The crowd rose and celebrated as one. On a sheet of ice that had mostly known playoff despair there was jubilation. The Vancouver Canucks were going to the Stanley Cup finals after 17 long years.
To the finals! When the horn sounded the Canucks players swarmed their overtime hero Kevin Bieksa. Roberto Luongo, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows all joined the flash mob of Vancouver players that had swallowed up their big goal scorer. Henrik and Daniel Sedin, arguably the two most scrutinized players in Canucks history, never looked happier in a Vancouver uniform. Or more relieved.
With their 3-2 double-overtime win Tuesday, the Canucks knocked the San Jose Sharks out of the playoffs. Over the course of the series Vancouver had displayed all the talent and tenacity that made them the NHL regular season champions - and now the unquestioned favourites to win the Stanley Cup.
It wasn't long before the two teams were exchanging handshakes. It would be a long plane ride home for the Sharks after another playoff disappointment. Other than the team's injured captain Joe Thornton, and linemate Patrick Marleau, San Jose did not get the kind of effort from the rest of its team necessary to give the Canucks a true fight until the end. The Sharks played their best hockey of the series but unfortunately they left it too late. Now, GM Doug Wilson faces another off-season of critical questions.
Henrik Sedin was called to centre ice to receive the Clarence Campbell bowl, emblematic of Western Conference playoff supremacy. The same one that former Canucks captain Trevor Linden famously hoisted above his head 17 years earlier, sending its silver top crashing on to the ice.
Linden remembers well the almost surreal world the Canucks players are about to enter.
"The pressure, the scrutiny, the coverage, the big stage mentality, is all up a notch from what they've just been through," said Linden Tuesday, 17 years to the day that his then-teammate, Greg Adams, scored in double-overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs to send the Canucks to the Stanley Cup final.
Linden was teammates with many of the current Canucks players up until a few years ago. He's picking his old team to win it all and has even predicted it will be over the Boston Bruins in six games. How's that for precision and confidence?
But he doesn't accept that these Canucks are a team of destiny, because it implies, he says, a cup win was somehow just fated to happen. In his view there is nothing happenstance about this team or the results it has put up this season. And it's largely because of the man behind the bench, Alain Vigneault.
"It's the way he approaches the game," Linden said. "There's one way to play and it hasn't changed since he's been here. It's all about attention to detail, being responsible away from the puck in your own zone and everything builds off that.
"And it's ingrained in the players that this is the right way to play and many of the guys have been playing like this for years now. They've certainly refined it this season and brought in some new pieces and some of the players like Kesler and Henrik and Daniel have matured and become leaders on and off the ice. But it starts with the coach."
As a result, says the man whose No. 16 jersey will never again be worn by Vancouver player, it isn't a shock that his old team has ended up where it has. The Stanley Cup finals look good on the Canucks. It's not a fluke in the way it seemed in 1994 and 1982, the team's only other appearances there.
And what would it mean to the city, to the province, if the Canucks were able to win it all?
Certainly the franchise's history of setbacks and disappointments is well-known. For awhile it was the laughing-stock of the NHL and had the ugliest uniforms in the league to go with its sorry reputation. But there are lots of pro sports towns that can offer up similar stories of futility and tales of fruitless pursuit of a dream.
Still, Linden says there is something exceptional about Canucks fans, about the devotion that grips them. He saw and felt it in every one of the 16 seasons he spent with the club.
"The passion they display is unique," Linden said. "It's been that way forever, through good times and bad. That's why I want to see this team win it all. The fans deserve it."Report Typo/Error