As the final few days slide by on the calendar, it’s time to take a moment to reflect on a few of the notable events of the past 12 months. This isn’t a ranking. It’s simply one writer’s collection of significant happenings during Canucks games in 2009. Feel free to agree or disagree – some are pretty obvious, others are moments perhaps you’d forgotten.
1. Mats Sundin stepping into the spotlight and scoring the shootout winner in his return to Toronto on February 21st. With a national television audience looking on, Sundin made no mistake selling Vesa Toskala on a shot and then pulling the puck to his backhand and roofing it to drive a stake through the hearts of Leaf Nation. After choking back tears earlier in the night when saluted by the Leafs and hockey fans in Toronto, Sundin was all business when it came time to win the hockey game. As dramatic moments during the regular season go, the Sundin shootout winner was terrific theatre – and a good result for the Canucks.
2. Just weeks ago, Roberto Luongo stared down Washington’s other Alexander – Semin -- on a penalty shot with the Canucks up by one and under six minutes left in the third period. Semin had scored earlier in the hockey game and was given a golden opportunity to tie the game after getting hauled down by Kevin Bieksa on a partial breakaway. Semin has made a number of NHL goalies look foolish with his big-time shot, but Luongo had none of it and coolly stared down the Caps sharp-shooter to preserve the lead and help the Canucks down Washington in one of the featured-games of the year at GM Place.
3. Just when it looked like the Canucks and St. Louis Blues were going to need a second overtime to settle Game 4 of their first round playoff series last April, Alex Burrows rode to the rescue. Scooping up a puck on right wing and moving in on Chris Mason, Burrows was to find the back of the net for the winner – and series clincher – with just 18.9 seconds remaining in the first OT period. It was Burrows’ second goal of the game and it gave the Canucks a 4-0 series sweep. Burrows scored a bunch of big goals for the Canucks down the stretch last season, but that one has to be right up there at the top of his list.
4. It may be years before anyone sees anything quite like Mason Raymond’s flipper on Kipper earlier this week. In a scrum along the boards at centre ice, Raymond dug the puck free and lofted it high in the air toward the Calgary net supposedly guarded by Miikka Kiprusoff. What Kiprusoff was doing is anyone’s guess, but he had no clue where the puck was and was caught looking to his right as the puck bounced off his left arm and into the net. The Flames netminder didn’t see the puck until he was fishing it out from behind him. It was one of the strangest goals of the year, but Mason Raymond wasn’t complaining as it was the middle goal of his first NHL hattrick.
5. In the midst of a seven game losing streak – and nine straight setbacks at home – the Canucks trailed Minnesota 3-2 with less than a minute to go on January 31st. It looked like the club was destined to add to its struggles, only to see Ryan Kesler score a power play goal with the goaltender pulled and just 16 seconds left in the third. Minnesota ultimately scored a power play goal of its own in overtime and won 4-3 to extend the Canucks losing streaks. But on a team floundering through the month of January, the Kesler goal – and his fiery reaction to it – indicated there was still some fight left in the hockey club. As it turned out, it was a sign of things to come as the Canucks won 23 of their next 32 hockey games.
6. Arguably the biggest regular season goal of 2009 was Alex Burrows’ short-handed effort against Carolina that put an end to the team’s January misery. In the first game of February, Burrows picked up a loose-puck at centre and went in all alone on Cam Ward and beat the Hurricane netminder with a backhand deke with just 1:22 remaining. The goal snapped a 3-3 tie and led the Canucks to their first victory in nearly four weeks. After a month of things going wrong for the hockey team, Burrows got this one right.
7. In a year filled with debates about head shots on so many questionable body checks and thrown in the National Hockey League, Willie Mitchell’s thunderous open-ice wallop on Chicago captain Jonathan Toews stands out because it was devastating – but it was completely clean. The Canuck defender stepped out of the penalty box at the United Centre on October 21st and absolutely rocked the Hawk who had his head down coming through the neutral zone. It’s unfortunate that Toews was injured on the play, but that was a result of the sheer impact of the collision – clearly one of the hits of the year around the NHL – and not Mitchell doing anything that wasn’t within the rules of the game.
8. The first 10 minutes of game two of the opening round playoff series with St. Louis on April 17th was probably the best hockey played at GM Place all year. Breath-taking doesn’t come close to describing the frantic pace and ferocious passion on display from both the Canucks and Blues. It was spell-binding stuff as the teams went more than eight minutes between whistles and combined for 22 hits before the first period reached the midway mark. It was everything that Stanley Cup playoff hockey is supposed to be and was a treat for anyone who was in the building that night.
9. In an effort to find balanced scoring as the Canucks headed out on an eastern-Canadian road trip, Alain Vigneault decided to give Alex Burrows a shot to play with the Sedins. In the first period of their first game together on February 19th in Ottawa, that newly formed trio combined for six points by skating circles around the Senators. On the night, the line combined for nine points and showed the type of chemistry that would serve them well as one of the hottest combinations in hockey the rest of the season.
10. With the Canucks up 4-0 and in full control of a game in Chicago on March 29th, the Hawks figured if they couldn’t beat the Canucks, they would try to beat them up. Having none of it, Kevin Bieksa stood up to Hawks tough guy Ben Eager in a bout that looked more suited to the octagon. While that was going on, Alex Burrows slugged it out with Duncan Keith (okay, he may have grabbed a handful of Keith’s flowing locks in the process). It was a wild scene in the Windy City and certainly one of the more memorable moments of an eventful 2009.