Canucks jump in front of Sharks
The Vancouver Canucks came into the NHL Western Conference finals against the San Jose Sharks with some demons to be exorcised. So did the notoriously underachieving Sharks for that matter. But it was the Canucks who got off the first shot, defeating the visiting Sharks at Rogers Arena 3-2 in Game 1 to take an early series lead.
2011 has been a good year for Canucks so far in terms of conquering old demons. They finally beat the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs after being eliminated by the ‘Hawks each of the prior two seasons. But even still, there remains one more Chicago demon — San Jose goalie, Antti Niemi.
In the 2010 playoffs, Niemi was the goaltender for Chicago. The Finnish netminder stood on his head and made life miserable for Vancouver. In that series, he clearly got the better of his goaltending battle with Canucks star goalie Roberto Luongo, whose play fluctuated.
Early on in Game 1 on Sunday, it looked like Niemi would get the better of the goaltending battle once again. Luongo mishandled the puck behind the net, leading to a turnover and a Joe Thornton goal to put the Sharks up 1-0 in the first period. But Luongo settled into a groove, playing cautiously and making the saves he had to, while his teammates figured out a way to beat Niemi.
“I could hear the fans were a little nervous [after the first goal],” Luongo said. “Obviously I was a bit more careful. I didn’t want to make another mistake. But I should maybe just stick to playing the puck as I have. I don’t think it’s a weakness in my game.”
The first Canuck to solve Niemi was Maxim Lapierre, who parked himself in front of the net and drained a blue-collar goal le ass than two minutes into the second period. He and his third-line mates, Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen, may have had their best game of the playoffs. That kind of depth is increasingly important as the playoffs carry on, and it was the Canucks who got the better performance out of their role players on Sunday.
Special teams are also bound to play a significant role in this series, and again it was the Sharks getting the better start. Vancouver went 0 for 3 on their first three chances, then give up a power play goal to Patrick Marleau on San Jose’s first opportunity with the man advantage, at 8:44 of the second period to make it 2-1, Sharks.
But like the goaltending duel and the game themselves, the Canucks redeemed themselves by on the power play. Less than 90 seconds after Kevin Bieksa put away a pass from Alexandre Burrows to tie it at 2-2 seven minutes into the third period, Henrik Sedin (who assisted on the Bieksa goal) skated across the crease around a downed Niemi to backhand the puck home with the man advantage for the game winner.
Henrik’s two-point third period signals a revival of sorts. A prolific scorer in the regular season, Henrik led the league with 75 assists, and was fourth in overall points with 94. But the Canucks captain has been quiet this postseason, until Sunday.
As for Burrows, he has consistently been one of Vancouver’s hardest workers.
“It was a 20-man effort tonight,” said Burrows. “Even though we didn’t have the lead after the first, we stuck to the game plan and stayed positive in the dressing room and on the bench. We kept battling. We were able to tie it up and get a big power play goal for the game winner. We kept getting pucks behind their D, and we made them turn, we brought more pucks to the net, shot more pucks, got traffic.”
Now the question is whether or not Vancouver can sustain their strong play. It looked like the better team after 60 minutes, but consistency has been a problem this postseason for both the Sharks and the Canucks. Each team allowed a 3-0 series lead to go to a seventh game, only to pull off the victory at the 11th hour. Is it a question of which team will crack first, or have they each learned their lessons? Both franchises have a history of not living up to playoff expectations, but only one team can go on to the Stanley Cup Finals and silence the ghosts of history. For now, the Canucks are just a little closer to achieving that goal.