The quest for the Holy Grail: Credit the Hockey Gods with an assist on Kevin Bieksa's goal that sent the long-starcrossed Canucks to the third Stanley Cup Final in their franchise's history. (Bob Frid/Icon SMI)
By Stu Hackel
Let's be straight here. The Canucks' 40-year history is not jam-packed filled with glorious moments. When locals think about their team, disappointment is probably their most prominent emotion. It may have started when Vancouver lost the spin of the wheel for first draft pick in 1970 to their expansion cousins, the Sabres. Buffalo took Gilbert Perreault, a future Hall of Famer. Vancouver picked Dale Tallon next. He was a good NHL defenseman, but not a franchise player -- and he wasn't a Canuck for long.
The best versions of the Canucks always flopped in springtime. Something would always happen, heartbreak would always ensue. Their two runs to the Stanley Cup Final, in 1982 and 1994, were unexpected, fashioned by mediocre regular season teams that caught fire, then found themselves facing that season's top regular season club for the championship.
No, the Hockey Gods never smiled on the Vancouver Canucks. Not until now.
Luck continues to visit the Canucks now that the Lightning and Bruins will go seven games. They will be home and well rested, their bumps, bruises and other undisclosed upper and lower body injures a bit more healed than the team that must fly to Vancouver to start of the Cup final next Wednesday.
Luck was with the Canucks throughout the conference championship series, right down to the end. The Sharks played -- finally -- their best game of the series in Game 5 -- spirited, competitive and intelligently aggressive, even with their captain and top player, Joe Thornton, at less than full effectiveness because he was skating with a separated shoulder. Still, they earned their 2-1 lead in the dying moments of regulation and had it not been for Roberto Luongo's heroics in Vancouver's net, they'd be playing Game 6 tonight. Luongo made stops like this...
...and despite his obligatory one strange goal per game (this one helped by Henrik Sedin's blueline bobble)...
....he had perhaps his best game of the playoffs, maybe his postseason career. Luongo stopped 54 shots, including 16 in the first overtime period.
But it only got to OT because the Hockey Gods wanted it that way. They worked their magic in the last minute of regulation as the linesmen failed to see Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle's clearing shot barely glance off Henrik Sedin before traveling the rest of the way down the ice. The contact would have negated an icing call. But it didn't go that way and the result was a faceoff to Antti Niemi's left and the Hockey Gods compelled Boyle to drift just slightly toward the corner, leaving Ryan Kesler with enough space in front to redirect Henrik's shot.
Watching Kesler pull up lame and limp off during the second period, you had to think the Canucks' sparkplug would be lost for the rest of the game. How he returned and played effectively is between him and the team's medical staff, but the Hockey Gods surely had a say in the matter. Any other year, Kesler's ailment would have been too severe for him to continue.
The Hockey Gods continued smiling on Vancouver through the overtime. San Jose was the better team, at least on this night. You've probably seen the game-winner by now, but no one saw the puck other than Kevin Bieksa, who had a marvelous series. He sent the Canucks through to the final with a two-hopper past Niemi while everyone else sought the whereabouts of the delinquent disc.
A lot has to go right for any team to get this far. In drawing the Sharks, the Canucks faced a team that was, in many ways, their mirror image. These teams finished 1-2 overall in the regular season. Each played a rugged style, combining world-class skill with a fondness for play along the wall and banging bodies. Each had questions in goal. Each had the label of playoff underachievers and demons to exorcise. Each had trouble this spring putting their playoff foes away, including an opponent who rallied from a 3-0 hole and forced a nail-biting Game 7 victory.
The Canucks' advantage was that their seven-game demon, the Blackhawks, had been dispatched in the first round, and they got a six-day break after eliminating Nashville. The Sharks had just gone the limit with Detroit in the tightest seven game series in Stanley Cup history -- six games decided by one goal, the seventh a de facto one-goal game by virtue of an empty-netter. It took its toll.
Too many of the Sharks secondary scorers had little to nothing left for conference final. Coach Todd McLellan mentioned a few times that he thought he had too many passengers early in the series. Ryane Clowe, one of their best playoff performers, was -- as we suspected -- playing hurt. But David Pollak of The San Jose Mercury News reports that Clowe's injury was sustained before the playoffs started. Niklas Kronwall's hit on him in the Detroit series merely aggravated a preexisting condition.
San Jose's defense corps, no match for Vancouver's in depth and mobility, could not contain the Sedins and Alex Burrows, who awoke after a prolonged nap for half of the first round and all of the second. One suspects that GM Doug Wilson may look to upgrade in this area in the offseason, and perhaps try to find a shutdown defenseman who will take some of the burden away from hard-hitting but slow Douglas Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
How many other changes he'll make is a matter of speculation. Dany Heatley, who played well in Game 5 but not prior, has a huge contract and a problem keeping up with the pace of playoff hockey. Wilson may have trouble finding takers if he offers Heatley around the league.
The Sharks' lack of composure didn't help them, either. Ben Eager, a Stanley Cup champion last season, should have known better. He took foolish penalties and acted somewhat stupidly in Game 2. His comportment forced McLellan to take not just Eager, but the entire fourth line out of the lineup for Game 3. It may not be a big thing, but at his best, Eager provides experience and toughness to the Sharks' lineup. If he wasn't playing his role well, however, McLellan had to change things around. It worked for one game, but that was it.
"We obviously didn't get the win, and that's what we came here for," McLellan said (quoted by Pollak). "The series itself, we lose a game possibly because of fatigue. We ran out of gas in Game 1. We lose our composure in Game 2. We get to Game 4 and it's a matter of about four minutes' worth of penalties. Tonight was bounces. In my opinion, we got better as the series went on."
Perhaps. But the Canucks were better from the start and stayed that way. And they had the Hockey Gods on their side.