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Canucks one win away from Stanley Cup final

Long after the final horn had sounded Henrik Sedin still had his game face on. His team's 4-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on Sunday put it one win away from the Stanley Cup final - a place the Vancouver Canucks haven't been for 17 years.

Thousands of the team's fans had travelled to California from Vancouver to take in the game. O Canada had never sounded as loud as it did Sunday at HP Pavilion arena. Back in Vancouver, meantime, the streets were alive with the jubilant sounds of cars honking and people screaming about some Cup they badly wanted.

Amid the hysteria, how did the talented but ever stoic Canucks captain not get caught up in the possibility of what Sunday's win created? One more victory, in Vancouver on Tuesday, and the Canucks would have their best-ever chance of ending their 40-year Cup drought.

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"We've been in this situation before, up 3-1, and the last win is always the hardest to get as we've found out," said Sedin, who set franchise playoff records for most assists in a game (four) and most assists in a series (nine and counting).

"We need to treat this next game as a Game 7."

And so it was with all the Canucks players. No smiles. Not even a grin of satisfaction. "This series is far from over," said goaltender Roberto Luongo, who turned in his strongest performance of the Western Conference final. "That is a very good team over there."

Maybe, but not on this day.

Heading into Game 4, the Canucks acknowledged that they had to do a few things better than they did in their previous outing. One, they needed to stay out of the penalty box. But when they ended up there, they needed to do a better job of killing off their penalties. Power-play goals by San Jose were Vancouver's undoing in Game 3.

But the game wasn't a minute old when Canucks winger Tanner Glass got called for tripping. There would be three more Vancouver penalties before the period was over, including one to Raffi Torres just as time ran out. The good news for the Canucks is that their penalty kill was in mid-season form. San Jose couldn't get anything set up and had few quality chances.

Sharks coach Todd McLellan said afterward that the game had three distinct phases. And his team's inability to capitalize on the power play in the first period was phase one.

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Phase two encompassed the seismic events of the next 20 minutes.

The Sharks had two power-play chances early and failed to score on either. After that, they were the team taking all the penalties and in bunches. San Jose gave the Canucks three five-on-three opportunities and Vancouver scored on each of them. Ryan Kesler got his first goal of this series and Sami Salo unleashed his bomb from just inside the blueline to get two others. Vancouver skated off the ice with a 3-0 lead and you had a feeling they were leaving with more than that.

While penalties were certainly the story of this game, so was San Jose's utter inability to do anything five-on-five. In Game 3, the Sharks were far better than Vancouver at even strength. It was the Sharks' intensity that was largely responsible for Vancouver taking 10 penalties. But that passion and urgency was strangely missing from San Jose's game on Sunday. It was the Canucks with all the jump, almost from the minute the puck was dropped.

In the third period - McLellan's phase three - the teams exchanged goals and the Sharks put on a bit of a charge and played their best hockey of the game. But it was too late. "We're not giving up three five-on-three goals to that team and coming back," McLellan said. "Just not going to happen."

And it's hard to believe they are going to come back from a 3-1 series hole either. Not against a team that has, for the most part, been dominant in this Western Conference final.

Vancouver made all the right and necessary adjustments after its 4-3 loss on Friday and it showed. The Canucks' penalty killing was a critical difference maker. The more the kills built up, the more confidence the penalty killers got, Kesler said after the game. And the more the kills built up the more the San Jose players got frustrated, McLellan said.

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He didn't look like a coach who liked the odds his team is facing.

"Do you believe you have the talent to win three straight games?" he was asked after the game.

"We're going to find out," he replied.

Something tells me he already knows the answer.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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