Game 7 grips Vancouver like Olympic final
Less than 16 months ago, Sidney Crosby scored Canada's golden goal on this rink, winning the Olympic tournament and ending the biggest hockey game in Vancouver's history.
A sprawling, jubilant celebration consumed downtown after that goal last February. It was just a warmup.
Just wait and see what happens Wednesday night if the Vancouver Canucks win Game 7 (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET) to claim the Stanley Cup — or even if the Boston Bruins take it home for themselves.
Ryan Kesler scored for the losing U.S. national team in that gold-medal game last year, but the playmaking centre will skate for the Canucks to end the Stanley Cup Final. Kesler has nursed an undisclosed injury throughout the final rounds of a gruelling post-season, but he can't wait to play a game that could help define many of the participants' careers.
"It's tough to compare the two, but I think one difference is I've got 18,000 [fans] on my side this time and an entire city and country," Kesler said Tuesday after the Canucks' final practice.
"It's going to be a little different that way. It's going to be fun.
"The Olympics was a great experience, but I've seen what these guys have worked so hard for all year. As a team, as a family, we want this really bad."
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But so do the Bruins, who have won three of the series' last four games, blowing out the Canucks three times in Boston. Tim Thomas has allowed just eight Canucks goals in six games, yet Vancouver has stayed even with three one-goal victories at home.
"This is the biggest game of our lives, and we just have to treat it that way," Boston captain Zdeno Chara said after his club's last workout.
The Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks and the profoundly resilient Bruins will settle everything in their 107th and final game. Both teams are ready to enjoy their drastically shortened summers, but nobody can bear the thought of coming this far without drinking from the Stanley Cup.
"Everything in the past is in the past," Kesler said. "If we win … we become legends."
The Canucks are painfully close to claiming the Stanley Cup for the first time in the history of a franchise born in 1970. They've reached this precipice before during two previous trips to the finals, but Mark Messier's New York Rangers beat them in Game 7 in 1994.
Although the current Canucks have been outplayed for long stretches of the final, they're ready to reap their reward for grinding out the NHL's best regular-season record. They get to play Game 7 at home — and home-ice advantage has meant more than anybody expected in a series that's otherwise been utterly unpredictable.
Vancouver's top scorers have been mostly silenced, with the Sedin twins combining for five points and Kesler managing one assist. The Bruins have been wildly inconsistent, dominating on both ends of their home ice and struggling for even the simplest scoring chances in Vancouver.
The Canucks flopped in their first attempt at a clincher Monday in Boston, with Roberto Luongo — Team Canada's victorious netminder in the Olympic gold-medal game -- getting pulled for the second time. The Bruins have been steadier, and Thomas has been stronger while closing in on the chance to end the Original Six franchise's 39-year Stanley Cup drought.
"When we're in the garage or driveway playing as a kid and you're fantasizing … you're saying to yourself, 'Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals,"' said Thomas, the likely Conn Smythe Trophy winner no matter Wednesday's result.
"You're not saying Game 6, you know? So this is really what every kid dreams about."
Thomas and the Bruins will attempt to become the first NHL team to win a Game 7 three times in the same post-season after beating Montreal and Tampa Bay earlier. The Original Six franchise has never played a Game 7 in the final, not even while losing its last five trips to the championship round since 1972.
'Playoff hockey at its finest'
Both teams have played under playoff stress this spring, but no pressure in hockey can match the intensity of a close third period in Game 7 of the final, when one superb play or a single mistake can change a player's reputation forever. Anybody who fears that scenario didn't show it after Tuesday's workouts at Rogers Arena.
"This is playoff hockey at its finest," Vancouver centre Manny Malhotra said. "No one wants to budge on home ice.
"This entire series has been a full playoff experience, filled with a lot of different types of games."
And nobody exemplifies this series' strange duality better than Luongo. Vancouver's enigmatic goalie has been outstanding at home, allowing just two goals in three games while posting two 1-0 shutouts, but the Canucks' $10-million man was horrific in Boston, giving up 15 goals in slightly more than four periods.
Perhaps after one final head-clearing walk on the Vancouver seawall, his meditation of choice before two key victories this postseason, he'll get his last chance at redemption on the same ice where he claimed a gold medal.
"We're going to put what happened [in Game 6] behind us as soon as possible and get ready for, obviously, what is going to be a dream, playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals," Luongo told reporters Monday.
"I've been in those situations before. I know how to handle it. I'll be ready for it."
The series' exhausting travel schedule — Boston has made five cross-continent flights, while Vancouver had a mere four — hasn't ratcheted down the intensity late in games. They're probably in for one last nail-biting game in Vancouver, where the Canucks won all three previous final matches with goals in the third period or overtime.
Both teams could draw extra emotion from injured players if they choose. Boston rallied around forward Nathan Horton after his season-ending concussion in Game 3, while the Canucks will play Game 7 without top defenceman Dan Hamhuis, lost in Game 1 to an undisclosed injury, and forward Mason Raymond, who broke a bone in his back on a hit by Boston's Johnny Boychuk early in Game 6.
Horton was the Bruins' inspiration in Game 4 and he attended Game 6. He even made the trip to Vancouver on Tuesday to support his teammates, who appeared touched by the gesture. The Bruins have set up Horton's locker and gear in the visitors' dressing room.
"If the doctor let him, he would play tomorrow," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "We all know that's not the right decision to make.
"But that's the way he's feeling. He wants to play so badly."