Canucks need to find their killer instinct

SAN JOSE, Calif. – You could feel the excitement in the stands before the opening faceoff Sunday – before warmups, even – when a group of loud, proud Vancouver Canucks fans sang “O Canada” at the Shark Tank. But underneath the stands? After the Canucks had won a bizarre, record-breaking game and closed to within one victory of their first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1994?

Not so much.

“It’s really exciting,” defenseman Sami Salo(notes) said in a comment notable only for its quiet monotone.

Sami Salo stepped into the Canucks' lineup and scored two goals in the Game 4 win.
(Associated Press)

Salo sounded anything but excited in a postgame news conference even though he had two goals and an assist in a 4-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks. He’s an understated Scandinavian, but he only echoed everyone else in the Vancouver dressing room. These are the new, even-keeled Canucks, and that’s a big reason why they’re here, so close to the glory for which their city has waited so long.

“All the years that I’ve been here, we’ve had great teams,” said Salo, 36, who joined the Canucks in 2002, his tone not matching his words again. “It just seems this year that the team is really united together. Everybody is pulling together as a team.”

Everything is coming together. The Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team and now they have a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference final. Their scorers produced Sunday, with captain Henrik Sedin(notes) making what a teammate called a “magical” play and taking over the NHL playoffs scoring lead. Their fortified defense showed its depth, absorbing the losses of Christian Ehrhoff(notes) and Aaron Rome(notes). The much-maligned Roberto Luongo(notes) … well, he wasn’t a story for once. As he walked off the podium after his news conference, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault cracked: “Nobody is going to ask me about my goalie?”

Now they just need to finish it. The Canucks need to show the killer instinct lacking in the first round, when they blew a 3-0 series lead against the Chicago Blackhawks and won Game 7, and in the second round, when they took a 3-1 series lead against the Nashville Predators but had to win a Game 6 on the road. This series is there for the taking Tuesday night in Game 5, especially if San Jose captain Joe Thornton(notes) can’t play after leaving Game 4 with an injury. The Sharks have lost six of their past eight games.

“I think everyone realizes that the last one’s the hardest,” Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa(notes) said. “We’ve learned that better than anybody.”

This whole season has been about lessons learned. The Canucks have made a point about being more composed, more businesslike. They were upset when they gave the Sharks 10 power plays in Game 3, with Vigneault saying he wouldn’t complain only because he didn’t want to be fined. They could have come apart Sunday when they took the game’s first five penalties, some of which they felt, according to Bieksa, were “iffy.” The old Canucks might have come apart – “For sure,” winger Alex Burrows said.

But these Canucks didn’t. They didn’t complain to the referees much, with the notable exception of Raffi Torres’(notes) what-did-I-do protest after being whistled for charging at the end of the first period. They just killed the penalties, one by one, and frustrated the Sharks.

“When you get five in a row,” San Jose winger Ryane Clowe(notes) said, “you have to find a way to put one in, at least.”

After the third penalty, Burrows thought the Canucks would get the next call. That kind of thing tends to happen in hockey, you know. After the fourth one, Burrows thought they would definitely get the next one. After the fifth, well, things finally started to even up. Spectacularly.

The Sharks took the next four penalties in rapid succession. Never in the history of the NHL playoffs had a team scored three 5-on-3 goals in a game; the Canucks scored three in 1:55 – back-to-back-to-back blasts by Kesler and Salo and Salo again. Even more amazing, those were three of only four shots the Canucks had in the second period. It helped them win a game in which they had only 13 shots total, a team-record low for the playoffs.

Vancouver's power play struck for three goals in 1:55 of the second period.
(Associated Press)

“I think that’s the hockey gods a little bit,” Burrows said.

Or just the Sharks.

These weren’t make-up calls, mind you. Dany Heatley(notes) clearly hit a Canuck in the head with a high stick, then Torrey Mitchell(notes) clearly hooked Daniel Sedin(notes). Kesler scored. Then the Sharks were called for having too many men on the ice, and Salo scored. Then Douglas Murray(notes) was called for delay of game after shooting the puck out of play – a black-and-white call if there ever was one – and Salo scored again.

“I can’t sit here and whine and bitch about the officiating, because it had absolutely nothing to do with it,” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. “It was the team in white that created that mess.”

It was Henrik Sedin that created a 4-0 lead for the Canucks. On a 2-on-1 with Burrows, he faked a shot, stickhandled and then slipped a backhand pass between the pads of goaltender Antti Niemi(notes). Burrows said he didn’t even see it. The puck just slid across the crease, struck his stick and went into the net, giving Henrik Sedin his fourth assist of the game, 10th point of the series and league-leading 19th point of the playoffs.

That was actually a pass, right?

“Yes,” Burrows said. “I’m pretty sure it was.”

Yeah, believe it or not, it was. Henrik Sedin said he had “nothing left but to sneak through his five hole.” His brother, Daniel, said that showed why Henrik, the playmaker of the twins, should “probably pass instead of shoot” despite criticism for not shooting enough.

“That’s some magic play that only a few guys can make in this league, and he’s one of them,” Burrows said.

Want magic? Win Game 5. Eliminate the Sharks at home. Electrify Vancouver. Get some rest while the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning battle in an Eastern Conference final assured to go at least six games.

Because, as every Canuck knows, it isn’t just that this team hasn’t made the Stanley Cup final since 1994. It’s that it has never won a championship. And say what you want about these Sharks, who have never made the Cup final and also carry the label as playoff disappointments, they made a meager attempt at a comeback with two third-period goals Sunday. Clowe popped Kesler in the nose at the end. They still have some fight.

“It’s not easy to finish teams off,” Henrik Sedin said. “We’re very excited right now, but we need to be focused on the next game.”

More monotone. Must be a sweet sound in Vancouver.

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 Sunday, May 22, 2011