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Consistent success marks Canucks' march to Final

by Emily Kaplan
It was perhaps the biggest goal any Canuck had scored in 17 years.

When Kevin Bieksa slapped a bouncing puck to the right corner of the net on Tuesday night, 10:18 into double overtime of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, he sent Vancouver fans into a frenzy. The Canucks clinched their first berth Stanley Cup Final since 1994, and third overall in the franchise's 40-year history.

The goal extended the Canucks season -- a season filled with anticipation, pressure and excitement. It seemed like a season where the ultimate goal -- to win the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup -- was the only option, and anything short of that would be considered failure.

All that began last summer, when expectations began to develop.

The team bolstered its already talented roster with a few strong offseason acquisitions. Vancouver added defensemen Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, as well as Raffi Torres and Manny Malhotra, who gave the forward corps some depth.

In September, a month before the season began, the Canucks also saw a shift in leadership as goalie Roberto Luongo decided to step down from his role as team captain.

Luongo, who was named captain of the Canucks before the 2008-09 season -- becoming the first NHL goaltender to fill that role since Montreal's Bill Durnan in 1947-48 -- said he would still remain a team leader, but wanted to have the opportunity to concentrate more on just hockey.

With that, reigning Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin was named Vancouver's new captain, and the season began.

The 2010-11 season marked the franchise's 40th anniversary. Prior to its opener on Oct. 9 -- against the Los Angeles Kings, the first opponent the Canucks faced in the NHL 40 years earlier to the day -- the Canucks had a pregame ceremony at Rogers Arena, honoring the team's history.

That history, of course, is rich with talented players and memorable games -- but does not include a Stanley Cup.

This season, Vancouver was determined to break out of its slump of postseason futility.

For two straight years, the Canucks were knocked out of the playoffs by the Blackhawks. And to begin the 2010-11 season, Chicago was enjoying the same success.

The Blackhawks beat Vancouver in the first two meetings of the season -- including a 7-1 drubbing at Rogers Arena on Nov. 20 that Canucks coach Alain Vigneault found to be a bit excessive.

Yet on Dec. 3, Vancouver (14-7-3) made a statement, shutting out the Hawks, 3-0, at Chicago's United Center.

Afterward, Vigneault insisted it was just another win, keeping the end goal of a Stanley Cup victory still in perspective.

Nearly two weeks later, the Canucks were still rolling.

In a game against Columbus on Dec. 15, Ryan Kesler tallied his first career hat trick, accounting for all of Vancouver's offense in a 3-2 overtime win. The win was the Canucks' seventh in their last nine games (7-1-1).

Kesler, who notched his 15th goal of the season in overtime, began to put himself on pace for a career season as far as offensive output.

"He certainly was the best player on the ice," Columbus coach Scott Arniel said that night. "Sometimes he gets overshadowed by other players on the team, but his speed and his skill are real dangerous."

Another key game during the regular season came at the end of the calendar year, as Vancouver defeated the Stars, 4-1, on New Year's Eve in Dallas. The contest is often noted as Cory Schneider's breakout game.

Schneider's emergence as a quality NHL goaltender took some of the mental and physical burden off the shoulders of Luongo, the Canuck's regular starter.

In the Dallas game, Schneider made 44 saves -- including a stop on James Neal's penalty shot in the second period -- to bail out teammates who admitted they were outplayed for much of the game. Meanwhile, the Canucks notched their fourth-straight victory.

With a victory against the Avalanche on March 16 at Rogers Arena, Vancouver became the first team in the NHL to clinch a playoff berth. With the win, the Canucks also clinched their fourth Northwest Division title in five years while earning home ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

On March 31, with a win against the Kings, the Canucks reached another milestone. The victory secured Vancouver ownership of its first-ever Presidents' Trophy, which also guaranteed the Canucks home ice advantage through the playoffs.

When asked if the Presidents' Trophy meant anything to the team, Daniel Sedin was quick in his response.

"Nope, nothing," he said. "It means we have home-ice advantage, but other than that no."

Said Luongo: "It's nice, but we want another first to come in a few months. That's the big one we're all keeping our eyes on obviously and, when it's all said and done, I think we'll be able to enjoy this a little more."

Vancouver finished the season leading the League with the most goals scored and the fewest goals against. The Canucks also boasted the NHL's top-ranked power play and second-ranked penalty kill.

In the season finale -- an April 9 contest against the Flames in which the Canucks prevailed, 3-2, in overtime -- Daniel Sedin recorded two assists, clinching the Art Ross Trophy a season after his brother won it.

The Canucks opened up the postseason with a first round series against Chicago, the defending Stanley Cup champions. Vancouver stormed out to a 3-0 lead in the series, yet the Blackhawks rallied back, forcing a Game 7. Alexandre Burrows played hero in the finale, scoring the winning goal 5:22 into the first overtime period, giving the Canucks a 2-1 victory.

With the win, Vancouver advanced to the second round, and also avoided becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to lose a series after leading it 3-0.

"Obviously, it is a good feeling," Vigneault said after the Game 7 victory. "But we didn't get into the playoffs just to get by one round. I knew our guys were well-prepared and would bust a gut, and they did. It was a tough battle."

In the second round, the Canucks squared off against the Predators -- who had advanced to the second round for the first time in team history. Vancouver won the first game, 1-0, but Nashville evened up the series with a 3-2 overtime win in Game 2.

The Canucks returned the favor by winning Game 3 in overtime, then won Game 4 as well to take a 3-1 series lead. Vancouver eventually finished off Nashville in six games to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1994.

There they met the San Jose Sharks, who had defeated the Red Wings in seven games to advance. Vancouver claimed the first two games by a combined score of 10-5. San Jose cut its series deficit in half by winning Game 3, yet the Canucks won Game 4, 4-2, to once again find itself up 3-1 in a series.

In Game 5, with an opportunity to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, the Canucks found themselves trailing the Sharks, 2-1, with time expiring in the third period. With 13.2 seconds remaining in regulation, Kesler tipped a shot by Henrik Sedin past San Jose goaltender Antti Niemi to force overtime.

That's where Bieksa's memorable goal came in. Directly following it, as the Vancouver bench poured off the bench to mob Bieksa on the ice, confetti fell from the Rogers Center roof and a sellout crowd of 18,860 began chanting, "We want the Cup!"

"We worked all our lives for this, not only this season,'' said Luongo, who made 54 saves in the Game 5 victory. "Growing up as a kid, this is where you want to be."

Coincidentally, Bieksa's goal came exactly 17 years -- to the day -- after Greg Adams' double overtime winner in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against Toronto. That was the last time Vancouver had made the Stanley Cup Final.

The 1994 Canuck team lost to the New York Rangers in seven games. This year, Vancouver is hoping for a different result.
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