VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks came into the NHL Western Conference finals against the San Jose Sharks with some demons to be exorcised. So did the notoriously underachieving Sharks for that matter. But it was the Canucks who got off the first shot, defeating the visiting Sharks at Rogers Arena 3-2 in Game 1 to take an early series lead.
2011 has been a good year for Canucks so far in terms of conquering old demons. They finally beat the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs after being eliminated by the ‘Hawks in two consecutive years prior. On that note, there is still one bit of business left to take care of – San Jose goalie, Antti Niemi.
In the 2010 playoffs, Niemi was the goaltender for Chicago. The Finnish netminder stood on his head and made life miserable for Vancouver. He clearly got the better of his goaltending battle with Canucks star goalie Roberto Luongo, whose play fluctuated.
Early on in Game 1, it looked like Niemi would get the better of the goaltending battle once again. Luongo mishandled the puck behind the net, leading to a turnover and a Joe Thornton goal to put the Sharks up 1-0 in the first period.
But Luongo settled into a groove, playing cautiously and making the saves he had to, while his teammates figured out a way to beat Niemi.
“I could hear the fans were a little nervous [after the first goal],” said Luongo. “Obviously I was a bit more careful. I didn’t want to make another mistake. But I should maybe just stick to playing the puck as I have. I don’t think it’s a weakness in my game.”
The first Canuck to solve Niemi was Maxim Lapierre, who parked himself in front of the net and drained a blue-collar goal. He along with linemates Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen may have had their best game of the playoffs as Vancouver’s third line. That kind of depth is increasingly important as the playoffs carry on, and it was the Canucks who got the better performance out of their role players on Sunday.
Special teams are also bound to play a significant role in this series, and again it was the Sharks getting the better start. Vancouver went 0-3 on their first chances, only to give up a power play goal to Patrick Marleau on San Jose’s first opportunity with the man advantage.
But like the goaltending duel and the game itself, the Canucks redeemed themselves by scoring a power play game-winner when Henrik Sedin skated across the crease around a downed Niemi to backhand the puck home.
Henrik also had an assist on the tying goal, sending a streaking Alex Burrows up the left wing. From there Burrows put the puck across the rink to Kevin Bieksa who fired a shot into the corner behind Niemi.
Henrik’s two-point third period signals a revival of sorts. A prolific scorer in the regular season, Henrik led the league with 75 assists, and was fourth in overall points with 94. But the Canucks captain has been quiet this post-season, until Sunday.
As for Burrows, he has consistently been one of Vancouver’s hardest workers.
“It was a 20-man effort tonight,” said Burrows. “Even though we didn’t have the lead after the first, we stuck to the game plan and stayed positive in the dressing room and on the bench. We kept battling. We were able to tie it up and get a big power play goal for the game winner. We kept getting pucks behind their D, and we made them turn, we brought more pucks to the net, shot more pucks, got traffic.”
Now the question is whether or not Vancouver can sustain their strong play. They looked like the better team after 60 minutes, but consistency has been a problem this post-season for both the Sharks and the Canucks. Each team allowed a 3-0 series lead to go to a seventh game, only to pull off the victory at the 11th hour. Is it a question of which team will crack first, or have they each learned their lessons?
Both franchises have a history of not living up to playoff expectations, but only one team can go on to the Stanley Cup finals and silence the ghosts of history. For now, the Canucks are just a little closer to achieving that goal.