Kevin Bieksa played the hero, but it was his goalie who allowed him and the rest of the Vancouver Canucks the chance to complete their Game 5 comeback and eliminate the San Jose Sharks from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Roberto Luongo made 54 saves in a 3-2 double-overtime victory on Tuesday night at Rogers Arena, earning the Canucks a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
“I’m just real excited right now,” Luongo said. “I worked my whole life to be in this situation. Overtime in the conference final – you dream of things like that. After you play 60 minutes, you’re not really thinking, you’re just going out there and playing. You see that every play is dangerous and breathtaking and the fans are into it. That’s what makes it so exciting.”
Luongo looked shaky at times in these playoffs, particularly in the first round. But he steadily has found his groove, and he was the best goaltender in this series. His 54 saves in Game 5 included some highlight-reel moments that kept his team within striking distance, and ultimately allowed the Canucks to force overtime and defeat the Sharks.
Besides Luongo’s outstanding performance, much of the talk after Game 5 surrounded Bieksa’s unusual game-winning goal. The players on the ice seemed to have lost sight of the puck. After a moment of confusion, the puck bounced to Bieksa, who sent a knuckling shot toward the net. Sharks goalie Antti Niemi was looking over his shoulder behind the net, and he had no idea where the puck was until it was over the goal line.
“I don’t know what happened,” said a clearly disheartened Niemi. “I think it hit somebody’s stick or something. I didn’t see it. I thought everybody else lost it, too. If you lose the puck, you try to see where everybody else is going. Then it was in the net.”
Bieksa knows he was lucky to get the goal that ended San Jose’s season.
“It was probably the ugliest goal of my career, but the biggest,” he said. “It feels unbelievable. To go to the Stanley Cup Finals is a dream come true. To do it with this group of guys is something special.”
Bieksa’s teammate and captain, Henrik Sedin, who leads the NHL in points this postseason, shared Bieksa’s exhilaration.
“This is up there with winning the Olympic medal,” said Sedin, referring to Sweden’s 2006 gold-medal win. “But this is a lot tougher.”
Sedin added to his points total with two assists in Game 5. He set up the game’s opening goal with a pass to Alexandre Burrows in the slot. That got the Vancouver crowd roaring.
But the Sharks came back, playing their best 5-on-5 hockey of the series, as well as capitalizing on special teams.
On a second-period power play, Patrick Marleau tipped Dan Boyle’s point shot past Luongo to tie the score at 1-1.
Then, 24 seconds into the third period, the Sharks pulled ahead when Devin Setoguchi took a Joe Pavelski pass on a two-man breakaway to beat a sprawling Luongo.
Sharks captain Joe Thornton also took to the ice, competing hard in Game 5 despite separating his shoulder in Game 4. Unfortunately, that incredible show of heart didn’t translate to the score sheet.
Instead, it was Thornton’s nemesis of the series, Ryan Kesler, who notched the critical goal for Vancouver with 14 seconds left in regulation. Kesler won the offensive zone faceoff, and then parked in front of the Sharks’ net. He got his stick on Alex Edler’s point shot, tipping the puck past Niemi to force OT.
Kesler has been the Canucks’ best and most consistent player for most of the playoffs, and he will be a key to whatever success the team has in the Finals.
Now, Kesler and his teammates will get a chance to rest while the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning finish their series.
This marks just the third time in franchise history that the Canucks have reached the NHL championship round. But unlike in 1982 and 1994, this time they are not the underdogs. They were the league’s best regular-season team, and now they’re riding a wave of momentum – and a hot goalie in Luongo – into the Finals.