VANCOUVER – The excitement rippling through the Vancouver Canucks is tempered with the realization the biggest prize hasn’t been won yet.
The Canucks, who have never hoisted a Stanley Cup, will be playing in the final for the first time in 17 years. They have the chance to become the first team since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens to bring the NHL championship home to Canada.
A bunch of grown men are living the dream. It’s the fantasy of every kid that shoots a ball playing street hockey, or takes that first wobbling step on the ice wearing skates and carrying a stick.
“All the hard work through my life, now I have the chance to battle for the Stanley Cup,” said forward Alex Burrows, who went undrafted and worked his way to the NHL after playing in hockey outposts like Baton Rouge, La., and Greenville, S.C.
“We have to refocus, re-engerize and get used to it.”
Vancouver fans, who have endured 40 years of hope, frustration and disappointment, heaped loads of expectations on the best Canucks team in franchise history.
“We want the Cup!” read the front page headline in The Vancouver Sun.
“Good Lord!” shouted the headline on the sports section of The Province.
“I’m extremely proud of my players, the organization,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “Real happy for the fans.
“This has been a long time coming. Like we said at the start of the season, we were in this not to win one round (of the playoffs), two rounds, three rounds. But to get into this to win the Stanley Cup. Now we’re going to get the opportunity to compete for it.”
The Canucks used defenceman Kevin Bieksa’s goal in double overtime Tuesday night to defeat the San Jose Sharks 3-2. Vancouver won the best-of-seven NHL Western Conference final 4-1.
“When it went in, I just yelled out ‘let’s go to the Cup,”‘ said Bieksa. “It’s a good feeling.”
The winning goal came on a strange play. Vancouver’s Alex Edler fired a puck that hit the stanchion in the glass along the side boards. Many of the Shark players lost sight of the puck. Some had stopped skating, and were looking around. They didn’t see it bounce out to Bieksa at the blue-line.
“The game is sometimes about getting the bounces,” said Vigneault. “I think we deserved to get some bounces.”
The win came exactly 17 years after Greg Adams scored in double overtime to give Vancouver a 4-3 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1994 Western Conference final. The Canucks went on to lose that Stanley Cup final to the New York Rangers in seven games.
Since then there have been some bad teams in Vancouver. There have also been some good teams that underachieved in the playoffs.
“We’ve been battling hard for a lot of years together,” said captain Henrik Sedin. “To finally be here, it’s a great feeling.”
Henrik and twin brother Daniel are the current longest serving Canucks, having played since the 2000-01 season.
The first game of the final will be played in Vancouver, but the NHL has not announced a date yet.
Vancouver looked shaky in the first round of the playoffs, needing seven games to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks after taking a 3-0 lead in the series. Since then the Canucks have found their footing on the long road to the final, winning eight of 11 games.
Some of the Canucks’ best players are now playing their best hockey. Vancouver has depth up front, a mobile, physical defence, and one of the best goaltenders in the league in Roberto Luongo.
Henrik Sedin has two goals and 14 assists in the last eight games. That’s after no goals and just five assists in the 10 previous games.
Last year’s scoring leader and league MVP, leads the playoffs with 21 points and 19 assists.
Daniel Sedin, who won this year’s scoring race with 104 points, has three goals and five assists in the last eight games. Burrows, the Sedins’ linemate, has stepped up with goals in the last three games.
Luongo made a staggering 54 saves against the Sharks in Game 5. He’s allowed two or less goals 10 times in the last 13 games.
“We have got different guys stepping up each night,” said Henrik Sedin. “Lui usually closes the door in the third.
“We’ve got a good feeling here. We work hard for each other. It’s a fun team to be part of.”
Luongo said past Canuck teams have had talent. This year they have built a team.
“We’ve got different guys chipping in every night,” he said. “That’s what made us successful all year.
“It’s not always the same guy or same line contributing. We’ve got four great lines.”
Hardnosed centre Ryan Kesler has been one of the hardest working Canucks. He’s dealt out some crushing checks, played solid defence against some of the opposition’s best lines, and scored big goals.
It was Kesler’s tip-in of a Henrik Sedin shot that tied Tuesday’s game with just 13.2 seconds left in the third period.
Kesler limped off the ice favouring his left leg in the second period but returned to play.
“He’s a battler,” said Henrik Sedin. “He’s going to do a good job when he’s out there.”
The Canucks also reached the 1982 Cup final but lost in four straight games to the New York Islanders.
The previous two trips were unexpected, almost flukes.
This year, the Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time in franchise history for having the best regular-season record in the NHL.
Vancouver set franchise records with 117 points, 54 wins and 27 road wins. The Canucks scored 262 goals, more than any team in the league, and the 185 goals allowed was the least.
The Canucks will be well represented at the NHL awards with Daniel Sedin a finalist for league MVP; Luongo as top goalie; Kesler for the Selke Trophy, give to the top defensive forward; Vigneault as top coach; and Mike Gillis as GM of the year.
At the end of the day, there’s only one trophy that really matters.
“I said to my family before the series started, this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” said Luongo. “I’ve been working hard all year to be in this situation.”