Vancouver Canucks 2011 Playoffs in Review: Success or Failure?

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Vancouver Canucks 2011 Playoffs in Review: Success or Failure?

After having the best regular season in franchise history, the Canucks looked poised and needed a long playoff run to make it all worth it. The Canucks had not passed the second round since their magical Stanley Cup Final run in 1994, 17 years ago.

A regular season point total of 117, which was a franchise record, earned the Canucks the Presidents' Trophy as the best team in the NHL and guaranteed home ice throughout the entire playoffs.

The first round pitted the Vancouver Canucks against the Chicago Blackhawks for the third time in three years but for the first time in the first round. The Blackhawks were almost a shell of their former selves after winning the 2010 Stanley Cup and having to dismantle part of the team due to salary cap restrictions.

The Canucks took Game 1 of the series just like they had in their two previous encounters with the Blackhawks. Chris Higgins scored to make it 1-0, and then Jannik Hansen scored three minutes later to make it 2-0. Roberto Luongo stopped all 28 shots faced to earn the shutout and victory.

The Canucks all year said they were a different team and showed it in Game 2, winning 4-3 in a back and forth game with Hansen scoring again and the Sedins combining for two goals and three assists.

In his first game back since being suspended for four games, Raffi Torres laid a big-time hit on Brent Seabrook, which was the talk of post-game interviews more so than the Canucks' 3-2 win to go up three games to none in the series. Mikael Samuelsson scored the game-winner, while the Sedins had a goal and four points.

In the next two games the Blackhawks would outscore the Canucks 12-2, including a shutout, bringing the series to 3-2.

Game 6 saw Cory Schneider start in place of Roberto Luongo, who had been pulled in the two previous games. Schneider stopped 17 of 20 shots before injuring himself in the third period, and Luongo had to step in and replace him. The Blackhawks would win in overtime on a goal by Ben Smith, evening the series at three games apiece with the Canucks seemingly ready to have a collapse of epic proportions.

Alex Burrows opened the scoring in the first period of Game 7, and it held serve until Jonathan Toews scored with just under two minutes left short-handed to force overtime. Five minutes into the extra frame the Canucks and their fans could relax, as Burrows picked off a clearing attempt and fired home the rolling puck to win the series. Both Luongo and Ryan Kesler said the game meant more to them than the Olympic gold medal game a year earlier.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The second round was/is nothing new to the Canucks, as they have made it five out of the last seven seasons. The same could not be said for the Nashville Predators, who advanced to the second round for the first time in franchise history. The Predators were the fifth seed and had knocked the Anaheim Ducks out in six games.

Just like Game 1 of the first round, Higgins scored the game-winner halfway through the second period, and Luongo made 20 saves for his second shutout of the playoffs. Almost as good was Pekka Rinne, who made 29 saves for the Predators, keeping them in it, which was the beginning of a trend for the rest of the series.

Game 2 was much like Game 1 in a goaltending battle, with Rinne making 32 saves (.970 save percentage) and Luongo making 44 saves (.957 save percentage) in a double-overtime marathon. Alex Burrows had given the Canucks a lead early in the second, and it lasted all the way until just over a minute left in the game. Matt Halischuk scored with five minutes left in the second overtime, evening the series at one game apiece.

After scoring 41 times in the regular season, Ryan Kesler had gone eight games without a goal but exploded for two goals, including the game-winner in overtime, giving the Canucks a 2-1 series advantage. Rinne made 44 saves (.936 save percentage) in a losing cause.

Keeping up with his performance in the previous game, Kesler scored a beautiful goal on the power play to preserve a win in a back and forth game to give the Canucks a 3-1 series lead. Game 5 went to the Predators, who were led by Joel Ward (four goals, eight points in the series) and David Legwand (four goals, five points in the series), but Kesler was still not done, scoring two more goals in a losing effort.

The Canucks scored twice in the first period of Game 6 with Kesler assisting on both (five goals, 11 points in series—Canucks scored 15 goals in the series, and Kesler was part of 11 of them), and Luongo made 23 saves to help the Canucks advance past the second round for the first time since 1994 with a 2-1 win and a 4-2 series win. Rinne stopped 177 shots of the 190 fired his way (.932 save percentage) and had a 2.16 GAA, while Luongo made 153 stops (.933 save percentage) with a 1.83 GAA.

Harry How/Getty Images

After a lengthy layoff the Canucks wound up facing the No. 2-seeded team in the Western Conference, the San Jose Sharks, who in theory they should have faced, but when in hockey do things ever go according to plan? Both teams came in with lots to prove as both had a knack for being great regular season teams but always came up short in the playoffs. One was going to shed that label (for a year at least), while the other would have to face those choking questions yet again.

The Canucks were in their first third-round game in 17 years but continued their trend of winning Game 1’s, extending it to seven straight with a 3-2 win. Henrik Sedin had taken heavy criticism during the Nashville series and layoff for lack of production, as he only had nine points in 13 games. As well, his brother Daniel took some heat to a lesser extent with only 10 points, but he had six goals compared to Henrik’s one, an empty-netter. That changed in Game 1, when Henrik had two points, including the game-winning goal.

Game 2 saw the Sedins (two goals, five points) and the team explode for a 7-3 win to take a 2-0 series lead. Ben Eager was the talk after the game after taking penalties that cost his team and a questionable hit on Daniel.

Game 3 in San Jose produced a totally different Sharks team with Patrick Marleau stepping up and scoring two goals, while Antti Niemi made 27 saves to help his team get back into the series. In something that had never happened before, the Canucks scored three 5-on-3 goals to win the next game 4-2, coming back home with a 3-1 series lead.

With the Sharks' season on the line, the game was back and forth and seemed liked the Sharks would hang on to win, but Kesler came back from an injury earlier on in the game and scored with 13 seconds left to force overtime. Then in double overtime one of the weirdest goals ever in playoff history occurred when Kevin Bieksa scored to punch the Canucks' ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.

Henrik, who had taken a lot of flak, responded with 12 points in five games. Niemi also lost a playoff series for the first time after going 7-0 over last year (Chicago) and the first two rounds this year.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For the first time since 1994 the Canucks earned a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, but this time they were the favourites after being the underdog in ’94 and 1982. They were to face the Boston Bruins, who were the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

Coming in history was on the Canucks' side, as the city who hosted an Olympics the year prior in Canada went on to win the Stanley Cup the year after (Montreal in 1976 and 1977 and then Calgary in 1988 and 1989). However, history was also on the Bruins' side, as a team from the Winter Classic the year prior had gone on to win the last two Stanley Cups (Pittsburgh in 2008 and 2009, Chicago in 2009 and 2010).

With much talk of the goaltenders in the series and who would crack under the pressure, neither did in Game 1 until there were just 20 seconds left, where Raffi Torres scored the only goal, giving Roberto Luongo his third shutout of the playoffs and the Canucks their eighth straight Game 1 win, but more importantly a 1-0 series lead.

Again, there was more talk after the game about an incident during a stoppage than the score. The Canucks' Alex Burrows was alleged to have bitten Patrice Bergeron on the finger after Bergeron put his fingers in Burrows’ mouth. The NHL did not suspend Burrows, and lo and behold, in Game 2 the Canucks won just 11 seconds into overtime on a goal by none other than Burrows.

Not to be overshadowed in all of the hoopla was the return of Manny Malhotra, which was something all hockey fans were proud of after his career at one point was in danger.

Only four teams in 46 tries had come back from a 0-2 series deficit. That 2-0 series lead, though was gone after the next two games, with the Bruins outscoring the Canucks 12-1 in Boston. The biggest news was not the goals or Luongo being pulled in both games, but Aaron Rome’s hit on Nathan Horton, which got Rome a four-game suspension (the rest of the playoffs—Horton missed the rest as well with a concussion). This woke up the Bruins and got them back into the series, making it a best of three.

In Game 5, needing a bounce-back, the Canucks got it from Luongo, earning his second shutout of the series and fourth overall in a 1-0 game. The much-hated Max Lapierre scored five minutes into the third to give the Canucks the only goal they needed.

Heading back to Boston only needing one more win, the Canucks again fell flat, losing 5-2 with Cory Schneider replacing Luongo again and forcing a winner take all Game 7.

Henrik Sedin guaranteed the Canucks would win Game 7 on home ice, pulling a Mark Messier, but every player has that same mentality—just not all say it out loud. The captain felt he needed to do it to put confidence back into the team. However, that memo was not received, as the Bruins won 4-0, capturing their sixth Stanley Cup in franchise history and first since 1972.

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Once the playoffs ended, the injuries of players were revealed. Mikael Samuelsson was lost in Game 3 against Nashville with an abductor tendon and sports hernia and didn’t return, which was already known about. Dan Hamhuis suffered a sports hernia, groin and lower abdomen injury in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final and did not return as well, missing the last five games.

The scariest of them all was Mason Raymond, who suffered a compressed vertebrae fracture in Game 6 that will keep him out until November at the earliest. As well, Ryan Kesler (hip), Christian Ehrhoff (shoulder), Henrik Sedin (back), Chris Higgins (foot) and Kevin Bieksa (bruised MCL) all played injured, which greatly showed, as the Canucks were not the same as in the first three rounds.

However, when you get to the Stanley Cup Final, both teams will be beat up, and whoever can deal with it best will prevail—and the Canucks weren’t able to. Still, to be missing two top-six forwards and their best shutdown defenceman spoke volumes to their depth to make it to seven games.

Coming into the season, all I wanted to see was the Canucks improve, and that meant moving on past the second round and into the third round. The Canucks met those expectations and as an added bonus made it to the Stanley Cup Final, where they were within one game of winning their first ever Stanley Cup. I am a little sad that they fell short but happy they made it as far as they did.

This team went through a great deal of changes outside of the top six from last year to this year and now has a full year of playing together. The majority of the team will be back, and the chemistry will be even greater. This team reminds me a lot of the 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins, who made it to the Final and lost to the Red Wings only to come back the next season and win the Stanley Cup.

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