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Vancouver Canucks' Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler celebrate their team's goal during the first period of game seven of NHL hockey playoff action in Vancouver April 26, 2011 agaist the Chicago Blackhawks. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Vancouver Canucks' Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler celebrate their team's goal during the first period of game seven of NHL hockey playoff action in Vancouver April 26, 2011 agaist the Chicago Blackhawks. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

Vancouver breathes a sigh of relief Add to ...

When the goal went in, and the Canucks players poured on to the ice, you could feel a city breathing again … and smiling too. For most of the day, it had coped the best it could with a sickening feeling growing in the pit of its stomach.

For most of the game, too.

A Game 7 loss against the Chicago Blackhawks would have lived in infamy. A victory, ah, well, a victory and the team's fans would forget how close the Canucks came to what would have been regarded as the most notorious collapse in NHL playoff history.

Yes, there had been other teams (three) that had coughed up a 3-0 series lead in the playoffs before. But never a team that easily ran away with the President's Trophy, symbolic of regular season dominance. A team that was the prohibitive favourite to win the Stanley Cup.

But the city and the Canucks' ardent, if slightly neurotic, fan base don't need to worry about that now. With its 2-1 overtime win over Chicago Tuesday, it's onward to Nashville. Or, rather, for the Predators, it's off to Vancouver and their matchup against a Canucks team that is going to be looser than it has been in a while.

Vancouver got off to exactly the start it needed, with Alex Burrows finishing off a beautiful feed from his centre-man Ryan Kesler less than three minutes into the game. Better still, Luongo, facing as much pressure as he ever has in his career, looked as solid and on top of his game as he did early in the series.

The second period was more of the same. During one two-minute stretch, Vancouver had Chicago pinned in its end and had five quality scoring chances. Had the Canucks lost, they would have looked back on the fruitlessness of that barrage with great lament. Instead, the game went into the third with the Canucks clinging to a one-goal lead.

The third contained all the excitement of the first two periods and more. Chicago would tie the game, setting up the overtime heroics by Burrows.

The Canucks didn't win the Stanley Cup Tuesday night, and there is almost assuredly lots more drama to follow (there always is with Roberto Luongo in net). But as wins go, this one easily is top five in franchise history, maybe top three. A loss would have exacted immeasurable damage on the franchise and surely ignited a summer-long chain reaction of events that would have included trades and firings.

If the team should go on to win the Stanley Cup, this win could well be looked back on as the one that made it possible.

Jonathan Toews, the smart, brilliant Chicago centre who looked devastated in defeat Tuesday, provided one of the best insights into the making of a Cup champion earlier in the series.

"To win a Stanley Cup," he said, "you're going to have a couple of moments where you feel it's all over and the dream is dashed. You find a way to rise above that and get through it and when you look back you just feel that it was meant to be."

You'd have to think there were more than few times during their series against the Hawks that Canucks players felt their season slipping away from them, too.

Of course, Nashville will be no picnic for Vancouver. Barry Trotz's teams are never fun to play against. But there are no trades in the playoffs so we know, at least, that there is no chance that Dave Bolland will be playing for the opposition. But they do have their fair share of agitators who will attempt to make life miserable for the Sedins and others.

Maybe if the Canucks are smart, they won't bother trying to jump out to a 3-0 lead against the Preds. Just to be on the safe side.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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