This might date myself a tad, but I recall where I was in 1994 on May 24th. I was at home in New Westminster, tightly clenching my hands together in a tightly clenched prayer style shape. What happened to make me do this? The Vancouver Canucks, the local NHL team here was in double overtime against the hated Toronto Maple Leafs in game 5 of a best of 7 series we were leading 3-1. If we scored, we went to the finals for only the 2nd time ever (the first time I too lived thru, but didnt really understand the severity of it at the time since I was of an age still in single digits, we would lose in 4 straight games in the finals that year to the New York Islanders). A B.C. boy by the name of Greg Adams, whom we obtained in a trade with the New Jersey Devils several years prior would score the eventual winner 14 seconds into that 2nd overtime on a backhander that he slipped by future Canuck Felix Potvin. We were headed to the Stanley Cup finals. It was monumental in this cities sports history. We eventually would lose in the finals to the New York Rangers in game 7 by a narrow 3-2 score, but that moment is to many in Vancouver, 1 of the cities biggest in sports history.
So imagine the shock to Canucks fans who have endured that once before, when 17 years later, we found ourselves on May 24th, in a Western Conference finals, with a 3-1 series lead, in double overtime at home...again. by now, every die hard Canucks fan, casual fan, fairweather fan & even some non-fans know how that game ended. It ended with 1 of the zaniest series clinching goals ever, as Kevin Bieksa knucklepucked a shot from the point past an unaware Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks. Of the 18000+ fans in attendace, 2 TV crews & dozen players on the ice, it seemed maybe a 1/2 a dozen people total were aware that after an Alex Edler dump in off the boards that the puck deflected off a stanchion & back out into the middle of the ice. 1 of those rare people, Kevin Bieksa. The Canucks defender moved in towards the puck that gifted itself to him & drove a hard slap shot towards the Sharks net that wobbled & skipped its way past a confused Niemi. Fans were so unaware of what was going on, they only reacted when the likes of Alex Burrows & Henrik Sedin, near the net reacted. Sharks players reacted, but far too late, even Kevins own teammates were not all aware of what was about to happen. Another generation of Canucks fans will remember that moment, regardless how the finals end. Its 1 of those moments that sticks with you. Just like Greg Adams in 1994 on the very same date.
Of course, after the win, while the players partied in the dressing room together, fans did the same, out in public on the streets of downtown Vancouver. Granville street was completely closed off to traffic, as fans poured out to high five other strangers, wave their towels & flags & yell any & all phrases they could think of to express their jubilation. I saw a faux greenman, I saw an even sadder imposter- a blue man, I saw 30+ Stanley Cups of all types roaming the streets, being hoisted high & I also saw 2 creatures (pictured below) that I still dont have an explantion for, dressed in Henrik Sedin jerseys, sporting what I can only describe as some type of weird egg type head gear.
A couple of observations. The crowd seemed quite content & happy. Never saw even 1 angry look from 1 person to another. Im sure there were some mild issues, but they were few & far between...unlike when I was in Edmonton during their Cup run where there was stabbings almost nightly it seemed. There was also sadly for us guys (and girls here wonder why the world over consider girls here "snobby") no Red Mile action like in Calgary during their Cup run. The boobs in this town refuse to come out. To be honest, the overall electricity & excitement of the crowd, while high, was still short of anything I have seen in Edmonton, Calgary or even Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics. Will it be different if they win the Cup??? Perhaps. Starting June 1st, the Vancouver Canucks will try to do something they havent done in 39 previous seasons, 23 playoff appearances & 2 Finals appearances. Win the Stanley Cup. The oppnent, yet to be decided. Either the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that crushed the Calgary Flames hopes last time in 2004, or the Boston Bruins, the team that last lost a Championship to 1 of the Western Canadian teams in 1990 to the Edmonton Oilers. One thing is certain, Canucks fans probably are pretty thrilled, it wont be a team from New York.
Before you start envisioning where you will place the "Stanley Cup Champions" pennant in your house Canucks fans, just remember, we are only 1/2 way to a possible franchise first championship.
True, the Vancouver Canucks finally shook the 2nd monkey off their back these playoffs, but its far from over.
The most recent demon they exorcised was that "getting past round 2" demon thats haunted them for 17 seasons, 9 previous playoff years & 5 previous round 2 match ups.
This time, the stick of Daniel Sedin launched the city into round 3 for the 1st time since their miracle run of 1994 when he helped the Nucks beat Nashville Predators in game 6 2-1.
So whats in store for us now? A date with the San Jose Sharks. The team who finished 2nd in the Western Conference to the Canucks, 5th in the league & are currently the 2nd highest ranking team left in the post-season.
Its a new challenge for them. The past 2 WCF the Canucks made, they did not face top ranked teams. The Toront Maple Leafs werent the Norris division champs in 94, the Chicago BlackHawks werent the Norris division champs in 82, hell, the Hawks werent even as good as the Canucks that year in the regular season. This is the 1st time the Vancouver Canucks have faced an actual division champion in round 3.
With questions surround the play of the Sedins, and more recently Henrik's health, as well as Mikael Samuelsson's mystery ailment, some do actually wonder if this team will be able to make the finals this time. Sure Ryan Kesler has been a beast & Roberto Luongo has been good enough, but they are now going up against a team that was legitimately a contender this season.
Now the Canucks are the demon a team is looking to exorcize. The Sharks have been perrenial contenders for several years, but never made it to the Stanley Cup finals. They have found themselves in the conference finals twice this decade, but never managed to get to the finals. Last year the Hawks did them in, in 2004 it was the Calgary Flames.
This is, in my mind, the first real test for the Canucks. The Sharks have far more scoring depth than Chicago did, certainly far far more than Nashville. They have a goalie that is coming off a Cup win last year in Antti Niemi, who after a slow start this year is really back in the zone. They have a defense core with over 300 NHL Playoff games & 3 Cup winners on it. They have a forward group that consists of 3 Olympic Gold medal winners, a silver medalist, a Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy, a Calder trophy, 2- 50 goal seasons & 1 Stanley Cup. This team actually knows what winning feels like, just not together.
I still feel the Canucks can win this series, but it will be a dogfight. Round 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs starts tonight in Vancouver, and for the next 2 or so weeks, Vancouverites will be in a continual state of near nervous breakdown till the final horn goes, regardless of the outcome.
April 26, 2011 is a day that fans of the Vancouver Canucks will hold in nearly the same light as June 11, 1994 is, or May 6, 1982. Of course, those dates are known by many fans as the dates of the Canucks last Stanley Cup finals win, game 6 vs the New York Rangers and of course the date that the Canucks won their first Campbell Conference trophy with a 6-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks to advanced to their first Stanley Cup Finals.
The date of April 26th 2011, although it is the date of nothing more than a 1st round victory that enables them to advance to the 2nd round for the 4th time in 5 years is a theraputic date for both the fans & players of the Canucks. It is the day their team was finally able to slay the mental beast of the Chicago Blackhawks.
For the 2 playoff years prior the Canucks ended up with the Hawks in round 2 of the playoffs. In both of those series the Canucks started the series off on top. Being up 1-0 & 2-1 in 2009 was not enough, as they would eventually crumble after that going out in 6 games. In 2010, the chance to get revenge appeared to be there, the Canucks were a better regular season team, but the Hawks, with the extra year of playoff experience were a more formidable opponent & despite giving the Canucks game 1, would eventually again end the series in 6. That version of the Hawks went on to win the Stanley Cup. Of course, in the salary cap era, many notable pieces of their cup run like their heroic goalie Antti Niemi, scoring depth forward Andrew Ladd & power forward extraordinaire Dustin Byfuglien were tossed aside to make cap space.
Fast forward to 2011. The Canucks win the Presidents Trophy for leagues top regular season team. They win the Jennings trophy for best team goals against. For the 2nd year in a row they have an Art Ross Trophy winner, as Daniel Sedin equals his brother Henrik in that category. The top Power Play in the league, top in goals, and top in goals against. The Canucks appeared almost unbeatable. On the other side stood the Chicago Blackhawks, a team who backed into the very last spot in the playoffs after they failed to win a "win & your in" game & had to watch hopelessly as another team, the Dallas Stars failed the same task, giving the Hawks the 8th seed.
Many wondered if the Hawks of old would mentally phase the Canucks of now. In the 1st 3 games of the series, it looked absurd to think it. The Canucks won those meetings, taking a seemingly insurmountable series 3-0 lead. Then "it" happened. Somehow, somewhere, the nagging ghosts of the past got into the Canucks heads. For games 4 & 5, it seemed like the wheels had completely blown out on the Canucks road to the cup. Losing by a combined 12-2 over those two games, and seeing their Vezina candidate goaltender Roberto Luongo chased in both games. In game 6, they gave rookie Cory Schneider a chance to run with it. The kid did well, although 2 glaring gaffes gave the Blackhawks enough life, that eventually they would go on to down the Canucks in OT 4-3 when rookie Ben Smith added to the cities misery with a lucky backhand flick of his stick. While this game saw a far better Canucks effort, including that of Luongo, who came in for relief duty from Schneider after a minor injury. The consensus being they were the better team & were perhaps robbed by suspect reffing, the fact was, they were finding themselves in a do or die, game 7 against a team that has managed to come from behind 2 years in a row to steal a series from them.
On April 26, 2011, game 7 would take place at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. The visiting Hawks came in with little pressure on them....
Allow me to sidetrack this for a moment. As an autograph hound, we often get to observe players in ways many others, including media & other players dont. It was evident to me, a veteran of seeing playoff hockey teams in various stages of preparation, they were TOO focussed. The little things were clearly an aggitation to them. They werent loose like in game 5, they were trying to avoid interaction with people, trying to look serious & all in all, trying too hard to be focused on the task at hand. The lack of relaxation & carefree attitude they showed prior made me think, they are nervous going in. They went from carefree & relaxed, to nervous & trying too hard to focus.
Ok, so back on to the events.
The game started with an early chance for the Canucks when goalless in 13 playoff games against the Hawks winger & 41 goal regular season man Ryan Kesler made a great solo effort to get close to the goal before he made a diagonal pass behind him to Alex Burrows who snuck in & planted it behind rookie goalie Corey Crawford. The Canucks would seemingly dominate most of the game after that. yet were unable to bury many chances. There was first Henrik Sedin inexplicably passing to Burrows on a chance where he clearly had the more open shot, Alex Burrows missing a penalty shot, and of course snakebitten Ryan Kesler having the best chance on a 2nd rebound chance late in the 3rd period that he put directly into Crawfords glove. With only 3:17 left in the game the Canucks got what many expected was the nail in the coffin. The Hawks Norris winning defenseman Duncan Keith would go off for a tripping penalty. The Canucks would have 2 minutes out of the last 3:17 with a power play. Game over, right? Wrong. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, himself goalless in the playoffs made a great rush towards the net that saw the puck eventually go to Marian Hossa who would direct a shot on goal, leaving a rebound for the opportunistic Toews to bury behind Luongo shorthanded with only 1:56 remaining in regulation time.
With the city of Vancouver's ego quickly deflated, Canucks nation sat nervously waiting for the start of OT. Once OT started they got some scary news early. Mr. Everything in the game Alex Burrows went off for 2 minutes for holding just 24 seconds in. But the Canucks managed to kill that penalty. Less than 3 minutes after Burrows penalty expired, he would taken a lucky break from a Chris Campoli mistake, cut in towards the middle of the empty attacking zone ice & slap a shot over the shoulder of Corey Crawford into the back of the cage & the game, the series, and the questions & demons were OVER.
The city that wanted this revenge so bad that they coined the term "3Venge" on twitter got their result from a hero they earlier in the series (myself included) criticized for his lack of offense. Alex Burrows had 3 goals in the final 2 games, and of course, the biggest being the series clinching game 7 overtime goal after taking the only penalty of OT.
Next up for the Canucks is Nashville Predators. While no one will admit it, and they really shouldnt. many Canucks fans are right now so thrilled with the result in hand they are willing to say "if we somehow lose to Nashville, its still a good year imo because we beat Chicago finally".. its a mentality that hopefully the Canucks themselves dont have. Because a team that wont practicallyeverything in the regular season shouldnt be happy with 1 playoff round victory... even if it was against their biggest demon.
For the record, there is a new demon to exorcize. The Canucks havent passed round 2 since 1994. In that time they have got to round 2 FIVE TIMES, losing to the Hawks three times, the Ducks once & the Wild once (which I was forced to witness in person during a game 7 collapse). But, until that demon comes to town...lets celebrate slaying this one.