Canucks in ‘pure joy’ for shot at Stanley Cup

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The puck. Where was the puck? Here we were halfway through the second overtime of an elimination game in the Western Conference final, and no one could find the puck.

Vancouver Canucks defenseman Alex Edler had fired it up the right-wing boards, trying to put it deep into the San Jose Sharks’ zone. Most thought it had rimmed around behind the net. Some thought it had flown out of play. But it hadn’t. Canucks winger Alex Burrows was near the net when he heard the roar of the crowd. He looked back at the point and saw teammate Kevin Bieksa(notes) winding up for a slap shot.

The Canucks needed Ryan Kesler's goal with 13.2 seconds left in regulation for a shot to win Game 5 of the West final.
(AP)

“I was probably the only guy in the rink that knew where the puck was,” Bieksa said.

The puck had hit a partition and kicked out into the high slot. It flipped. It rolled.

“One more bounce, he probably whiffs on it,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “We’re still playing.”

Bieksa didn’t whiff. The puck slowed right in front of him. With goaltender Antti Niemi(notes) still looking for it, he stepped into it, trying to put it on net, hoping not to flub it into the corner. His slow, knuckleball shot slipped past Niemi’s left skate, hit the back of the net and ricocheted right back out again.

Just like that, before most everyone knew what had happened, the Canucks had won Tuesday night, 3-2. Seventeen years to the day after they had clinched their last Stanley Cup final appearance in double overtime, they had done it again. They celebrated and the Sharks stood stunned, confetti falling all around them.

“Luckily it got there,” Bieksa said. “Barely. A couple of bounces. If it was maybe a couple minutes later in the period, there was more snow on the ice, it might not have got there.”

This was epic playoff hockey – skill and guts and goaltending, but breaks and bounces, too. Some of it was up to the players and officials. The rest was up to the hockey gods. As much as the Sharks must feel cursed – eliminated in the conference final for the second straight season, losing the last two games despite a 91-47 advantage in shots – the Canucks must feel charmed.

Maybe this, finally, is their year.

Look at how the stars lined up: Henrik and Daniel Sedin(notes), the identical twins and longest-tenured Canucks, made a spectacular play to set up the first goal. Ryan Kesler(notes), the heart-and-soul centerman, suffered a leg injury, still won a key faceoff and still scored the tying goal with 13.2 seconds to go in regulation – after the officials failed to wave off an icing call. Roberto Luongo(notes), the great-but-sometimes-shaky goaltender, shook off two odd goals and made 54 saves – 20 of them in overtime. Finally, Bieksa, who went from trade bait to No. 1 defenseman this season, netted the winner – after that puck hit that partition.

“Pure joy,” Kesler said.

That was the perfect way to describe the emotion in Vancouver. All season, the Canucks have had a special logo at center ice featuring the number 40, celebrating the franchise’s years in the NHL, but also showing how long the Canucks have gone without ever winning the Stanley Cup. Now they have a chance to break through.

Hundreds of fans watched the game Tuesday night on a big screen outside the CBC building near Rogers Arena. They celebrated afterward by waving flags and honking horns. Some lined the path out of the players’ parking garage, wearing jerseys, holding signs and cheering as each car pulled out.

“They have been waiting a long time,” Henrik Sedin(notes) said, “and we have, too.”

When the Canucks drafted the Sedins in 1999 – Daniel second overall, Henrik third – they envisioned plays like this in games like this. Daniel, the NHL’s leading scorer this season and a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, slipped a pass back between his legs while facing the end boards. Henrik, the NHL’s leading scorer and Hart winner last season, dished the puck off in front. Burrows buried it 8:02 into the first period. The Canucks led, 1-0.

Then, disaster. Kesler, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward, came up lame while battling with Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle(notes). He dragged his left leg to the dressing room as the Sharks’ Patrick Marleau(notes) scored on a deflection midway through the second period. Kesler came back later – first sitting on the bench, then stretching atop the boards, then testing the leg during a TV timeout, then taking a shift – but he looked hurt.

Dany Heatley's Sharks are down and out of Cup contention thanks to big plays from Canucks such as Daniel Sedin.
(Getty Images)

More disaster. Henrik Sedin whiffed on a bouncing puck near the Vancouver blue line, leaving Luongo alone against two Sharks. Luongo hesitated for a split-second, then came out to challenge. With one hand, Joe Pavelski(notes) swiped the puck away from Luongo’s outstretched stick, and Devin Setoguchi(notes) scored 24 seconds into the third period. The Sharks suddenly led, 2-1.

Uh-oh. Twice already in these playoffs, the Canucks had failed to eliminate their opponent in a Game 5 at home. In the first round, they had to survive a Game 7 against their nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks. In the second, they had to win a Game 6 on the road against the Nashville Predators. Now they were behind and being outshot by the Sharks. They did not want to go back to San Jose. They did not want to risk a repeat of what Henrik Sedin called his lowest point as a Canuck – blowing a 3-1 lead and losing a seven-game playoff series to the Minnesota Wild in 2003.

As the clock counted down in the third, Boyle fired the puck along the boards to clear the San Jose zone. It grazed Daniel Sedin, but the officials didn’t see it. They didn’t wave off icing.

“Maybe hard to catch with the naked eye,” McLellan said. “Obviously an error.”

Faceoff. San Jose zone. Kesler, still hobbling, lined up against Sharks captain Joe Thornton(notes), playing with a shoulder he separated in Game 4. Kesler won the draw, went to the front of the net and deflected a shot by Henrik Sedin with 13.2 seconds to go. Game tied, 2-2.

“Kes obviously is a warrior,” said Bieksa, Kesler’s roommate on the road. “Everybody knows that. Unless his leg’s broken, he’s going to play. So I don’t think anyone expected Kes to stay out for too long.”

Overtime. Luongo, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender, who still has a reputation for struggling under pressure, made save after save. The referees let the boys play as they had most of the night, ignoring trips and high sticks and boos.

Not until 10:18 into double OT did the puck hit the partition, did most of the rink lose sight of it, did it bounce into the high slot, did Bieksa bang it home for his fourth goal of the series and the biggest of his life.

Funny. No one had known where the puck was. Burrows hadn’t gotten an inkling until he had heard the roar of the crowd, until he had looked back at the point and saw Bieksa winding up for a slap shot. Still, as soon as the puck popped in and out of the net, Burrows had the presence of mind to reach down and scoop up that piece of history before skating down to celebrate with his teammates amid the flying confetti.

The puck. Where was the puck? Here we were in the Vancouver dressing room after the Canucks’ biggest victory in years, and Burrows was smiling.

“I still have it,” Burrows said. “It’s in my locker. I’ll bring it home and put it on eBay.”

Opening bid: priceless.

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, May 25, 2011