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.