VANCOUVER – There was hope, of course, but it's tough to be an optimist in Vancouver when it's spring and you're a Canucks fan.
The franchise's playoff history hasn't been kind. Forty years of cruelty is one way the locals might describe it. The Canucks have been to two Stanley Cup finals, in 1982 when they were swept by the New York Islanders and in 1994 when they lost Game 7 in an epic battle with the New York Rangers (who fans can relate to long-term suffering). The Canucks have faced the Chicago Blackhawks in the past two postseasons, losing both times. The Canucks had a 3-0 series lead on Chicago last week, only to see the defending Stanley Cup champions reel off three straight victories to force a one-game, winner-take-all scenario on Tuesday night.
"Game 7 overtime, it doesn't get any better than that," says Roberto Luongo(notes), an Olympic hero in his current hometown one year ago but who proclaimed late Tuesday that "this one might be better than the Olympics."
Vancouver was subdued on the morning of Game 7. The buzz that you'd expect to find in a hockey town on the cusp of a defining moment was subtle. You had to look for it, and then maybe you'd spot a 'We Are All Canucks' sign among the posters plastered on an empty storefront. You had to listen for it, and then eventually you'd hear friends planning to watch the game "at the bar where they give free drinks every time Alex Burrows scores a goal." But Canucks jerseys were scarce, at least early in the day. There was only one on pedestrian-heavy Granville St., another on a cyclist whipping by a few blocks further.
The mood in the city was quiet; the sky was cloudy. But then again, this was Vancouver, cool and coastal, slow to joy and quick to rain. Storm clouds gathered and then burned away, then gathered again and threatened to downpour. Over at Rogers Arena, above a banner of team captain Henrik Sedin(notes), there was a break in the grey and some white light shone through. Canucks fans who dared to dream might've viewed it as the first good sign on a fateful day for the franchise.
A bronze statue of Roger Neilson stands outside Rogers Arena (named for the telecommunications giant, not the coaching legend). There's no one around it at this early hour of the day. Neilson's holding a hockey stick high in the air, with a towel draped over the blade. It marks the origin of "Towel Power," when Neilson protested penalty after penalty against his Canucks team – during a 1982 series against the Chicago Blackhawks – by waving a white towel in mock surrender at the referee. Neilson was ejected from the game, as were the three Canucks players who followed his lead and also held up towels, but Vancouver won the series to advance to the Cup final, and the towel-waving phenomenon was born.
"Rub Roger's foot for luck," says the man, who suddenly appears and walks up and demonstrates by placing his right hand on the statue's foot. "You've got to rub Roger's foot." He says nothing more, nods a friendly goodbye, and disappears down the street.
Moments later, another solitary man walks up to the statue, reads the "Towel Power" plaque, reflects for a few moments, then reaches up and gives Roger's foot a dutiful rub.
You don't want to mess with luck, especially heading into an anything-can-happen Game 7. A seven-game series is one thing, but a one-game showdown is quite another. A lucky bounce, a bad break, a broken stick, a missed call, an untimely turnover - any one of these very common circumstances can dramatically change a game, and thus a series, a season and a franchise.
"We can't look at what this means to the franchise," said ever-patient Henrik Sedin on the morning of Game 7. "It's not about the past, it's not about the future. It's about right now."
That's the right answer for a pro athlete a few hours from an elimination game. But for a city and its fans who have lived through generations of playoff angst, the past, future and present are all one and the same. Win and the joy wipes out the pain and opens the portal of postseason possibility; lose and it's another failed season to add to the pile, another reason to cast doubt on what lies ahead. If the Canucks couldn't win this time, with their stacked team and staked to a 3-0 series lead on Chicago, how could the faithful be convinced to keep believing?
Vancouver has had a 1-0 lead for 55 minutes of Game 7, and is headed to the power play. Burrows buried a one-timer on a feed from Ryan Kesler(notes) before the game was three minutes old, and the fans stood and roared, waving their thousands of white towels in unison, in jubilation, in defiance.
Then, with the Blackhawks' best defender, Duncan Keith(notes), in the box and barely three minutes remaining in regulation, the fans are up again, roaring and waving, sensing that perhaps the Chicago jinx is finally over. Of course, it isn't. With his team shorthanded, Jonathan Toews(notes) drives to the front of the net and somehow gets off a shot on Luongo while two Canucks take the 'Hawks captain to the ice. Marian Hossa(notes) pounces on the rebound, which Luongo also stops, but Toews – while still on the ice – whacks the puck between Luongo's legs. The Canucks goalie, just like at the end of overtime in Game 6, is left face down on the ice in disbelief. No one's roaring or waving anymore.
There were bad omens leading up to Game 7. If you were looking for them, they were as obvious as the clouds in the sky. They were there if you were listening for them, too. A misguided DJ, hoping to pump up fans outside the arena before the game, played "Burning Down the House," "Ring of Fire" and "Another One Bites the Dust" in near succession. Catchy? Yes, but don't read between the lines on the lyrics – Johnny Cash intoning "Down, down, down, into a burning ring of fire" surely doesn't inspire hope for the home team.
Foreboding? You want foreboding? How about the white, cloth-like screens that were eerily lowered down from the arena rafters before each period? Ostensibly video boards that flashed various Canucks players, they might as well have been ghosts of past playoff failures.
How about the relocated Chicagoan, smug and self-assured in his old-school Blackhawks jersey emblazoned with 'Chelios' – and the No. 7 – on the back. "I moved here five years ago," he said, in big sunglasses and a bigger smile, "I've taken some heat but ... Gotta support the team."
How about the fact that an unlucky 13 TV cameras – no more, no less – waited patiently outside the Canucks dressing room after the morning skate. The media horde was hungry, and huge, and knew a juicy devastation story when it saw it. Because if the Canucks – the NHL's best team in the regular season by a significant margin – lost four games in a row to lose to the Blackhawks for a third consecutive postseason, well, that's a trilogy tragedy right there. The Sedin twins' dual ascension, Luongo's best year, Kesler's breakout, Burrows' maturity, the bounty of talent on defense, the team's glorious top-to-bottom depth ... all would be wiped away with a Game 7 loss to the hated 'Hawks. Coach Alain Vigneault's job security would be tenuous, GM Mike Gillis's master plan would be questioned again, the future direction of the franchise would swing wildly on the outcome of one crucial contest.
"As a kid, I know I scored a lot of goals in Game 7," said Burrows before the game. "I think if we play well 5-on-5 and special teams and get some bounces, we'll be in good shape."
Close enough. The Canucks were the better team 5-on-5, and on special teams until the final two minute of regulation and Toews' shorty, and – after 40 years of playoff pain – luck was finally on the Canucks' side. If there was a turnover in the neutral or defensive zone, someone else was always there to defend against the rushing 'Hawks, whether it was a defense partner, a backchecking forward, or Luongo in net. If Luongo surrendered a rebound, it was swept away by a defenseman. If Luongo was screened, the shot was blocked or wide or absorbed into the big goalie's pads. Whatever "if" came up, the Canucks always had a response.
Burrows, penalized in the opening minute of overtime, watches Luongo rob Patrick Sharp(notes) on a cross-crease one-timer. It might be the biggest save of Luongo's career. It might prove to be the biggest save in Canucks franchise history. "I knew someone was back door," says Luongo, "so I just slid across and made a blocker save."
Still, after four decades of playoff frustration, self-preserving Canucks supporters know there's a long way to go. Even in the afterglow of a night of raucous post-game revelry that packed Granville St. with thousands of high-fiving, chanting fans, the reality is it's four wins down – and 12 more before Stanley. Next up – the Nashville Predators, who reached the second round of the NHL postseason parade for the first time in franchise history with a six-game victory over the Anaheim Ducks.
But make no mistake, this Game 7 win over Chicago, this long-anticipated series victory over the arch-rival Blackhawks, is exactly the type of triumph that transforms contenders into champions. Yes, the Canucks' postseason history is rife with disappointments, collapses and conspiracy theories. But that's all in the past now.
"We told ourselves that tonight was our night," says Burrows, more matter-of-fact than you might expect from a passionate player who just scored both goals in the 2-1 OT victory, who'd been denied on a penalty shot, who'd been bailed out by his goalie – his dressing-room stall mate – after taking a penalty in overtime.
"It's a great feeling ... It felt like a dream almost, but then guys jumped on me and I knew I was awake."