2011 NHL Western Conference Finals Game 1 - Vancouver 3, San Jose 2 – Canucks lead series, 1-0
For the first 45 minutes of the first installment of the Western Conference finals, it looked as though the Vancouver Canucks were going to experience a very unique and crushing form of disappointment.
In just 79 seconds, the San Jose Sharks wound up feeling the sting of being beaten and outplayed, and they were the ones who carried the weight of disappointment on a night that carried a considerable emotional wallop.
This clash between two West Coast powers in the hockey world is poignant and compelling precisely because neither franchise has done very well in the postseason over the years. San Jose has never made the Stanley Cup finals while Vancouver hasn’t been to the big show since 1994. Both teams’ histories over the past decade and a half have been littered with one mid-spring stomach punch after another. Both teams’ inferiority complexes and mindsets of inadequacy have grown over time, so this battle for a spot in the Cup finals carries unusual psychological weight, far more than your typical conference final. Each game isn’t just a test of physical or skill-based prowess; it’s a clash of fragile mental makeups, of players who are uncertain of their abilities and need to smash barriers each and every night they take the ice. Vancouver and San Jose have stacks of proven regular-season performers, but they lack proliferations of the playoff closers, the kinds of stalwarts who have endured four full playoff series and were able to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup at the end of the journey. This is why Game 1, though just the start of what could be a long seven-game slugfest, was so important on Sunday night at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. Each contest is so important, not just in terms of establishing leverage within the flow of the series, but in terms of firming up the confidence level of each team.
For 45 minutes, San Jose frustrated Vancouver, but in just under a minute and 20 seconds, the Canucks rapidly reversed the entire trajectory of this tilt and, with it, the series.
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For the first two periods and the first five minutes of the third, San Jose goalie Antti Niemi was spectacular. Picking up where he left off in the second round against the Detroit Red Wings, the defending Stanley Cup champion between the pipes simply stonewalled Vancouver, often kicking back the puck several times in succession on several Canuck forays to the goal mouth. Vancouver carried the play, but Niemi’s domination of a shaky Roberto Luongo carried the visiting Sharks to a 2-1 lead. San Jose was just 15 minutes away from truly stealing Game 1 and planting a massive seed of doubt in Vancouver’s locker room.
Then, in a heartbeat, everything changed. At 7:02 of the third, Kevin Bieksa scored right in front of the net to tie the score at two, and just seconds later, the Sharks conceded a power play against the newly revved-up Canucks. Within two shifts, Henrik Sedin received a perfect pass from teammate Christian Ehrhoff and buried the puck in the back of the net, with Niemi having no chance on a brilliantly crafted play. Vancouver took 21 of the game’s last 28 shots, meaning Luongo, the Canucks’ goalie, didn’t have to work hard to preserve the 3-2 lead. San Jose had the better goalie, but Vancouver had the better team, and now the Sharks – still in pursuit of hockey’s holy grail – face a hugely urgent Game 2.
No pressure, Sharks. No pressure at all, given your history.
By: Matt Zemek
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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