The population of Vancouver had a knot in its collective stomach heading into overtime of Game 7 between the Canucks and the Chicago Blackhawks. They’d seen this movie before — high hopes dashed in a dramatic blaze.
But Canucks forward Alex Burrows played savior on Tuesday night at Rogers Arena, firing a game-winning slapshot high into the corner behind Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford to send his team to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Burrows, as much as anyone, breathed a sigh of relief with that goal. His penalty 24 seconds into overtime left his team down a man, and it was Roberto Luongo, making his return to the Vancouver net as a starter, who came up huge with a massive save on Patrick Sharp to keep the game tied. First chance he got, Burrows thanked his goalkeeper publicly.
“Worst spot to be was in the penalty box there,” said Burrows. “I’m just happy Lu made a big save on Sharp, which gave me a chance to get out there and get a shot on net. Luckily, it went in.”
The Canucks have proven resilient all season, which paid off when they snagged the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season club, but longtime fans of the ‘Nucks know there are ghosts haunting the franchise.
With just two trips to the Cup finals in their 40-year history, Vancouver’s often underperformed. Expectations have been high before, but never this high. If the Canucks had become just the fourth team in history to be eliminated after enjoying a 3-0 series lead, those old ghosts would have seemed more eerie than ever.
Speaking of eerie, Tuesday’s game versus the ‘Hawks bore a strange resemblance to another big game for Luongo: Last year’s Olympic gold medal game when he was the winning goalie for Team Canada.
“The whole thing was pretty much the same game,” said Luongo. “They score late, I make a couple of saves in OT, we get a huge goal. This one might be better than the Olympics, I gotta say.”
Luongo’s teammate, Ryan Kesler, was on the opposite side in that final Olympic game, playing for Team USA. He concurs with Luongo about which game felt bigger.
“I never really wanted anything as bad as I wanted this game tonight,” said Kesler. “We weren’t going to be denied. We weren’t going to accept defeat.”
Kesler was one of the hardest-working players on the ice, setting up Burrows for the game’s first goal. That duo never stopped pressing, and were difference-makers even when they weren’t scoring. Breaking in on a 2-on-1 in the third period, they drew a penalty. Kesler nearly sealed the game with a close call, banging a rebound into Crawford’s glove. And Burrows earned a penalty shot after being brought down on a breakaway, only to be stopped by Crawford.
But all that effort nearly went out the window. After leading since early in the first period, the Canucks gave up a short-handed goal with 1:56 left in the third, allowing Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews to tie the game. It was gut-check time, but the league’s best regular season team found a way to get the job done.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Luongo. “We didn’t script it this way. All year long, when our backs were against the wall, we responded. We played a massive game tonight. Game 7. OT. You can’t beat that.”
For Luongo personally, the win was crucial to his psychological state. After the Vezina nominee was pulled in two consecutive games, and played back up to Corey Schneider in Game 6, a loss in Game 7 would have been devastating. But Luongo showed up, played extremely well and got himself back on track.
“[Overcoming that adversity] was not an easy task,” said Luongo. “It was a tough few days. I think the best thing that could have happened to me was going in late in Game 6. I didn’t have to think, but just get out there and play and make saves.”
What does this nail-biter mean for the Canucks moving forward? Have they learned their lesson after taking a couple of nights off in Games 4 and 5 only to have it come back and bite them? You have to think they’ll be wiser in the future, starting immediately when they face the Nashville Predators in Round 2.
As for Vancouver’s fans, their optimism must be a little more cautious now. The Canucks have shown they have all the tools to beat any team in the NHL, but they’ve also shown they have the ability to beat themselves on any given night.
If history’s taught Vancouver fans anything, it’s this: Rooting for the Canucks is not for the faint of heart.