VANCOUVER – Kevin Bieksa played the hero, but it was his goalie who allowed him and the rest of the Vancouver Canucks the chance to complete the Game 5 comeback and eliminate the San Jose Sharks from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Roberto Luongo made 54 saves in a 3-2 double overtime victory at Rogers Arena, earning a trip to the NHL finals.
“I’m just real excited right now,” said Luongo. “I worked my whole life to be in this situation. Overtime in the conference final – you dream of things like that. After you play 60 minutes, you’re not really thinking, you’re just going out there and playing. You see that every play is dangerous and breathtaking and the fans are into it. That’s what makes it so exciting.”
Luongo looked shaky at times in these playoffs, particularly in the first round. But he has steadily found his groove, and he was the best goaltender in the Western Conference Finals. His 54 saves in Game 5 included some highlight-reel moments that kept his team within striking distance, and ultimately allowed the Canucks to force overtime and defeat the Sharks.
Besides Luongo’s outstanding performance, much of the talk following Game 5 surrounds Bieksa’s unusual game winning goal. The players on the ice seemed to have lost sight of the puck. After a moment of confusion, the puck bounced to Bieksa, who put a knuckle ball on net. Sharks goalie Antti Niemi was looking over his shoulder behind the net, and had no idea where the puck was until it was over the goal line and the red lamp had been lit.
“I don’t know what happened,” said Niemi, clearly disheartened. “I think it hit somebody’s stick or something. I didn’t see it. I thought everybody else lost it too. If you lose the puck you try to see where everybody else is going. Then it was in the net.”
Bieksa himself knows that he was lucky to get the goal that ended San Jose’s season.
“It was probably the ugliest goal of my career, but the biggest,” said Bieksa. “It feels unbelievable. To go to the Stanley Cup Finals is a dream come true. To do it with this group of guys is something special.”
Bieksa’s teammate and captain, Henrik Sedin, who leads the NHL in points this post-season, shares Bieksa’s exhilaration.
“This is up there with winning the Olympic medal,” said Henrik, referring to Sweden’s 2006 gold medal win, “but this is a lot tougher.”
Henrik added to his points total with two assists in Game 5. His set-up pass to Alex Burrows in the slot, opened the game’s scoring, and got the Vancouver crowd roaring.
But the Sharks came back, playing their best five-on-five hockey of the series, as well as capitalizing on special teams. On a second period power play, Patrick Marleau tipped Dan Boyle’s point shot past Luongo to tie the game at 1-1. Then, 24 seconds into the third, the Sharks pulled ahead when Devin Setoguchi took a Joe Pavelski pass on a two-man breakaway to beat a sprawling Luongo.
Sharks’ captain Joe Thornton also took to the ice, competing hard in Game 5 in spite of separating his shoulder in Game 4.
Unfortunately, that incredible show of heart didn’t translate to the score sheet.
Instead, it was Thornton’s nemesis of the series, Ryan Kesler, who notched the critical goal for Vancouver with 13 seconds left in regulation time. Kesler won the offensive zone face-off, then parked himself in front of the Sharks’ net. He got his stick on Alex Edler’s point shot, tipping the puck past Niemi to force OT.
Kesler has been the Canucks’ best and most consistent player for most of the playoffs, and will be key to whatever success the team has in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Now, Kesler and his teammates will get a chance to rest while the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning finish their series to determine who will face the Vancouver Canucks in the Finals. This year marks just the third time in franchise history that the Canucks have gone to the NHL championship round.
But unlike 1982 and 1994, this time Vancouver are not the Cinderella underdogs. They were the league’s best regular season team in 2010-11, and now they’re riding a wave of momentum into the final games of the season.