VANCOUVER – While many people in this hockey-frenzied city were still talking about what the Vancouver Canucks had done, the players were focusing Wednesday on what they need to accomplish next.
Beating the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 in overtime of a thrilling Game 7 Tuesday night brought a sense of joy and relief to Vancouver. There won’t be much time to bask in the bliss as the Canucks begin their Western Conference semifinal series against the Nashville Predators Thursday at Rogers Arena (CBC, 9 p.m. ET).
“Our ultimate goal was not to win Round 1,” said goaltender Roberto Luongo. “We are going to go as far as we can.
“We have a tough opponent coming in and we are going to get ready for that.”
The Predators have been resting since eliminating the Anaheim Ducks in six games Sunday. It’s the first time in the team’s 13-year history that Nashville has advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Canuck coach Alain Vigneault isn’t worried about his team being emotionally and physically drained after their roller-coaster series against Chicago.
“The Chicago series was a tough one, both physically and mentally,” said Vigneault. “I think the best thing for us is to get right back at it.”
The date for Game 2 of the best-of-seven series has not been announced by the league.
The Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy for having the best record in the NHL. Vancouver finished 18 points ahead of the Predators, who were the fifth-place team in the West.
There will be a change of pace playing the Predators. The series against Chicago was like a NASCAR race. Playing Nashville will be more like a tractor pull.
Nashville plays a grinding, physical game. They bring a relentless forecheck; have a punishing defence in Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber and Ryan Suter; and a goaltender in Pekka Rinne who is capable of stealing games.
Both Rinne and Luongo are finalists for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender.
The Canucks led the league by allowing just 185 goals during the season. The Predators were next at 194.
Defenceman Dan Hamhuis, who signed as a free-agent with Vancouver this year after playing six seasons in Nashville, said it’s dangerous to underestimate the Predators.
“On paper they might not look like they have as good a team as some others,” said Hamhuis. “They are a very good team.
“You don’t want that to surprise us or fool us. They had 99 points during the regular season and are in the second round of the playoffs for a reason. They are going to be a very tough opponent.”
The teams split their four games this season. Nashville outscored Vancouver 8-6.
“They are in the second round for a reason,” said Ryan Kesler, who is a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. “They are a very well coached team that works extremely hard.
“If we are going to win games we are going to have to outwork them, and be good in all areas of the ice.”
The Canucks flirted with disaster in the first round. They took a 3-0 series lead against the eighth-seeded Blackhawks, only to see Chicago win the next three matches and force a Game 7.
Being eliminated would have turned the best regular season in Canuck history into a joke. It also would have been a bitter pill for the fans to swallow.
“Sweet Relief!” was the front page headline in The Vancouver Province.
The front page of the Vancouver Sun had a drawing of a fist in a hockey glove smashing through the Blackhawks’ logo.
“Finally!” said the headline.
There’s a federation election on Monday but the Canucks are the top item on local radio and TV stations. Game 7 drew average audience 3.82 million viewers, according to CBC.
Callers to sport radio programs talked about the players showing the character and courage past teams might have lacked.
After a week of gnawing their nails, many fans just wanted to relax and take a deep breath.
“There’s a massive sense of relief,” said school teacher Linda Baldwin. “It was so exciting. I wasn’t sure they would do it though.”
By beating the Hawks, Vancouver took a step down the long road to the Stanley Cup final. Losing to the Hawks would have written another chapter in the Canucks’ book of disappointments.
It would have been “a huge let down after the season they had,” said Baldwin. “Just aninability once again for them to carry it out.”
The exuberance the city felt Tuesday night was slowly being replaced by reality Wednesday. There’s a lot of hockey to be played before anyone can plan a parade route.
“The fact they pulled it together . . . it’s a big hurdle they needed to get over,” sighed Baldwin.
“I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Beating the Blackhawks was like pulling a thorn from the Canucks’ side. Chicago had knocked Vancouver out of the playoffs the last two seasons.
The players know they can’t let that relief turn into an emotional letdown against the Predators.
“That’s the mistake we can make and it’s up to us to decide if we want to make that mistake or not,” said Luongo.
“As a group we were really excited about what happened last night. But at the end of the day we came into this season not to beat Chicago. We came into this season to try to make a run at the Cup.”