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Sedin brothers finally rise to the occasion

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Fifty-six seconds left. Game 1 of the Western Conference final. In a bind, in a pressure situation, Alain Vigneault called time out. The Vancouver Canucks had been caught without a centerman on an icing call. That meant the coach couldn’t put out a player experienced in taking faceoffs for a draw in the defensive zone, with the Canucks clinging to a one-goal lead in the biggest game this city had seen since 1994.

What to do?

Henrik Sedin(notes) had an idea. He was a centerman. He couldn’t leave the bench, but his identical twin brother, Daniel, a winger, was on the ice.

“Hank turned and looked at me on the bench, and he said, ‘Let me switch sweaters with Danny,’ ” Vigneault said, smiling. “You’ve got to be quick on your feet to think about things like that. I got a big grin out of that.”

Daniel – at least I think it was Daniel; it was No. 22, not No. 33 – beat Joe Pavelski(notes) on the draw. The Canucks beat the San Jose Sharks on Sunday, 3-2, and everyone in Vancouver got a big grin out of the fact that the Sedins led them to their first third-period comeback victory of the playoffs.

For the Canucks to advance to their first Stanley Cup final in 17 years, let alone win the first championship in franchise history, the Sedins must perform more like they did in the regular season. Henrik helped set up the tying goal by chipping the puck up the wall to Alex Burrows, who fed a pinching Kevin Bieksa(notes), who buried a shot from the right circle 7:02 into the third period. Then Henrik scored the winner on the power play just 1:19 later, taking a sweet feed from Christian Ehrhoff(notes) in front, stickhandling around goaltender Antti Niemi(notes) and shoving a backhand into the open net.

“We’ve all being saying it for quite some time now,” Vigneault said. “We need them to produce, to finish some of those great quality chances that they’ve been getting, and tonight they came up real big for us at a real key time.”

Daniel called it probably their best game of the playoffs.

“When the twins get going like that, they’re almost unstoppable,” Bieksa said. “They’re generating every shift, it seems like. They’re getting lots of chances. They could have had three or four tonight, the way they were going. So they’re going to be tough to stop.”

We’ve all been wondering if someone else switched sweaters with the Sedins. Henrik won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player last season after leading the league in scoring. Daniel is a finalist for the Hart this season after leading the league in scoring. But they had been disappointing through the first two rounds of the playoffs, especially Henrik.

Daniel had six goals and 10 points. But Henrik had only one goal – an empty-netter – and nine points. Both had a minus-8 rating, and both had been non-factors too often starting with Game 4 of the first round, when their nemesis, the Chicago BlackhawksDave Bolland(notes), returned from a concussion to torment them. Henrik has insisted he is healthy, though many have suspected otherwise.

“We’re here to score goals and to produce, and it’s tough to do in the playoffs,” Henrik said. “I mean, I think a lot of games we’ve played well and we’ve had our chances, but pucks haven’t gone our way.”

Ryan Kesler(notes) carried the Canucks in the second round against the Nashville Predators. While the Sedins combined for two goals and five assists in that series, Kesler racked up five goals and six assists himself – factoring into 11 of the Canucks’ 14 goals.

But Kesler could do that against the Predators. Kesler, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward, did not have to shut down somebody like Jonathan Toews(notes) as he did in the first round. The Predators had no high-end offensive threats. He was freer to go on the attack, while the Sedins struggled for time and space against the Predators’ suffocating defensive game.

This series should be different. Kesler will be matched up with Joe Thornton(notes). They battled from the opening faceoff Sunday, when Thornton actually got tossed from the dot. Kesler has enough to do. But the Sedins should have more opportunity to play their game against the Sharks, whose style – and lack of a shutdown defensive pair like the Predators’ Shea Weber(notes) and Ryan Suter(notes) – suits them better.

As much as he took pains to praise the Sharks’ defense, Daniel said: “Obviously they have good forwards, too, so they want to attack. Maybe that opens things up a little bit.”

Sometimes it isn’t the Sedins’ fault. In the first period Sunday, Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes) collected the puck behind his net and cleared it into the right circle – right onto the stick of Thornton, who fired it into the open net and gave the Sharks a 1-0 lead. Both the Sedins were on the ice, so both got tagged with yet another minus.

Luongo explained that the Sharks’ Ben Eager(notes) had slashed his stick earlier and that “it was kind of broken.” But all anyone knew at Rogers Arena was that Luongo – a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, another great regular-season performer with a lot of prove in the playoffs – had messed up again.

“It looked pretty bad, obviously,” Luongo said. “I’ve been playing the puck a million times this year, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job at it. … But I could hear the fans were a little nervous afterwards.”

They were even more nervous in the second period, when the Sharks took a 2-1 lead and Niemi started to become the story. Niemi made five saves during one frantic flurry alone late in the period, stoning Kesler with his right pad, and then made another spectacular save shortly afterward, stoning Jannik Hansen(notes) with his left pad. Through two, the Canucks were 0-for-3 on the power play, the Sharks 1-for-1. Daniel had five shots, but Henrik none.

The Canucks were 0-2 in the playoffs when trailing after two periods, but they took control in the third this time. They got the puck deep, won races, sustained pressure and wore down the Sharks. The third line of Hansen, Maxim Lapierre(notes) and Raffi Torres(notes) stood out all night, with Lapierre scoring the first goal. But so did the Sedins – Henrik posting that assist and goal, Daniel winning that faceoff and even diving to block a shot.

“We didn’t have it in the third,” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. “I thought our team looked tired. I thought our team looked very sluggish. There’s nights when we lose our legs but our minds are still pretty sharp, and I didn’t think that was the case tonight. It started between the ears and it worked all the way through the body. We were like dogs chasing cars on the freeway. We just weren’t catching anybody.”

A big reason is that the Sharks were coming off an emotional seven-game series with the Detroit Red Wings. The Sharks had only two days off. The Canucks had five days off after eliminating the Predators in six games. At first, the Sharks carried the momentum and the Canucks look rusty early Sunday, but then the Sharks ran out of gas and the Canucks found their legs late in the game. That shouldn’t be a factor anymore. Both teams have two days off before Game 2 on Wednesday night.

But for the Canucks, it was a good sign to see the Sedins producing. It might have been an even better sign to see them so loose that Henrik, the team captain, could joke about switching sweaters with his twin brother in the final minute, when so much more than sweaters rest on their shoulders.

“I think now we’re enjoying it,” Daniel said. “There was obviously a little bit of pressure in the first round against Chicago there. I think it was a relief to beat Nashville. And now we’re having fun in between games and before games and during games. You’ve got to be able to enjoy it to play good and to be successful.”