June 01 2011 01:07PM
Tonight the Canucks will play game one of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins. It will mark only the teams third appearance in the finals in their forty year existence, and their first as the favourite to win. Boston is a big physical team with the best goaltender, and the biggest 1A Dman on the planet, so it should be a tough fought series.
The series has been previewed ad nauseum during the break between the end of the conference finals, and today. So rather than preview what is to come, I enlisted the help of Canucks icon “The Stanchion” to recap the most memorable moments from the run that brought the Canucks to the finals. And what better way to succinctly recap a memorable run (the events of which, we will eventually exaggerate in comic fashion) than with a nerd friendly top-10 list. Fasten your High Fidelity helmet, and come re-live the best moments from the Canucks 2011 run through the Western Conference!
# 10. “Payback”
Admit it. You’ve watched games, seen the other team run over one a Canuck, then jumped up and screamed “Kill that guy! Someone get him!” Well, that’s just what Keith Ballard did.
Let’s set the scene first. Game 3, Jamie “5th liner” McGinn was put in the game due to Ben “I swear I have talent” Eager losing his mind the game before. McGinn’s not what you call a “sniper,” he is more of the “that is my puck, don’t you ever touch my puck” kind of guy.
McGinn, true to form, began to unleash his inner Happy Gilmore. Early in the game, he took out Ehrhoff with a solid clean check. However, McGinn wasn’t satisfied with this, a man like McGinn - he demands blood. So McGinn went looking for another victim, which he found in Aaron “I may be Alain Vigneaults illegitimate son” Rome. McGinn saw Rome turning to play the puck and he ran him into the boards, dropping Rome to the ice in a bloody mess. McGinn took a 5 minute major, which allowed the Canucks to sneak back into a game.
Now, making the Sharks almost pay for that 5 minute major was nice, but let’s not lie, it’s not completely satisfying. That wasn’t enough. We wanted payback.
Which brings us to game 4 when Keith “Holy crap, I’m playing?” Ballard was inserted into the lineup due to the injuries on the Canucks back-end. Rome and Ehrhoff were both out. Ballard had to shoulder the load on defence, and perhaps, throw in a bit of revenge. Which is what he did when McGinn, deftly ignoring the puck as only McGinn can, came barreling in on Keith Ballard, looking to add another victim to his list.
What McGinn failed to realize is that Shakira wasn’t lying - the hips - they don’t lie. Keith Ballard went ahead and laid out the mother of all hip checks on McGinn, sending him head over foot, slamming to the ice. McGinn could only watch in horror as his life flipped upside down, pondering that perhaps he picked on the wrong guy in this case, before he slammed into the ice.
Yes, folks, McGinn had ensured he would be used on internet boards around the world forever as an animated gif. Payback had been served. The fact that he whined about the hit afterwards? That's the cherry-on-top.
#9. “Blackhawk Down”
Raffi “***** Rights!” Torres. Oh how I hated him when he played for Edmonton. He would score goal after goal on Dan “Flyers quality goaltending” Cloutier, pumping his arms, swearing to the crowd, and generally having among the worlds most punchable faces. I despised him. He wasas hated a player as I can remember the Canucks having to play in the last 10 years. (He's no Messier though. No one can take that title from Messier).
But then we signed him, and I realized how mistaken I was (also that I'm a huge homer!). His over the top goal celebrations? Well those are merely the expression of his unbridled enthusiasm for the game of hockey. His massive borderline hits? Come on, those are solid hockey plays! The creepy stare he gives the media in interviews? He simply needs contact lenses.
Yes, I learned to love Raffie. He's streaky, but when he's on – look out. He's the one player on our team who can win a game with a hit alone. It may get you in trouble with the NHL, but god bless him, he just doesn’t care (or understand), he just jumps back out there and continues hitting.
Which is what he did to Seabrook. The Blackhawks, the arch rivals, the enemy of all enemies, had beaten the Canucks up the last two years - both on the scoreboard and on the ice. Vancouver needed to beat them this year, had to upstage them. Raffi was part of that. He saw Seabrook looking down at his feet and decided to show him what a real body-check looks like, and he laid him out.
Raffi took the entire angst of a city, loaded it up in his shoulder, and brought the hammer of angry Canuck fan retribution out on Brent Seabrook.
Was it a clean hit? Was it dirty? Did that hit spark the Blackhawks to win 3 games? We could debate many things about the hit. But in the end, I will stand by the fact that Raffi was just being Raffi (kind of an ass-hole), and that is one of the reasons Vancouver is in the finals. When you have a guy that hits like a tank, well, you let him hit like a tank. Gillis didn’t sign him for his passing or his fearsome red beard (after all, Torres isn't a Sedin).
#8. “The Chicken Wing”
When you have the leagues best power-play, and are playing against a stellar defensive team and otherworldly goaltending – a little bit of gamesmanship goes a long way. Sure, twitter will explode with sanctimonious accusations that your team is a group of divers – but who cares. The Canucks are lovable underdog losers no more, for the first time in team history – they're the detestable juggernaut – and it's awesome.
In overtime of the pivotal third game against Nashville (after Joel Ward had tied the game on a typical Predators bank-shot), Ryan Kesler drew a clutch “holding” call on Shea Weber. He felt Weber's stick on his mid-section, and rather than make even a perfunctory attempt to get away, he lodged Weber's stick under his arm and drew the hold. It wasn't really a hold (though Weber had, perhaps, deserved a call earlier on the play) but what does that matter? It was called a hold, and Kesler tipped the game winning goal past Pekka Rinne.
You can go on about integrity, you can go on about diving ruining the game, whatever. The Canucks need to win, and if gamesmanship helps them do it – go for it. Call this cheap if you want, you're entitled to your opinion, but I'll call it smart. How do you pronounce banana? Oh wait, I don't care.
#7. ‘Sharks Exposed’
Ben “I wasn’t hugged as a child” Eager. Oh we know him well in Vancouver. He was with the dreaded Blackhawks last year, and was allowed to feel really good about his game as he was backed up by one of the deepest teams in recent memory. He could go out on the ice, run around starting trouble, and his team was none the worse for the wear. But much like Adam Burish, Ben Eager soon found out that once he left the Blackhawks, his ‘talents’ could only do so much before he was exposed for what he is, a 4th line goon. When we saw Eager begin to unravel in game two, many of us in Vancouver weren’t too shocked.
Eager is really good at, well, being Ben Eager (and not much else). When he saw Patrick Marleau drop the gloves with Kevin Bieksa, his composure went out the window. Despite the fact that Marleau dropped his gloves first, Eager somehow felt he needed to take "revenge" on the Canucks, so he plowed Daniel Sedin from behind, in a hit that Jamie McGinn would say “needed more blood.” Eager wasn’t done there though, as he continued to take penalties throughout the game, ending with the ultimate in Ben Eager awesomeness. He scored a late goal in a blowout, and decided to trash talk a fallen Roberto Luongo. Yes, that Ben Eager learned a lot with the Chicago Blackhawks, and like the entirety of that roster, is a true and consistent gentleman.
You would think the Eager craziness, or the Marleau fight would be the main talking point, but this was all firmly overshadowed by the Twins finally showing up. No, not the Sedin twins, the other Twins. A young woman, perhaps thinking that Ben Eager looked a little cold, took off her shirt and offered it up to Ben Eager. Instantly Twitter reacted with “OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE THAT??” as PVR’s around the world were set to “Do not record over.” Yes, the people of the internet were buzzing about 'The Flasher.' In one swift moment, a woman immortalized herself in Vancouver hockey lore, and rumour has it, cost her a job.
Sadly for Ben Eager, the Flasher would have more of an impact on the series than Eager himself, as Eager did not play another game in the playoffs. The Flasher, perhaps inspiring the Sedin twins, spurred Henrik on to an amazing series, and left us with memories to last a lifetime.
#6. The Comeback
When an errant puck struck Manny Malhotra in the eye in a game against Colorado on March 16th, the Canucks suffered a serious blow to their championship aspirations.
Manny, the Canucks defensive ace, face-off specialist and the most important penalty-killer on the team, lost for the season and the playoffs?
Or - to steal an old Donkey Kong country trop - was he? In early May, Manny Malhotra began skating, which, was excellent news considering how he almost lost his eye two months earlier. Then he began skating with the team, and soon he was participating in drills and wearing full-gear. Then he was cleared for contact. Now he's been cleared to play, and he's passed the NHL's absurd minimum vision requirements. News out of Canucks camp is that Bolduc-Oreskovich and Tambellini will start on the fourth line in game 1 of the Finals, however, at this point, do we trust anything the organization says about line-ups or injured players?
Just for coming back to the point of being able to play if needed, Manny Malhotra belongs squarely on this list. He is all heart, he's a fan-favourite, he plays tough minutes and he represents everything good about the way this team comports themselves on and off the ice (except for the off-ice organizational dishonesty).
Let's put it this way, if Malhotra returns and contributes in a meaningful way – that moment will be a lot higher on the list we make after the finals, than number 6.
#5. AV's Decision
After game five of the Chicago series, Luongo - whose numbers against the Blackhawks leave a lot to be desired - was facing his usual level of criticism. Sure the team hadn't shown up, but it was “all on him” in the minds of the media and many fans. Apparently, his coach agreed, and made a last-second change, starting the rookie Cory Schneider over Roberto Luongo in game 6.
It's easy to look back now and laugh at this, but at the time this was a massive moment in the history of Luongo's tenure with the Canucks. It was also a coaching error (in my opinion), and AV was lucky the Canucks won game 7 and spared him from the chopping block. Regardless of what you think of it, it was a gutsy, gutsy call by the Canucks head-coach.
We all know how it turned out, but the moment I checked my phone on Easter Sunday and heard the news is one I'll never forget. That mix of panic, amazement and confusion, which, was instantly shared by my family. The hand-wringing about the decision and the level of criticism (of Vigneault and Luongo) were unreal, and for good reason.
It was – potentially – the biggest story in the history of Vancouver sports, and had Schneider won game 6, or had the Canucks lost game 7, it would've been dissected and over-analyzed all summer. It was also a watershed moment in the Canucks run through the Western Conference. Since allowing the OT goal to Ben Smith in game 6 Luongo has been lights-out (at least on shots taken from in front of the net).
It's a good thing Luongo has regained his blue-chip form too, because as good as Schneider is – he's just a bit too green around the gills for this moment. Roberto Luongo – “the choker”, the Olympic Gold medalist, the former Hart nominee – yeah that guy, he's the only right call for the Canucks in net.
#4. “The Back-Check”
Much like “The Save”, there are some things that can simply be described in two words to sports fans, and they automatically know what you’re talking about. Go ahead non-Vancouver fans, ask someone in Vancouver “What’s ‘The Save?’” Once they’re done staring at you in horror for not knowing what ‘The Save’ is, they will break down, frame by frame, exactly what happened back in 1994 when Kirk McLean robbed Robert Reichel in game 7 overtime. “Well you see, Fleury was breaking in, and the popcorn guy was passing over a hotdog to the guy in seat 6, row 3, and the Mascot was adjusting his tail, while the trainer was dialing up on his modem to place a bet on the Montreal Expos….” Etc etc
To me, this is the kind of recognition that Jeff Tambellini should get for his effort in game 6 of the series against Nashville. In just 4 minutes and 41 seconds total playing time, Tambellini made one of the biggest plays of the playoffs in my opinion, and showed the kind of effort needed throughout the lineup to win the cup.
To set the scene, Tambellini had just hopped off the bench when an ailing Henrik made an ill advised pass to the point that bounced past Tambellini. Tambellini, realizing his future playing time was on the line, watched in horror as Erat grabbed the puck at center.
Maybe for a mortal man, the play would have been over at this point. Bieksa was on the other side of the ice, and he couldn’t make it back. But Rambo Tambo, the local boy who signed with his childhood team this year to win the Cup, said “screw that” and decided to skate his ass off.
Tambellini ended up skating back into the play to stop Erat’s breakaway. Not only did he stop the breakaway, he did so without taking a penalty. That is what is so amazing about this play. Tambellini never stopped skating, and instead of hooking Erat or slowing down and trying to trip him, Tambo actually angles himself until he gets inside on Erat and, as Jim Hughson so eloquently put it, “buried” Erat into the ice, preventing a potential goal in a one goal game.
Should the Canucks win the cup, this play will stand out to me as the types of plays that win you championships, and shows you that even one shift by a 4th liner can have huge implications on your run to the cup.
#3. “The Long 5-on-3”
History often names things inaccurately. “The Hundred Years War” was really about 30 smaller conflicts that spanned a little over one hundred and fifty years. Similarly “The Long 5-on-3” was really a series of 4 Sharks penalties, taken within two minutes and forty-six seconds of each other, and it only lasted one minute and fifty-five seconds. But what a minute, fifty-five seconds it was. How long does it take to functionally end a teams season? One hundred and fifteen seconds.
What's so memorable about “The Long 5-on-3”, was how incredibly unlikely it was. I've never seen a team penalized four times in under three minutes during a playoff game, and it's possible that I'll never see it again. Also, success with the two-man-advantage had eluded the Canucks all season. Going into the 2nd period of game four, the Canucks were 0 for 6 with the two man advantage in the playoffs, and 1 for 15 if you count the playoffs and the regular season.
But this instance was different. With Ehrhoff out, and the Finnish Macinnis in, the Canucks found their legs 5-on-3. On the first goal, Henrik sent a pass to Salo at the point, he faked shot before dishing to Kesler for a wicked one-timer top-corner on Niemi. On the second and third goal, Salo just hammered the puck (and on the third goal took about a 10 pace wind-up that started in the neutral zone) and shot it right through Niemi.
The word that comes to mind is clinical. The Canucks put one on. Even though the Sharks outplayed the Canucks in game 5 – after “The Long 5-on-3” the result of the Western Conference Final wasn't really in doubt.
#2. “The Bounce”
Oh, that fateful bounce off the stanchion. A subject dear to my heart. Avid google watchers (Don’t lie, you people exist) were probably surprised to see many people suddenly googling “stanchion” on May 24th. Why were people googling the word ‘stanchion’ in numbers unseen since March 8th? Because the stanchion had just made one of the most famous passes in Canuck history.
The Canucks, mired in an overtime slugfest with the Sharks, were barely hanging on. Things weren’t always so grim. The Canucks had in fact managed to tie up the game with 13 seconds left, and riding that momentum, came out flying in the first five minutes of the first overtime. They came close to scoring early, but then the ice began to tilt.
Suddenly the Sharks were getting the majority of chances in overtime, with 16 shots in the first OT. The Sharks, must've been feeling the pressure from fans and media back home who would surely ask the old question, if they lost the game: “Again?” It showed, the Sharks really began pressing for the overtime winner. But Luongo was standing on his head to keep the Canucks in the game, and his stellar play set the stage for one of the most improbable goals in Canuck history.
It started with a Higgins breakaway. The Canucks, reeling from the Sharks pressure, somehow managed to spring Higgins in for a breakaway. I was at the game live, I saw him break in and I was convinced it was over. All Higgins had to do was tuck the puck in the corner of the net and then all I had to do was decide if I should fist bump the guy beside me, do a high five, or maybe I should go for the manly half-hug, wait, what, he didn’t score?
I sat down and began to do the fatalist mantra Canuck fans know all too well. “Well, it’s over. That’s ok. The Canucks came far this year. It’s fine. It was a good run. The Sharks will ride this game all the way to game 7, I might as well accept it now. Once game 7 hits, it’s anyone’s game. If you don’t score on an overtime breakaway, you just don’t deserve to win.”
Yet this year, something was different. This year, the Canucks haven’t folded under pressure. This year, the Canucks have said “screw the past” and decided to not be the loveable losers they’ve been for most of their NHL existence. This year, the Canucks got “The Bounce”.
Buoyed by the Higgins breakaway, the Canucks began generating chances in the Sharks zone. The crowd was buzzing, the Canucks were getting close. Could this be history repeating itself? The Canucks in game 5 of a double overtime game in the Western Championships? Did someone sneak Greg “Gus” Adams into the lineup?
The Canucks kept the pressure on and came agonizingly close on several occasions. You could almost taste the goal. Would it be a Ryan Kesler wrist-shot? A Henrik Sedin back pass to brother Daniel? Raffi Torres dropkicking the puck, and goalie, into the net?
Nope. None of the above. What happened was the stanchion, and perhaps fate, stepped in and sent the Canucks to the finals. Edler tried to get the puck low by playing it high off the glass from the point, but somehow the puck hit the stanchion and bounced past Edler, towards the point where Bieksa was waiting.
This is a play that you couldn’t recreate in a thousand attempts. The Sharks, thinking the puck had followed the normal rules of physics and gone up into the mesh, slowed up and stopped skating. Niemi, looked left and right. He hugged the right post. He couldn’t track the puck.
No one had any idea the puck was rolling towards Bieksa at the point, until Couture realized it. He screamed “point point!” in horror, and Marleau turned and saw the puck. But it was too late. All he could do was watch as Kevin Bieksa – drawing on what I assume is his vast knowledge of Mighty Ducks movies – unleashed a ‘Knuckle puck’ shot that bounced and skipped its way towards the net.
Niemi, sensing something was terribly wrong, looked back towards the point and saw the puck out of the corner of his eye. Too late. The puck bounced into the net and came back out. Kevin Bieksa screamed “Let’s go to the cup!” and the entire city exploded with joy. Confetti rained from the sky and annoyed Glenn Healy, the refs discussed how they could overturn the goal, Darren Pang got angrier and angrier, as Craig Simpson began to weep gently. The Canucks had booked themselves a ticket to the Stanley Cup finals. Nothing was stopping them this year.
This is the type of goal that makes fans think “This is our year, it has to be fate.” Will the Canucks beat Boston for the Stanley Cup? I honestly don’t know. But if they do manage to pull it off, I will never forget the stanchion. The stanchion has me believing that fate might finally on our side for once. And it feels kind of nice.*
* If Boston wins the Stanley Cup I retain the right to burn any copy of this article, sobbing the entire time, asking “Why do the hockey gods mock us so??? Why?!?!?”
#1. “The Exorcism”
Most Canucks fans expected the Blackhawks to be a tough out in the first round of the playoffs. Sure, the 2010-11 Blackhawks were a shadow of their former selves, having shipped a lot of elite talent to Atlanta (enjoy Winnipeg Bfuglien!) because of cap issues – but they were better than their record and seed indicated.
Further, there was something frightening, fateful even, about the way the 3rd Canucks-Blackhawks matchup in as many years came to be. The Blackhawks backed into the playoffs, and only made the cut because a Marc Crawford team choked against the Minnesota Wild (that sentence alone should make any decent Canucks fan shudder).
The Canucks came out on fire – especially Jannick Hansen – and built a stranglehold 3-0 series lead. Luongo was lights out, the team was composed and Winnipeg's favourite robot, Jonathan Toews, was making classless comments to reporters – it was a Canucks fans wet-dream.
Then, as it so often has in the past, it all came undone. The Blackhawks got Dave Bolland back, and overcame the loss of Brent Seabrook to a concussion. They pulverized Luongo and the Canucks in the second period of game 4. They didn't take their foot off the peddle in the first period of game 5, which became a rout before it even started.
By game six, there was full-blown panic among Canucks fans. Could this epic season end in the first round at the hands of the nemesis Blackhawks? Having seen the Canucks get swept by the Hawks in 95; having seen them choke away game 4, and the series, in 2009; and having watched the Canucks get totally trounced in 2010 – this was too much. Our fan wet-dream, had become an abject nightmare.
Vigneault started Cory Schneider over Luongo in the sixth game of the series, and the Canucks absolutely, and totally, outplayed the Blackhawks. However, some rookie puck-handling mistakes by Schneider, and opportunistic finishing by those jerks with the racist uniforms from Chicago, cost the Canucks the game. Frolik broke Schneider's ankles on a penalty-shot in the third, and Luongo replaced him. The embattled Luongo acquitted himself well, but looked awful on Ben Smith's (where do the Hawks find these Canucks killers?) OT winner. The image of Luongo face down on the ice after mishandling a Hossa shot, as the winner sailed uncontested into the awning cage, seemingly typified the whole of the Canucks history.
So it was do-or-die time when game 7 began in Vancouver. I went to the barber and got my playoff beard shaved. I was saying crazy things like “this might be it for me and the Canucks,” and “why do I care this much about sports.” I was in abject denial.
So game 7 began, and Kesler carried the team. He beat Duncan Keith cleanly and made a beauty play to Burrows early in the first to start the game off on the right foot. The Canucks controlled possession, handily out-chanced and totally smothered Chicago. Unfortunately, Corey Crawford was possessed by the ghost of 1993 Patrick Roy, and stopped everything thrown at him, including a Burrows penalty shot and three heart-stopping saves on Higgins, Burrows and Kesler late in the third.
And that's when the worst 25 minutes in the history of my experience as a Canucks fan happened. Chicago took a penalty with minutes to go, I breathlessly and naively exclaimed “it's over!” I let my guard down.
That's when that dullard Jonathan Toews took advantage of a mishandled pass by Alex Burrows, out-muscled Christian Ehrhoff and got a quality chance on Luongo, which, was stopped. From his knees, however, Toews capitalized on his own rebound and scored an all-heart short-handed goal to tie up a game the Blackhawks had no business being in, with just over a minute to play.
I can't even describe the hollow feeling in my stomach at this moment. My girlfriend and my roommate were eyeing me nervously, I poured a quintuple glass of Beam, I smoked 4 cigarettes, I looked up Bill Simmons' levels of losing column and tried to place where this loss might rank. I found a certain fatalist resolve with the words, “This is the team I've chosen – for better or worse.” I braced myself.
When Burrows – who had whiffed on a penalty-shot and mishandled a pass leading to Toews' shorty – took a weak penalty in OT, I put my head in my hands and almost wept. Chicago's power-play had been effective all series, and surely with the way this series was going, they'd find a way. And they did, with a wonderful cross-crease passing play that culminated in a dangerous Patrick Sharp chance from the slot. But Bieksa had taken the most dangerous passing angle away, and Luongo – the guy who can't make the important saves, and who can't win the big one – moved adroitly cross-crease and made a beauty “clutch” save.
Then it was time, for the biggest goal – considering the stakes – in Canucks history. Alex Burrows, the potential goat, was on the forecheck. Chris Campoli made a solid clearing attempt off the boards, but Alex “Claude Lemieux” Burrows, looking like a young Derek Jeter, gloved the attempt, dropped the puck and took off towards the high-slot. He had a step, I stood up.
Burrows picked his spot, he got all of the puck which, was moving when he shot it. It wobbled maliciously over Crawford's blocker and went into the net, top-corner. Pandemonium ensued, disaster had been averted, and thanks to Burrows' goal, Canucks fans were spared from spending their summer spinning their heads 360 degrees around while vomiting profusely. The exorcism was successful.