VANCOUVER – For most of last summer Raffi Torres felt like the forgotten man.
He was a hockey player without a team. He wondered if the game he loved had left him behind.
The man no one wanted wrote himself into Vancouver Canuck history Wednesday night when he scored with 18.5 seconds left in the third period for a 1-0 victory over the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final Wednesday.
A sellout crowd of 18,860 screamed in delight while Torres pumped his arms in the air.
“It was a long summer,” said Torres, a member of the Edmonton Oiler team that lost in Game 7 of the 2006 Cup final to the Carolina Hurricanes. “The phone wasn’t ringing off the hook too much.
“Everything happens for a reason. It’s been quite a ride.”
Given his chance to be a hero, Torres made no mistake. Centre Ryan Kesler stopped the puck at the blue-line, then slipped it to Jannik Hansen.
Hansen fed a nice pass to a streaking Torres, who beat Boston goaltender Tim Thomas on the stick side.
“I just had to get open,” said Torres, a wide grin parting his shaggy red playoff beard. “I was fortunate enough to get it in the back of the net.”
The goal inched the Canucks closer to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. It also ended a brilliant goaltending duel between Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Thomas, both Vezina Trophy finalists
“I was feeling pretty good,” said Luongo, who stopped 36 shots for the shutout, including 17 in the first period. “As the game moved along, there wasn’t a lot of room.
“But when saves needed to be made, we were both making them. I had a feeling we were going to go to overtime and play for a little while here.”
It’s the third time this spring Luongo has opened a series with a shutout.
Thomas, who made 33 saves, said the Bruins were good. Just not good enough.
“We played neck and neck with them,” he said. “We did a lot of good things, just not enough good things to get the goals that we needed.”
The Canucks ended Torres’ nervous summer by offering the 29-year-old a US$1-million free-agent contract. He responded with 14 goals in the regular season, another three in the playoffs, and has delivered some bone-crunching hits.
“We brought him in because he was an emotional, physical player,” said Canuck coach Alain Vigneault. “He comes to play, prepares himself real well.
“We need him to play the way he does. He’s a little bit sometimes outside the box. But you’ve got to let him be who he is. That’s what we try and do.”
The two teams played a physical game that had a nasty edge to it.
Both coaches had an axe to grind afterwards.
Vigneault was frustrated over Thomas wandering out of his crease.
“Our goaltender always plays in the blue, stays in his ice,” said Vigneault. “Their goaltender is always out of the blue and comes into other people’s ice.
“We’re going to need a little bit of clarification there, especially when he’s initiating contact with our team.”
Boston coach Claude Julien was angry over allegations Vancouver’s Alex Burrows bit Boston’s Patrice Bergeron on the finger during a scrum at the end of the first period.
“I’ll save my comments for after I see it,” said Julien. “But if that’s the case, it’s a classless move, not something players should be doing at this level anyway.”
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series will be played Saturday at Rogers Arena.
Thomas played like a spinning top in the third period.
In the first minute Burrows deflected a puck that he stopped. Thomas stoned Hansen on a breakaway, then got his body in front of a Maxim Lapierre deflection.
“He played unbelievable. You can’t say much more about Tim,” Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk said. “We need him to play like that.”
It’s been 17 years since the Canucks appeared in a Stanley Cup final. Anticipation for the game had reached a boiling point by the time the puck finally dropped. The same excitement rippled through the city that was felt prior to the gold medal game at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Canadian actor Michael J. Fox, who was born in Burnaby, B.C., attended the game. NBA star Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks appeared on the big screen to give a shout out to Canuck defenceman Christian Ehrhoff, a fellow German. The Green Men were in their seats by the opposition penalty box.
It was a hard-fought game with some low blows.
Boston defenceman Andrew Ference hacked Henrik Sedin to the ice with a cross check in the second period after the whistle had blown. Torres gave Boston’s Chris Kelly a punch in the face. Daniel Sedin backed into Thomas, bowling the Bruins’ goaltender over.
None of the plays drew a penalty.
“We knew this was the way they were going to play,” Henrik Sedin said. “We’re going to have to battle for every inch we get. I thought we did a good job tonight. If we play them 5-on-5 I think we have a better chance.”
Canuck defenceman Dan Hamhuis sent big forward Milan Lucic cartwheeling through the air with a hip check. The Bruins’ David Krejci took exception and cross-check Hamhuis while he was on the ice.
Hamhuis went to the Canuck dressing room and didn’t return. There was no word on his status.
“With what’s at stake, I expect both teams to want it real bad,” said Vigneault. “That’s what we saw tonight.”
An inability to score on the power play haunted the Bruins, who went 0-6 with the man advantage.
Boston had an early four-minute advance when Daniel Sedin was called for high-sticking. The Bruins parked the six-foot-nine Chara in front of the Vancouver net, but couldn’t beat Luongo.
The Bruins also failed to take advantage of a 1:33 two-man advantage early in the second period. Veteran Mark Recchi, seeking his third Stanley Cup, had the best scoring chance. He hit the outside of the post with Luongo beat.
The game had a storybook ending for Vancouver. But Kesler warned it’s just the first chapter.
“It obviously exciting to score with 19 second left,” he said. “But, saying that, we’ve done a good job of forgetting about the past and moving onto the next game.
“We know the next game is going to be even bigger.”
Notes: It’s the first time the teams have ever met in the playoffs. …Boston beat Vancouver 3-1 in the team’s only meeting this year in February. …With Mikael Samuelsson finished for the season with abdominal surgery, Torres is the only Canuck to have played in a Stanley Cup final.