In the two seasons leading up to the nearly flawless iteration of the Vancouver Canucks in 2010-11, one team repeatedly stopped Vancouver in its tracks in their pursuit of a Stanley Cup. That team was the Chicago Blackhawks during the beginning of their salary cap-era dynasty.
Rewinding back to 2008-09, it looked like the Canucks had a real shot at a championship after tearing through the second half of the season and quickly dispatching of the St. Louis Blues in a first round sweep. Standing in their way were the young, upstart Hawks. After taking a 2-1 series lead, the Canucks fizzled out and lost 3 in a row, including a wild 7-5 series clincher in which Luongo collapsed in Chicago while Patty Kane scored a hat trick. Chelsea Dagger was etched into the minds of Canucks fans as nightmare fuel. Vancouver officially had gained a bitter rival.
The next season, the Hawks progressed to become an bona fide Stanley Cup contender and all-around powerhouse, while the Canucks became an offensive powerhouse led by scoring champ and NHL MVP Henrik Sedin. Each team won a hotly-contested first round series against a pesky opponent. The Hawks beat the Preds in 6, while the Canucks skated by the Kings in 6 games as well. So, for the 2nd consecutive year, it was Chicago and Vancouver.
This time the Blackhawks had home-ice advantage and were clearly the better all-around team. Although the Canucks took Game 1, Chicago dominated in 3 consecutive wins for an opportunity to close it out yet again at home.
Vancouver lived to see another day after a Game 5 win, but Chicago thoroughly spanked the Canucks 5-1 in their building to end the series, and went on to win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
The Canucks were totally exposed on the back end and Luongo had a rough series, as the team allowed 23 goals in the 6 games. Ouch. It was clear changes needed to be made for the team to take the next step and get by their yearly 2nd round roadblock. Going into 2010-11, it was clear Mike Gillis was going all in for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Preparations for the Ultimate Battle
The acquisitions of defensemen Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard helped make Vancouver’s unit one of the deepest in the NHL. In addition, forwards Raffi Torres, Manny Malhotra, and Jeff Tambellini helped round out the Canucks’ 3rd and 4th line attack.
Although the Chicago Blackhawks were coming off of a Stanley Cup championship, the 2010 offseason was not kind to the defending champs. Due to salary cap issues, they lost forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, and Andrew Ladd in trades, as well as starting goaltender Antti Niemi to free agency. The depth that Vancouver had gained Chicago had lost.
Tale of the Tape
At the start of the season, most prognosticators picked the Canucks as one of the 2 or 3 teams in the league with the best chance to win a Stanley Cup, and clearly the best bet out of the Western Conference. Their biggest challenger in Chicago had lost major pieces, and regular contenders Detroit and San Jose had aging cores.
Vancouver had added pieces to its core, right in the center of its prime. For the Canucks, the time was 2011. During the regular season, some of the most anticipated dates were those against those Hawks, who were unfortunately still in the heads of Vancouver fans.
The first meeting came on October 20th in Chicago, and ended in a shootout with the Blackhawks taking it 2-1. The second meeting also ended in a Blackhawks’ victory, this time in an embarrassing 7-1 result in Vancouver on November 20th.
Both of those losses came during a meandering 10-7-3 start for the Canucks in the first two months of the season. Then the team hit the gas pedal the rest of the way, and also beat the Hawks in their 3rd and 4th meetings of the year. On December 3rd, they shut Chicago down 3-0 at United Center, then on February 4th they won 4-3 at Rogers Arena in one of the more entertaining games of that fantastic regular season.
Vancouver would win 44 of 62 overall the rest of the way, and lock up the President’s Trophy easily, 10 points ahead the Washington Capitals for 2nd place. Chicago, however, had a much different path to the playoffs that regular season. 53 games into the season, the Blackhawks sat at 27-22-4, 11th in the Western Conference and 3 points out of a playoff spot. The team struggled with personnel changes and a Stanley Cup hangover.
At that point it looked like the Canucks may avoid the possibility of having to meet the Hawks again in the playoffs. Think again, though, as this is Vancouver hockey and we don’t get nice things. Chicago would finish the season 17-7-5 to sneak into the 8th and final playoff spot, setting up a playoff meeting with the Canucks for the 3rd consecutive season.
The Third Installment of Canucks vs. Blackhawks
Coming into the series, hanging over the heads of the Vancouver players was the fact that the last two President’s Trophy winners at the time (2009 Sharks and 2010 Caps) had lost in the 1st round. The Canucks certainly didn’t want to make that 3, especially against their nemesis.
Through the first 2 games of the series in Vancouver, it looked like a different Canucks team than the one that had fallen to Chicago the 2 years prior. The Canucks were physical, showing the Hawks they wouldn’t be pushed around. Roberto Luongo was on top of his game, stopping 55 of 58 shots on goal, and the team was getting contributions throughout their lineup. The Canucks would fly to Chicago with a 2-0 lead and a real feeling that this year would be different.
At the United Center for Game 3, Chicago came to play, outplaying Vancouver but again were stymied by strong Luongo play and timely scoring from Christian Ehrhoff, Daniel Sedin, and a game winner by Mikael Samuelsson. Something happened in that game though that fueled the fire of the Blackhawks. Raffi Torres ran over star defenseman Brent Seabrook behind his own net, sparking a passionate physical response from the Hawks.
Although they ended up losing the game 3-2, what they gained was the fight they needed to get back into the series. Going into Game 4, the Canucks had an opportunity to finish off a sweep of Chicago and make a statement to the league going forward that they were indeed the juggernaut they looked like throughout the regular season.
However, the Hawks had different plans. Coming back into the lineup was one of the most annoying players in the league at that time, pesky forward Dave Bolland who would give the Hawks an answer for the Canucks equally annoying (at least to opponents) pests.
Well, what did Bolland do in that game? Just rack up 4 points (a goal and 3 assists) while getting back into the heads of Canucks fans while leading the Hawks to a dominant 7-2 victory. Oh well, it’s only one loss, we’ll finish em off back at home. Or so we thought.
In Game 5, Chicago would blitz Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider for 5 goals in the first 25 minutes of the game, and would hold the Canucks off the scoreboard for the remainder of the night. The 5-0 win made clear that the defending champions had woken up and Vancouver looked like a shell of their regular season selves at that juncture.
Going into Game 6, there was also a clear goaltending controversy in Canuck-land, as Luongo had been pulled in back-to-back games and looked as if his confidence had been severely shaken.
AV did a good job keeping tight lips in the lead-up to Game 6, where the hockey world saw Cory Schneider manning the crease as the puck was about to be dropped. What looked like a breeze of a series for Vancouver had turned into high drama, drama only fitting for these two arch rivals.
Fast-forwarding to early in the 3rd period, the Canucks were leading 3-2 when Chicago forward Michael Frolik got hauled down on a breakaway, leading to a point to center ice for a penalty shot.
A quick deke on the forehand made Schneider move too quickly, causing the Canucks back-up to cramp as the puck got behind him to tie the game at 3. That damn song from The Fratellis fired up once again as Luongo was forced to enter Game 6 due to Schneider’s cramps.
This game must’ve been so fun to watch for fans of any other team. For Canucks fans this was slow torture. Tie game, Game 6, Hawks win, we go to Game 7. Canucks win and the demons are exorcised. We would go to overtime as the torture would continue.
Vancouver would have some great chances in the OT, especially Max Lapierre on a 2-on-1 break, but they would amount to no avail. Chicago’s Ben Smith would send the series to a rightful 7th game about 15 minutes into the 1st OT period.
Conspiracy theorist Canucks fans were lamenting the fact that Chicago had 7 power play chances in the game to Vancouver’s 2 opportunities, theorizing the league had it in for the Canucks against the Hawks. It didn’t matter now, we were on our way to an epic Game 7 spectacle at Rogers Arena.
A blown 3-0 series lead is the worst choke in North American professional sports. Losing Game 7 for the 2011 Canucks would likely have meant a coaching change and drastic changes to the core of that President’s Trophy winning team. It was something they had to avoid at all costs.
After two defeats the years prior and a 3-game comeback to tie this series, the league’s Cup favorite would get one chance to slay the team that had become their dragon and continue their quest for Lord Stanley.
The Final Act
After Mark Donnelly fired the 18,860 at Rogers up with his always electric performance of “Oh Canada”, the puck was dropped. The Canucks came out absolutely firing with some huge hits in the first two minutes of play.
Then, Ryan Kesler drove towards the Hawks’ net and fired a beautiful backhand pass for Alex Burrows, which he spanked home for a 1-0 lead about 3 minutes in. The Canucks had scored the all-important first goal in Game 7. A small sigh of relief was in order, but there was an entire game left.
For the remainder of the 1st period and the 2nd period, the Canucks continued to dominate the physical game as well as territorial play, but were unable to solve Corey Crawford as the Hawks’ goalie continued to stymie Vancouver.
The Canucks would go to their most important period since 1994. 20 minutes to finally finish off the Hawks. Take a deep breath.
Right after the puck was dropped, Burrows was in on a breakaway and hauled down just as quickly by Duncan Keith. Would he give the Canucks some much needed insurance for his 2nd of the night? Nope, the pesky Corey Crawford continued to put on a show in Game 7.
The Canucks continued to hold serve until Chicago took a penalty with about 3 minutes to play in the game. Alright, looks like we can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Well, the reigning Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews had different ideas on Chicago’s penalty kill.
Toews swooped in over the Canucks’ blueline, was knocked down and stopped by Luongo the first time, and scored on the rebound getting back up. I think Vancouver collectively had a heart attack in that moment. The Hawks had tied the game, and we were headed to overtime in Game 7.
After nervously pacing for 15 minutes before overtime, fans took their seats at Rogers or on their couches and tried to mentally prepare for what would be the most emotional reaction to the end of a game in team history, whichever way it would end up.
30 seconds into OT, it didn’t look good. After scoring the first goal of the game and being stopped on a penalty shot in the 3rd, Alex Burrows was caught hooking Duncan Keith behind his own net. The Canucks would be forced to kill a penalty to keep their season alive and avoid a historic choke. This was a rough night for blood pressure.
Early in the powerplay, the ever-dangerous Toews lurked behind the net, threaded a pass to sharp-shooter Patrick Sharp that was....stopped by Luongo. This was without a doubt his most important save over his 8 years as a Canuck.
The 2 minutes that felt more like 20 expired. The Canucks had killed the penalty. The next 3 minutes were pretty uneventful, and knowing how things had gone in this series anything was possible. Meaning we could end up going to 3 or 4 overtimes and it wouldn’t surprise anyone.
Everything changed when Patrick Kane threw a pass across the Chicago zone a little over 5 minutes into the 1st overtime period. In the words of the great John Shorthouse:
“Patrick Kane gets the puck, sends it across for Campoli, it went over his stick but Ryan Johnson clears the zone, Hamhuis intercepts, dumps the puck back in, Campoli has it, flips it, Burrows steals, cutting in, shoots.......SCORES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [Long pause to let the moment sink in] THEY’VE SLAYED THE DRAGON!”
Wow. I know I’m biased, but that game and series was one of the most dramatic I’ve ever seen in sports, not just for the Canucks or in the NHL. That moment produced the biggest sigh of relief in Vancouver hockey history. Yes, the Canucks were only going to round two, but they had officially slayed their dragon, showing the hockey world that this 2011 team was in fact different than previous versions.
We all know what would happen over the course of the next 2 months, but we’ll always have this glorious moment in our memory banks as fans for good.