(Robert L note - It's not often I get to write fiction, but I hit upon a fun notion. Seeing as I still owe Zandstorm at WFS one final Canucks related post from last weeks lost bet from the Habs game - I thought I'd go for broke! "What the heck", I thought, "Canucks fans will love this!" My biggest challenge may have been to keep to keep it real. Hope I succeeded and everyone enjoys it. Just in case anyone is wondering - no bets on Saturdays Maple Leafs game. I might dabble in fiction - imagining the surreal would necessitate hallucinogenic drugs!)
The third time was the charm!
Unbelievably, the underdog Vancouver Canucks beat the New Jersey Devils 2-1, and on the goaltending heroics of Roberto Luongo have, at long last, gotten their mits on Lord Stanley's mug.
It is the Canucks first Cup in 37 seasons of existance, after two tries in 1982 and 1994 and the city of Vancouver's first Cup since the 1915 Millionaires took care of the Ottawa Senators 92 years ago.
Appropriately, Canucks captain Markus Naslund first hugged the Cup when handed it by Commissioner Bettman. He then called to longtime former captain Trevor Linden, as each grabbed an end and hoisted it high.
The crowd, many calling themselves Canuckleheads during these playoffs, erupted into frenzy at the gesture.
While the Canucks and their fans were overjoyed and suspended in the moment, a sullen and shocked New Jersey Devils, the heavy favorites, left the ice stunned and in disbelief. The Devils undertook the game in an offensive fury, confident of returning back to the swamp for game seven. Luongo turned out to be the roadblock at the Jersey Turnpike.
GAME TURNED ON A DIME
With all five previous games being decided by one game, this one was no different in that respect.
Unlike the others where late goals decided the outcome, this game's winner came early in the middle period.
The Devils pounded Luongo hard in the opening 20 minutes, as he stopped 18 of 19 shots fired his way. After John Madden put the Devils ahead, Bryan Smolinski, aquired at the trade deadline, battled a dribbling puck past a lunging Martin Brodeur.
In an odd play, that is likely to never be forgotten in Canucks lore, Rory Fitzpatrick put the Canucks up 2-1 on the heels of a penalty kill that saw Vancouver get the better chances.
After Henrik Sedin came within inches of sliding a rebound past Brodeur, Fitzpatrick was hooked at the blue line as the Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski cleared the puck out of the zone. Mattias Ohlund leaving the box intercepted the clearing shot and spotted Fitzpatrick who'd fallen in behind the play. Fitzpatrick dumped the puck in dutifully and turned to come off ice. In a gesture of serendipity, coach Alain Vigneault urged Fiztpatrick back into play. Seeing as he was the third Canucks defenseman in the Devils zone, Fitzpatrick smartly went to the net where he was hit in the leg by Kevin Bieksa's point shot. As Fitzpatrick scuffled with Rafaslki in front of Brodeur, he had no idea it had hit him.
"Like they always say, right place, right time", said the unlikely hero. "I've never played forward ever. I didn't know what else to do but go to the net."
Fitzptrick was caught completely off guard by Vigneault's gesture.
"I thought he must have thought I was someone else for a second. I hesitated a bit, but seeing as we had three D out there, I went with it and it paid off. It's just nuts!"
LUONGO HEROIC ON PENALTY SHOT
As big as the Fitzpatrick goal would turn out to be, it was Conn Smythe winner Roberto Luongo who saved the day.
Luongo was focused and practically unbeatable on the night, stopping 36 of 37 shots by the Devils, the most Vancouver had surrendered all series. His moment of glory, the silencing of his every detractor, came 6 minutes into the third when he foiled Patrik Elias on a penalty shot.
It was a call that Vigneault argued vehemently as Elias had a clear shot to score on the initial break. The coach, red under the collar, could not imagine such a call being made when the shooter clearly still had opportunity to score.
Elias had broken in behind Sami Salo, who hooked his stick sky high as he was about to shoot. Luongo dove to poke the puck when Elias, with one hand, deked it away to stuff it by the goalie's outstretched frame, only to have it hit his leg at the goal line.
As official Chris Lee pointed to center ice, Vigneault and the Canucks bench erupted. So caught up were they in call, little did they realize that the initial play was under review. Once it was ruled no goal, Elias skated to center ice for a second try.
Luongo stood firm and deep in the crease as the Devils sniper bore down. The fake shot and deke did not fool the goalie, who easily gloved the attempt.
"I recognized the move from game three", said the lanky goalie. "It's hard to forget when you've been beaten by it once already."
It was the second year in a row that a penalty shot has been called in the finals.
Luongo played every second of the Canucks 27 game drive, the most games ever needed in NHL history to win the Cup. Allowing only 45 goals and earning 5 shutouts. He could be seen as the only Canuck in contention for Smythe.
SURPRISING ROAD TO VICTORY
After all was said and done, the Canucks had a much more difficult path to the finals than did the Devils.
The Canucks, ranked third, needed multiple overtimes and seven games to get rid of the pesky Dallas Stars before taking seven more to undo the Ducks. San Jose had obviously worn down Detroit in the 7 game loss to the Red Wings. The badly beat up Motown crew's offense spit and sputtered, as did the Canucks against the Stars.
The Canucks earned their way to the finals by limiting the Red Wings to ten goals in seven games.
New Jersey, meanwhile, plundered through 2 straight six game sets against Tampa Bay and Ottawa before squaring off for seven more with the hard luck Sabres.
Upon reaching the finals, the Devils had played in as many pressure cookers than did the Canucks, while only playing two less games.
MODELLED AFTER DEVILS
After splitting games in New Jersey, the Canucks lost the usually decisive game three only to storm back win three consecutive one goal wins.
"The key was game four", said Linden, who scored the lone marker in the 1-0 OT win, "And the key to game four was Roberto".
"After seeing how determined he played, and how he turned away the best the Devils had to give, we felt inbeatable!"
It must be frustrating for Brodeur and the Devils to be beaten by the team often referred to as "New Jersey West". It may have been Vigneault smartest move as coach, to turn the Canucks into a tight checking unit, in the model of the Devils.
"The players deserve the credit for buying into the system", said the elated coach.
"The scoring lines were simply not gelling by mid-December and we were left with little choice but to look inward for solutions. With Roberto playing as well as he was, the team team quickly understood it was the only vialble option."
By a January winning streak, it was a successful one also.
More successful than they'd ever believe.
All was quiet at Robson and Thurlow Streets in regards to police incidents. The riot gear proved uneccessary amongst the well behaved crowd of delirious Canucks fans waving white towels until sunup. Vancouver police have suspended seven officers caught sharing beers with fans by the CBC camera's during the after game street party. Details of the Stanley Cup Parade will be made official by the Mayor's office at noon tomorrow.
STANLEY CUP NOTES
The five leading playoff scorers remained Sabres throughout the last round, even without their participation.....Only 5 of the Devils 15 home playoff dates were sellouts.....Peter Forsberg made his retirement official yesterday. After his trade to Nashville was a bust, he believes his injured slowed him down to ineffectiveness.....Toronto Maple Leafs have widened their GM hunt to include Pat Quinn, Pat Burns and Mike Keenan...the the Blackhawks are eyeing Angelo Esposito after winning the draft lottery shuffle this past weekend......Expansion talk will be hot on the league agenda with prospective cities considered over the next 6 years including Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Quebec City, and yes, Winnipeg.