Late in the regular season, I scanned the standings with a veteran NHL executive. I pointed to the top, to the Vancouver Canucks, who were well ahead of anyone else at a time when the league was tightly packed. I asked the exec what he thought that meant.
Had this been multiple choice, these might have been the responses:
A. The Canucks are finally ready to win the Stanley Cup.
D. The depth the Canucks added in the off-season has paid off.
The exec chose E. None of the above.
“Pressure,” he said simply.
And now, already, not even out of the first round, the Canucks have reached their defining moment. Will they withstand that pressure? Or will they be crushed?
Both Canadian playoff teams face elimination on home ice Tuesday night, having blown commanding series leads against bitter rivals.
But the Montreal Canadiens entered as underdogs. They were seeded sixth in the Eastern Conference, short on size and scoring up front, forced to use team defense and goaltending as a formula for an upset.
When the Habs took the first two games from the Bruins in Boston, it was a mild surprise. If they overcome a 3-2 deficit and win the series, it will fall into the same category as last year’s unexpected, magical run to the conference final. If they lose, as disappointing as it will be, well, they did the best with what they had.
Not so for the Canucks. They entered as favorites, the winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, first in scoring, first in goals against.
When they took the first three games from the Chicago Blackhawks, they seemed to be clearly superior this time. Win Game 7, and they will escape – battered and bruised, emotionally and physically, but as survivors. Become only the fourth NHL team to lose a series after leading 3-0, however, and they will go down as one of the biggest chokers in history, if not the biggest.
No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the Habs did it in 1993, and no Canadian team has entered the playoffs with such promise since the Ottawa Senators won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2003, only to lose in the Eastern Conference final. The Calgary Flames (2004), Edmonton Oilers (2005) and Sens (2007) have made the Cup final since, but they did it as sixth, eighth and fourth seeds, respectively.
No Vancouver team has won the Stanley Cup – at least since the old Vancouver Millionaires, in the pre-NHL days of 1914-15 – and no one has to tell these modern millionaires about the 40 years of frustration the Canucks have caused.
“Ever,” he continued. “So the pressure’s going to be there. It’s not going to change just because you have a better team. It’s going to go up.”
The Canucks seemed better equipped to handle that pressure this season. Luongo gave up the captaincy, ceding it to Henrik Sedin, and looked more relaxed as a result. Ryan Kesler(notes) and Alex Burrows stopped chirping so much and started channeling their energy better. The team developed such an air of confidence that there was debate over which adjective to use to describe their improved attitude.
More mature? More businesslike?
“I think we do take a businesslike approach to the game,” Kesler said late in the regular season. “But mature …”
He thought it over.
“I just think we’re growing as a group,” he continued. “I don’t like using the word ‘mature.’ We’re growing.”
He thought it over again.
“I guess we’re maturing as a group, yeah,” he concluded.
“We’ve had a lot of experience over the past couple years with it and what we’ve been through,” Raymond said. “I think we’ve learned a lot from it, and we are learning from it moving forward. So we believe there’s a group of us in that room that can get the job done.”
Now we will find out if all that is true.
It was so easy to say when the Canucks were cruising to the league’s best record in the regular season – dealing with injuries, but not losing – and it was so easy to believe when the Canucks had taken a 3-0 series lead on their old nemesis, the Blackhawks.
But then the NHL declined to suspend Raffi Torres(notes) for his hit on Brent Seabrook(notes) in Game 3. And the Blackhawks got angry. And Dave Bolland(notes) came back from a concussion. And the ’Hawks looked less like an eighth seed decimated by the salary cap and more like the defending Stanley Cup champions, the team that ousted the Canucks in the second round each of the past two years.
And it was. And the Canucks didn’t look businesslike or mature or focused or composed. And they lost Games 4 and 5 by a combined score of 12-2. And coach Alain Vigneault panicked and started Cory Schneider(notes) in goal in Game 6. And the Canucks played what they felt was their best game of the series but still lost, with Schneider limping off in the third period and Luongo giving up the winning goal in overtime.
And so here, with all this swirling, is Canada’s best hope for a Stanley Cup in years one game away from redemption or ruin.
Win, and the Canucks can say they have overcome a huge obstacle, even though the question will become whether they have expended too much energy and caused too much damage doing it.
Lose, and they enter another long off-season of soul-searching – starting with a goaltender who is signed for 11 more years and was good enough to be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy this season, but not good enough to start with the season on the line.
After the Canucks blew leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 in Game 6 – and their 3-0 series lead – Vigneault was asked whether they needed to finish stronger, needed a killer instinct.
“Do we really have a choice?” Vigneault responded.