By Laura Chambers
Six weeks ago, the Vancouver Canucks set out on the road to the Stanley Cup Finals. Eighteen games and twelve wins later, the Canucks are nearly there.
Now all they need is an opponent.
The Tampa Bay Lightning forced Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals yesterday, edging the Boston Bruins 5-4.
“Boston is obviously very physical, a lot of punishing forwards, good depth, good defense,” assessed Kevin Bieksa of his potential opposition. “Obviously [Zdeno] Chara is one of the best players in the League, and world class goaltending in Tim Thomas who can steal games.”
Tampa Bay presents no less of a challenge. “Tampa has the experience with winning in the past, a very quick team and a lot of big scorers up front,” said fellow blueliner Sami Salo.
The Eastern foes will meet again on Friday to determine who will head to Vancouver for Game 1 next Wednesday. At this point, the Canucks have no preference of who they will battle for the Cup.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Ryan Kesler. “We’re going to have a job in front of us here and whoever we play we’re going to have to focus and put a game plan together to win.”
Before that happens, Canucks coaching staff have put together a game plan for the upcoming week. The team will practice on Friday, Saturday, Monday and Tuesday in preparation for the series opener.
Regardless of who wins tomorrow, Alain Vigneault does not expect the lengthy Eastern Conference Finals to give the Canucks an advantage.
“The way the schedule’s been laid out for the final series, I don’t think having a Game 7 is going to hurt the team,” said Vigneault, following the release of the fourth round calendar. “They’re going to have five days in between. There’s going to be no advantage for one team or another.”
Not that the Canucks are disappointed.
“Hey it is what it is -- it’s the Stanley Cup Finals,” added Vigneault.
Getting to this stage in the playoffs is a mental and physical challenge for any team. With potentially two weeks of play to go, the Canucks remain focused on the task at hand.
“I’d call it total commitment,” Vigneault explained. “So far we’ve done a real good job of making sure that they stay focused on that one game at a time mentality and the process…and then after, we’ll celebrate.”
The Vancouver Canucks have journeyed to the Stanley Cup Finals twice before in franchise history, but for many Canucks, next Wednesday will mark their first experience in the fourth and final round.
Roberto Luongo has played in 52 playoff games, won two world championships and an Olympic gold medal, but has never before played for the ultimate prize in hockey. The Canucks have faith in their goaltender as they head into uncharted territory in pursuit of the Cup.
“I think he’s gotten better as the playoffs have gone on,” said Bieksa. “He’s a world class goalie, he’s proven that before. He’s performed on the biggest stage and he did it again last game. We’re a really tough team to beat when he’s going like that.”
Henrik Sedin has the opportunity to make history of his own in the coming weeks.
Less than a handful of teams have won the Stanley Cup captained by a European player. Charlie Gardiner, born in Scotland, was the first European captain to lead his team to the Stanley Cup in 1934. More recently, fellow Swede Nicklas Lindstrom accomplished the feat as captain of the Detroit Red Wings.
“I don’t buy into the fact that you can’t have a European captain and go on and win,” said Henrik before deadpanning, “We had a Swedish captain at the Olympics in Torino and we won it so that’s all I can say.”
After Kevin Bieksa scored the double overtime winner to propel the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals, the first call he got was from his grandparents with an important message. “Don’t hurt yourself Kevin, be careful.”
Sage advice at a time of year when player injuries are common and rarely divulged.
“Everybody right now understands what’s at stake and they’re willing to go to extreme lengths to win,” said Coach V, who bent the rules to comment on the status of Ryan Kesler. “He’s one of our core guys and he’s obviously doing that right now.”
Kesler left the ice midway through the second period in Game 5, noticeably favouring his left leg en route to the dressing room.
When asked about it, Kesler joked that he had to go call his wife because he thought he left the iron on.
Once the call was done, Kesler came back and then some, tipping in the tying goal with 13.2 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime.
Kesler’s return was a relief to the Canucks and more good news could be on the horizon.
Coach Vigneault confirmed that both Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome are expected to be ready for the final series starting next Wednesday.
The two defensemen both left the ice in Game 3 against San Jose after taking hits from Jamie McGinn. Erhoff leads all Canucks defensemen with 11 points and Rome scored his first ever playoff goal in Game 2 of the conference finals.