And We Will Have A New Champion
VANCOUVER--And a city, a province, can breathe again. For a few days, anyway.
Soon, Vancouver's Canucks will turn their attention to the Nashville Predators, and try very, very hard to convince themselves that they didn't win the Stanley Cup Tuesday night at Rogers Arena.
It just felt like it.
It just felt like it after Alex Burrows, seemingly torn between being hero or goat all night long, jumped to grab a misplayed clearing attempt by Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Chris Campoli in the sixth minute of overtime, dropped the puck in front of his skates and raced to the middle of the Chicago zone in front of netminder Corey Crawford.
The puck was rolling, ideally so in Burrows' mind.
"When the puck is rolling like that, it's tough for any goalie to pick it up. It dips, it changes directions," said Burrows. "If he stops it, it's because it hits him."
It didn't. Instead, the spinning puck flew past the upper right arm of Crawford to give Vancouver a 2-1 triumph on the eighth consecutive night of Stanley Cup playoffs overtime action, ending the Chicago goaltender's brilliant night and the one-year championship reign of the Blackhawks. This was a champion torn in half by the demands of the six-year-old NHL salary cap system, and it was thus symbolic, perhaps, that Campoli and Crawford, neither of whom was on the team that beat Philly in six last June, were victimized on the goal that killed the champs.
Not that either was to blame, necessarily, but having to replace so many parts was too much for the Hawks to overcome. Still, they went out on their collective shield, fighting back from a 3-0 series deficit to force Tuesday's savagely beautiful Game 7 clash.
"Who knows how far we could have gone if we had won this game," said a despondent but defiant Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who nearly saved the Hawks with an extraordinary shorthanded goal in the dying minutes of regulation.
"We have a lot to be proud of. This was a learning experience. But as I said before, (Vancouver) was a beatable team, they have holes. . . .and we know what we have in this locker room. Putting ourselves three games to none just made it too tough."
While technically only a first round series, this was one built over three years and made excruciatingly dramatic by the refusal of the Hawks to roll over and die. They hammered the Canucks in Games 4 and 5, won Game 6 in overtime on rookie Ben Smith's goal and turned what at first appeared to be an easy series victory for the Presidents Trophy-winning Canucks into a terrific scrap.
In the end, the goaltending gamble of Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault to start backup Cory Schneider in Game 6 and then return his team's fate to the pads of Vezina Trophy nominee Roberto Luongo for Game 7 worked perfectly. It changed the narrative of the series, altered the loosey-goosey manner in which the NHL's best defensive team had played in the fourth and fifth games and ultimately served notice to Luongo that he needed to perform to stay in the crease.
Luongo did that with 31 saves, although he was actually outshone by Crawford, and in so doing Luongo restored the faith of Vancouver fans in his ability just one year after backstopping the Canadian Olympic team to a gold medal on the same ice surface.
"This one may be better than the Olympics," he said with a wide smile.
Burrows, meanwhile, scored Vancouver's first goal, missed a third period penalty shot, was one of the Canucks who failed to stop Toews on his shorthanded goal at 18:04 of the third and then took an offensive zone holding penalty just 24 seconds into OT.
After Vancouver GM Mike Gillis had ripped the league's officials the day before for allegedly favouring the Hawks in the series, it seemed like just desserts for such obvious gamesmanship. But the Canucks killed the penalty brilliantly, just as they had with a Jannik Hansen tripping penalty earlier, and both saved Burrows from being the goat and gave him the chance to be the hero.
Campoli, deep in his team's own zone, tried to flip the puck in the air over Burrows and into neutral ice. But he partially flubbed the attempt, allowing Burrows to intercept and fire Vancouver's 38th shot of the night.
"I didn't get a clear read on it," said Crawford of the OT winner. Asked if it felt good to have played so well in a Game 7 situation as a rookie, he said: "It would have felt great if we had won."
Burrows said he was impressed by the way his team responded after Toews scored late to turn a victory party into an overtime nail-biter.
"We didn't feel good about it," he said. "But it would have been easy for us to fold. It would have been an easy excuse to quit. But we regrouped."
Defeat, of course, would have produced an endless off-season in Vancouver, probably cost Vigneault his job and maybe pushed Luongo out the door. Instead, a second round joust with the Predators awaits after Nashville eliminated Anaheim in the first round.
B.C boy Shea Weber will lead the Preds into Vancouver, and the matchup will feature two Vezina finalists in Luongo and Pekka Rinne of Nashville.
"For us, it's a matter of using this as a starting point," said Vigneault. "We didn't get into the playoffs just to get by one round. But the Stanley Cup champions sure pushed us to the limit."
Both teams made two lineup changes for the game, one each forced by injury. Vancouver blueliner Sami Salo couldn't go, so Keith Ballard went in for the big Finn after being a healthy scratch for two games. Grinder Tanner Glass was inserted for rookie centre Cody Hodgson.
For Chicago, left winger Bryan Bickell couldn't play because of a wrist problem, and head coach Joel Quenneville took out enforcer John Scott, intriguing in that the Hawks hadn't lost since Scott had gone in the wake of the controversial Raffi Torres hit on Brent Seabrook in Game 3. Lineup additions for the champs were youngster Marcus Kruger and Fernando Pisani, the former Oiler playoff hero.
Ballard played very well, while neither Kruger nor Pisani was able to adequately compensate for the loss of the big, grinding Bickell.
The Canucks got precisely the start they wanted, with Burrows scoring his second in two games at 2:43 of the first period. Chicago got caught on a line change, allowing Mason Raymond to redirect a short pass to a speeding Ryan Kesler just outside the Hawk blueline.
Kesler feinted inside, then wheeled to the outside and around 2010 Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. Eschewing the shot, he backhanded a perfect pass across the goalmouth to Burrows, who slammed it into the open side for the only goal of the first.
The Hawks outshot Vancouver 12-8 in the period, and after that early Canuck push, the visitors were the better team for the rest of the period and killed off a chintzy cross-checking call on Seabrook, as well.
Partway through the second the Hawks got their first power play of the night on a tripping call on Hansen, but the Vancouver penalty kill was brilliant, generating two shots to none for the visitors. After that, the home team dominated the final eight minutes, twice bottling Chicago in its own end for extended periods and forcing Crawford to make a variety of excellent saves.
The Canucks also got a break partway through the period on a quick whistle when Luongo appeared to freeze the puck off a Keith shot, but as he fell backwards the puck came loose and bounced into the net behind him.
Over two periods, the Canucks built a 23-18 shots advantage.
It looked like they might take that 1-0 margin to victory, but several missed golden Canuck scoring chances and Crawford's brilliant goaltending kept the defending champions in the game. Just 21 seconds into the third, Burrows was awarded a penalty shot after being hauled down by Keith on a clean breakaway on fresh ice, but the Vancouver winger was stoned by Crawford on a five-hole attempt.
With eight minutes gone in the third, Henrik Sedin and Burrows found themselves in a two-on-none situation deep in the Chicago zone, but Sedin inexplicably passed up the chance from a perfect shooting position and passed off to Burrows, who fumbled the puck away into Crawford.
Then, with five minutes left in regulation, Crawford make three consecutive stops, first on Chris Higgins, then Burrows, then Kesler, who couldn't lift the puck over the fallen Hawks goaltender.
Just over a minute later, Keith found himself chasing Burrows on a breakaway yet again, and was forced to hook him to give the Canucks a late power play. But on an incredible effort by Toews, the Chicago captain fought off Burrows and Dan Hamhuis trying to haul him to the ice and got the puck to the crease when Marian Hossa swiped at it.
Luongo made that stop, but Toews, on his knees, chopped the loose puck into the Vancouver net to send the game to OT.
It was almost enough to save the champs, but not quite. And it allowed this Canadian city to breathe again, at least until the next drama begins to unfold.