VANCOUVER - Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was blunt when assessing his team's performance Monday.
"It was the worst game of the year," Quenneville said following Chicago's 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks. "That was the one game maybe this year that we can say that we weren't at the level that's needed from start to finish."
The defeat at Rogers Arena was Chicago's first regulation loss in 12 games, but it was the manner in which the Canucks (26-13-7) went about the victory over the league-leading Blackhawks (34-6-5) that spurred talk about the possibility of another memorable post-season series between the Western Conference giants.
Vancouver dominated Chicago in almost every facet of the game, and the vocal crowd lapped up every hit laid by the Canucks' Maxim Lapierre (nine hits), Jannik Hansen (five) and rookie defenceman Frank Corrado (three), who played his first NHL game.
Bullied in St. Louis less than a week ago, the Canucks had a 37-23 advantage in hits over Chicago.
It was something Quenneville noticed.
"We know when we play Vancouver it's an intense game and you've got to be ready," he said. "They were much more prepared to compete at that level that's necessary to win in our game and give them credit."
Quenneville added he wasn't overly concerned by the defeat — "it's one game, it's a tricky week for us" — but defenceman Duncan Keith acknowledged Chicago must be better in games against strong conference opposition.
"Obviously there's good teams in the league and they're one of them," he said. "We've had games like this before. But at the same time, give them credit, they skated hard, they capitalized on the power play, they capitalized on some chances."
Chicago could have clinched its first Presidents' Trophy since 1990-91 on Monday, but the loss to Vancouver and Pittsburgh's victory in Ottawa delayed those celebrations.
"We feel good," Keith said. "Obviously we're not happy about tonight, we know we need to play with more jump than we did tonight, and we're confident, it's one game we're not happy with.
"We know what we're capable of doing in this room and it's just a matter of sticking with it and staying positive."
Chicago and Vancouver played two heart-stopping playoff series in both 2009-10 and 2010-11. The Blackhawks won the first matchup 4-2 in the second round before the Canucks eked out a thrilling 4-3 first-round victory the following season.
The rivalry is alive and well, but Chicago goalie Corey Crawford tried his best to downplay its significance Monday.
"Obviously we want to beat them," he said. "But most importantly, we want to be playing our best hockey. It's more about our team."