VANCOUVER, B.C. -- It was only Game 1, and yet it quickly developed as many storylines as a soap opera: a bitter duel between top goaltenders, crushing hip checks, shoves, shouts. Maybe even a chomp.
It had it all -- except the cliffhanger ending, thanks to a last-minute goal that gave the Canucks the 1-0 win at Rogers Arena Wednesday night in the opener of the Stanley Cup Final.
"I [thought] we were going to go to overtime," Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo said. "At one point I thought we might be playing all night here."
If it weren't for Raffi Torres' tap-in goal with just 18 ticks remaining in a scoreless game, the prospect of an all-nighter wouldn't have been out of the question. After 69 shots, his was the only one to find the back of the net.
Perhaps it's the sort of thing that's to be expected when two Vezina-worthy goalies like Luongo and Boston's Tim Thomas are tending each cage. Unlike last year's Game 1, when the Blackhawks and Flyers participated in a 6-5 shootout backed by a couple of less-than-prodigious goalies, Antti Niemi and Brian Boucher, the margin of error in Vancouver seemed ever thinner, even if the margin of victory was technically the same.
Proving to be an opening-game maven, Luongo extended his streak of Game 1 wins to eight with his 36-save performance, denying the Bruins through a string of first-period power plays, including a 5-on-3 opportunity that lasted 1:38. And with the presence of Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara in front of his net on the power play, for once, it wasn't his own monsters that Luongo had to deal with. But making the necessary adjustments -- peeking around him instead of over him, as he normally does -- Luongo turned aside all of the Bruins' 12 power-play shots.
Each of those saves would prove to be necessary just because the goalie on the other end was equally capable. Denying a couple of point-blank Vancouver chances and stoning Jannik Hansen on a breakaway early in the third period, Thomas continued his spectacular postseason with 33 saves, including 13 in the final frame, when the Canucks began to apply more sustained pressure.
"For two periods, I was pretty pleased," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "Obviously, third period they were the better team and they ended up scoring that goal. It got away from us."
In a cleaner third period, Vancouver seemed to play better without the interruptions and distractions that come with taking penalties. The whistles were active early, and the animosity took no time to develop between two teams that have met just three times in the last three years. Little history, but no lack of dramatics.
As the buzzer sounded to end the first period, a scrum exploded around Thomas, and in the chaos of it all, Canucks winger Alexandre Burrows and Bruins center Patrice Bergeron were tangled together. When all was said (in French) and done, a curious image emerged, showing what seemingly looked like Burrows biting down on Bergeron's gloved fingers. After the game, the Boston center wore a bandage on his finger, and Burrows wore a blank expression, denying to French-speaking media that he bit down, but Burrows may be suspended.
Hungry for the playoffs? Yes. Apparently, Burrows was, too.
1. Roberto Luongo, Canucks: Pitching a shutout in his first Stanley Cup finals game, the netminder showed impressive calm in the face of massive challenges, particular Zdeno Chara's backside on the power play. Luongo's 1-0 shutout win was the first in a finals opener since 1984, when Edmonton's Grant Fuhr stoned the Islanders.
2. Ryan Kesler, Canucks: There were some questions about the center's health coming into Game 1, as he seem bothered by an ailment in the final game of the Western Conference finals. But he seemed to answer them all Wednesday with another dominant performance. Torres's game-winner would never have happened if it weren't for Kesler's play at the blue line, chipping in the puck by Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk and finding Hansen, who got the primary assist on the goal. The Conn Smythe case for Kesler gets stronger with every passing game.
3. Tim Thomas, Bruins: It almost seemed unfair that one of the goalies Wednesday would have to walk away with the loss. Without the goal support from his team, however, Thomas had to take it. With 33 saves, he probably deserved a little better than to lose it in the last few seconds of the game.
Before Game 1, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the state of the league, covering a gamut of topics from the Thrashers' recent franchise relocation to his desire not to relocate another franchise. But somewhere in between, he explained his plans to form a new department devoted to promoting player safety. In light of the last few years, when discussion regarding concussions became a flashpoint in a league that prides itself on toughness, the move is an obvious step in the right direction. The new department will be headed by former player and current Vice President of Hockey and Business Development Brendan Shanahan, who will be in charge of (among other things) handing out supplemental discipline, a job that used to be under the purview of NHL VP of hockey operations Colin Campbell.
The league disciplinarian role is, by all accounts, a thankless job that comes under more popular criticism than almost any other in the league. It certainly will be very interesting to see how fans will react to calls coming from a popular former player, who incidentally was suspended once for a stick swinging incident in 1999. Shanahan is widely respected and very well liked by many hockey fans -- not just those from the cities where he played -- and putting him in an unpopular position will have one of two effects. Either he will elevate the position to greater respectability, or hockey's good guy will quickly turn into another villain.
The good news is that Shanahan explained his platform, so to speak, is for better communication in his decisions, something that plenty of people -- media and fans, in particular -- have often called for. And as Bettman suggested, with harsher punishments for unbecoming behavior on the horizon, full disclosure will no longer be a luxury; it will be a necessity.