Breathe. Breathe, Vancouver Canucks fans. Your team finally has cleared that mental hurdle known as the Chicago Blackhawks.
Sure, the Canucks took the extra long way home to clinch the opening-round series. But after two years of watching the Blackhawks celebrate a second-round victory, Vancouver rejoiced and exorcized their postseason demons with a 2-1 overtime victory over the Stanley Cup champions in Game 7 on Tuesday. They advance to the next round against the Nashville Predators.
“I think people made it out to be a bigger deal than it was,” said Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa, when asked about finally getting past the Blackhawks. “They were a team that was in our way if we wanted to get to the Stanley Cup final.”
Yeah, right. The Canucks finished 20 points ahead of the eighth-place Blackhawks and enjoyed a stress-free run to the Presidents’ Trophy in the regular season. The Blackhawks backed into the playoffs after losing their final game to the Detroit Red Wings.
Yet, after winning the first three games of the series, the Canucks didn’t make it easy on themselves. Even in the series finale Vancouver played well enough to have closed out the affair in the second period. But a wonderful 36-save performance from Blackhawks rookie goaltender Corey Crawford kept his team in until a late-game shorthanded goal from captain Jonathan Toews, his first goal of the series, to send the game into overtime.
In the end, Alexandre Burrows bailed out his teammates, and almost cost the Canucks the game. The 30-year-old kid from Pincourt, Que., who had to start pro in the deep depths of the East Coast league and climb his way to the NHL, scored twice.
But he also took a holding penalty on Chicago blue-liner Duncan Keith that even Canucks general manager Mike Gillis couldn’t complain about to give Chicago an early power-play in overtime.
Almost three minutes after Burrows wiped the sweat of his forehead and exited the penalty box, he knocked down a clearing attempt by Chicago defenceman Chris Campoli and beat Crawford with a knuckler of a shot.
“Luckily, it went in,” said Burrows, who admitted he was nervous sitting in the penalty box for two long minutes.
“We told ourselves that tonight was the night. Obviously, we didn’t make it easy on ourselves. But we stayed with it and it feels better this way.”
When asked if agreed, Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo let out a huge sigh.
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “It’s just nice to win. I guess you can’t get any better than winning a Game 7 in overtime.”
There were so many similarities with this game to the Olympic gold-medal final 14 months ago. Canada had that game in the bag until the late goal from the United States and then had to win it in overtime. The same scenario played out for the Canucks.
Like in the Olympic final, Luongo won but was shaky at times. Ditto for the series finale against the Blackhawks. To beat Chicago, however, was a huge relief for the beleaguered goalie. In fact, after a long pause he wondered if this win wasn’t better than Olympic gold.
“I don’t know, this one might be better,” he said.
For Luongo, he needed this win more than his teammates. He didn’t want the questions of whether he could win the big game to continue to linger over the summer. He’s not out of the woods yet. He needs to win another round or two. But at least for the time being he can feel good about himself.
“It was a rough few days,” he admitted after Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault decided to start backup Cory Schneider for Game 6.
Not so rough for Luongo was to have Ryan Kesler as a teammate as opposed to the Olympics when he was with the U.S. Kesler had a monster game. He was good along with Burrows on the penalty kill and Kesler set up Burrows for his early-game goal thanks to a bad line change by the Blackhawks. But the two were on the ice when Toews worked his late-game magic. Yes, it wasn’t easy even for them.
But the Canucks move onto the next round knowing that they were the better team in this series. They just had difficulty closing the deal.
“We were the better team for five games,” Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said. “They had no business being in this series. We made it tough on ourselves.”