakaway to put the Blackhawks ahead 3-0.
"That was a real tough one," said Vigneault. "We're down by two and on a power play, so that was definitely a big moment in today's game."
Bolland's marker was one of three clear-cut breakaways as the Blackhawks capitalized on the Canucks' injury-decimated defence. Although Sami Salo made a valiant return to the Vancouver lineup after being felled by a deflected slapshot at the end of Game 5 and taken to hospital, the Canucks lost rearguard Alex Edler in the first period after Byfuglien hit him hard into the end boards.
"They came at us real hard and they made us pay a physical price," said Vigneault. "They were real tough on our defence ... and obviously it took its toll. The last two games, we played basically with five D and it was challenging for the back end."
But the coach and Salo refused to accept bad health as a reason for the Canucks' collapse. Edler's injury and Salo's status typified a season in which Vancouver's defence corps was ravaged by ailments.
"I never used injuries as an excuse," said Salo. "I'll never start doing that."
Salo kept reporters guessing almost until game time as he left the morning skate and pre-game warmup early. Although it was apparent he was skating gingerly at times due to "a shot in a very sensitive spot," he logged 19:32 of ice time, down only slightly from his previous 20:42 average, and finished a respectable minus-one.
Such commitment drew praise from rearguards Kevin Bieksa and Shane O'Brien as well as coach Vigneault.
"In playoffs, players have to play through things," said Vigneault. "Look at Sami Salo today. He had to play through a lot of pain, but that's part of playoff hockey and that's part of playoff success."
Now, he and general manager Mike Gillis must decide how a team with the NHL's top scorer, Henrik Sedin, a goaltender who backstopped Canada to an Olympic gold medal, and a talented offensive crew can achieve more in the post-season. Vigneault indicated management will take a few weeks to assess the personnel.
"We think we're a good team," he said. "We've gotten to the final eight here in the last couple of years and lost against the same team. Why are we losing? That's a question that we're going to have to look at very seriously -- and come up with some answers."
NOTES: Salo's return prevented journeyman blue-liner Lawrence Nycholat's "closest chance" to play his first NHL post-season game since turning pro with the Jackson Bandits of the ECHL in 2000-01. Nycholat, a 31-year-old Calgary native who has only played 50 NHL regular-season games while spending most of his career in the minors, was with the Ottawa Senators when they went to the Stanley Cup final in 2007, but did not see any action.