Kevin Bieksa was screaming at the top of his lungs and confetti was already falling from the ceiling by the time anyone else realized the defenseman had scored to send the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup finals.
Roberto Luongo made 54 saves before Bieksa scored a strange and fortuitous goal 10:18 into the second overtime that put the Canucks into the finals for the first time in 17 years.
Bieksa gave Vancouver a 3-2 win and eliminated the San Jose Sharks in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday night.
”Probably the ugliest goal of my career, but the biggest,” Bieksa said. ”It was just a knuckleball that I barely got enough wood on it to get it on net. It was a hard puck to shoot. Just put it on net was my first thought, but when it when in I just yelled out, ‘Let’s go to the Cup baby.”’
They will face either the Boston Bruins or the Tampa Bay Lightning when they get there and will host Games 1 and 2. The Bruins lead the Eastern Conference finals 3-2 and can advance with a Game 6 win at Tampa Bay on Wednesday. If necessary, Game 7 would be in Boston on Friday.
Ryan Kesler got the Canucks into overtime on Tuesday when he tied the game with 13.2 seconds left in regulation, while Luongo was on the bench for an extra skater.
Bieksa ended it after Alex Edler’s dump in caromed awkwardly off the glass on the sideboards and out to the defenseman just inside the blue line. Bieksa’s quick shot beat Antti Niemi inside the right post before the goalie — or mostly everyone else on the ice — could find the puck.
Vancouver will make its first trip to the finals since 1994, when the Canucks lost in seven games to the New York Rangers, and just the third in the team’s 40-year history. This one came 17 years to the day after the Canucks last reached the finals, also on a goal in double overtime.
It was a tough way for San Jose to end a game it dominated for long stretches, outshooting the Canucks 56-34.
”The only guy that knew where the puck was, was Kevin Bieksa,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. ”When you watch replays, the officials didn’t know where it was, Nemo didn’t know where it was, Vancouver, San Jose, nobody knew where it was. It came right to Bieksa. One more bounce he probably whiffs on it, we’re still playing. Nothing we can do about it.”
It ruined what McLellan called a ”courageous” game from captain Joe Thornton, who revealed he was playing despite a separated shoulder sustained late in the Sharks’ loss in Game 4. Thornton had several great early chances, but couldn’t beat Luongo.
”It was sore, but no excuses,” Thornton said. ”Tough series. We lost and they go on. To get here is an accomplishment, but next year we’ve got to beat it.”
They almost did, and maybe they should have. Vancouver was down 2-1 after Luongo’s gamble left Devin Setoguchi with an empty net 24 seconds into the third period. But Kesler, who left briefly in the second period with an apparent injury to his left leg, deflected Henrik Sedin’s shot through Niemi after a questionable icing call against San Jose. Replays appeared to show that the puck hit Daniel Sedin, but icing was called anyway to set up an offensive zone faceoff for Vancouver.
”That (ticks) me off even more now,” Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said of the missed call. ”One of the most frustrating losses of my career. That’s a tough loss.”
It came even though San Jose outshot the Canucks badly for a second straight game. But despite a 91-47 shots advantage the final two games of the series, San Jose lost both. The Canucks won Game 4 on Sunday 4-2 despite having only 13 shots.
”I believed we were the better team coming into the series, I really did,” said Boyle, almost speechless. ”We should have won this game.”
Instead, after claiming the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, the Canucks are only four wins away from their first Stanley Cup title.
Luongo, who raised his stick in celebration as the blue confetti fell, won the Olympic gold medal for Canada in his home arena 15 months earlier, Now he has a chance to capture his first Cup title, too.
”Worked my whole life to be in this situation right now,” Luongo said. ”It’s a great feeling, especially winning in overtime. I’m just looking forward to starting the next series.”
Niemi made 31 saves, including stopping Chris Higgins’ breakaway in the second overtime, for the Sharks, who lost the West finals last year to Chicago in six games. Niemi was the goalie for the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, and this was his first playoff loss in seven career series.
”Until the end I thought we were going to win today and we were going to come back,” Niemi said. ”It feels terrible.”
Alex Burrows opened the scoring eight minutes in for the Canucks, but Patrick Marleau tied it with his sixth goal of the series on a power play midway through the second period. Setoguchi added his first into an empty net 24 seconds into the third after Luongo came diving out of the crease on a 2-on-0 break.
The Sharks, who fell to 5-1 in overtime in the playoffs, didn’t back off. Luongo was brilliant before and after Setoguchi s goal, including the best of his 15 first-period saves while killing a 1:24 two-man advantage.
The shots were 21-7 for the Sharks when Marleau’s power-play deflection tied it in the second period, just as Kesler hobbled off after chasing a short-handed chance. Kesler, second in playoff scoring with 18 points, limped to the locker room favoring his left leg, but returned later in the period.
He had no trouble celebrating.
”I jumped three feet when it went in,” he said. ”Pure excitement.”
Notes: Vancouver last earned a spot in the Cup finals when Greg Adams scored in double overtime of Game 5 against Toronto on May 24, 1994. … Vancouver D Christian Ehrhoff missed a second game because of a suspected shoulder injury sustained in Game 3. He practiced Monday and is day-to-day. D Aaron Rome, also knocked out in Game 3, missed a second straight game. … San Jose D Jason Demers, out since Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against Detroit, was ready to return but didn’t. … The Canucks were swept 4-0 by the New York Islanders in 1982 in the team’s first trip to the Cup finals.