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Emulating the Penguins

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

The irony of the Vancouver Canucks playing the Pittsburgh Penguins to open the 2011-12 NHL season is not lost on me.

My fear of the Penguins began at precisely 7:56 p.m. PST on Wednesday, June 1, 2011. That’s when the Canucks, thanks to a Raffi Torres goal with 19 seconds left in the third period, beat the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Note: This story is not a depressing look back at the Stanley Cup Final, it’s a look ahead at the upcoming season. The Canucks lost to the Bruins, I’ve kind of dealt with it (I think), so I’m not beating a dead horse. I’m a member of PETA.

Browsing the game notes after returning to the press box from an elated Canucks dressing room, the following stat jumped off the page: Teams winning Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final have gone on to win the championship in 55 of 71 seasons (77%) since the League introduced the best-of-seven format in 1939. Sixteen teams have overcome the deficit, including the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins.

As I read the above stat, coach Alain Vigneault’s voice rang through my head like Jiminy Cricket, his fallback quote “take it one game at a time” forcing me to discard the above statement.

Game 2, another Canucks win, another incredible stat: The all-time record of home

clubs sweeping Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final is 32-2 (.941).

History was clearly favouring Vancouver’s 2-0 series lead, then, there it was again: In 2009, Detroit won the first two games at home, but lost to Pittsburgh in seven games.

I had always loved the Penguins, how could you not. They won the Cup in back-to-back years in 1990-91 and 91-92 led by Mario Lemieux, one of the all-time greats, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey, Tom Barrasso and, of course, Jaromir Jagr - old school Jaromir Jagr with the sweetest hockey mullet ever.

When the Canucks took a 2-0 series lead, I began to fear the Penguins, or at least the idea of their Cup comeback story, but I kept it to myself. I didn’t see much talk about teams overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the media or on the message boards of, yet with a sweep all but impossible, the elephant was in the room. It was a small one, like the size of a house hippo, but still, there it was.

The elephant doubled in size after Game 3, a sound Bruins win; In 2009, the Penguins avoided a 0-3 series deficit before going on to win the series, the stat read.

When home clubs moved to 4-0 in the Cup Final after another Boston win in Game 4, guess who was there to salt Vancouver’s wound: Pittsburgh. In 2009, the home teams won the first six games before the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7.

Fate had the Canucks on the same path as the ’09 Red Wings through four games, but Vancouver’s glass was half full again following a Game 5 win. In the 21 previous Stanley Cup Final series tied 2-2, the club winning Game 5 has won the Stanley Cup 15 times (71%).

Let’s not forget Pittsburgh remained one of the six teams to successfully overcome a Game 5 loss; the elephant was alive and well.

Canucks losses in Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and the Bruins joined the 1945 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1971 Montreal Canadiens and 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins as the only clubs to win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on the road.

I apologize for wrecking your Wednesday by making you relive all this, but from the ashes a phoenix will rise.

The good news about the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins is that they rebounded to beat the Red Wings a year after losing to Detroit in the Final; the Penguins were the first team since the 1984 Edmonton Oilers to win it all the season after losing in the Cup Final.

Vancouver’s goal this season is to become Pittsburgh and return to the Stanley Cup Final, this time coming out on top.

If there’s a photo that has stuck with me from that tragic final game, it’s the one of the deflated and distraught Canucks gathered just to the left of their bench. There are variations of the shot, but essentially every player has the look of a broken man, some with tears, others in shock, some on one knee, others leaning on their stick, some simply hunched over.

The Penguins had been in this picture in 2008 and before the 2009 season, Sidney Crosby stepped out of it.

“This is a tough one, getting this close and not winning the Cup,” Crosby said in the NHL ad. “But I know it will make our team even stronger. I never want to be in this photograph again.”

Neither do the Canucks.

Emulating the Penguins and their road to redemption is easier said than done, sure. Vancouver will, however, be stronger and more resilient following the most painful loss in franchise history. Mental toughness won’t be lacking from anyone.

A win against Pittsburgh in the season opener and Vancouver is already a step closer to a photo finish worth framing this year.

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