May 13, 2009

The 1994 Vancouver Canucks

Coming off of a so-so regular season, there was little expectation for the 1994 Vancouver Canucks. The previous two seasons saw the Canucks really establish themselves as league power-houses, recording 96 and 101 points during the regular season. However in 1993-94, the team slipped to 85 points, just one game above the magical .500 mark. They finished second in the relatively weak Pacific Division, and weren't expected to make it much farther past the second round if that. But sometimes things don't go according to plan!

Round One saw the Canucks facing off against the arch-rival Flames from Calgary. Game one was played in the Saddledome in Calgary. The Canucks won the game handily with a 5-0 shutout. Kirk McLean was simply spectacular while the Canucks got some timely bounces to bury Calgary early.

Game Two was quite a different story however. Calgary would even the series in a high scoring 7-5 Flames' victory. The game featured Flames' forward Gary Roberts running McLean twice, thus knocking Captain Kirk off of his game somewhat.

Calgary would take a commanding 3-1 series lead with victories in games three and four. The game's were played very evenly, but Calgary goaltender Mike Vernon now was the hot goalie, perhaps stealing a victory from the Canucks. But the Canucks would refuse to die. Despite the monumental task ahead of them, the Canucks were determined to come back and win the series in 7 games.

Game five went in to overtime tied at 1-1. Pavel Bure had the Canucks' goal, his first of the post season. Mike Vernon continued to frustrate the Canucks with spectacular saves. But in the extra period Geoff Courtnall managed to spring lose on a semi breakaway and wire a "Gretzky-like slapshot" into the top left corner. The goal suddenly revived the Canucks' confidence in being able to beat the hot goaltender, and people started talking about a series comeback.

The Canucks had managed to elude elimination once, but would have to do it again in game 6. This time at least the game was played in Vancouver, and the boisterous fans might have given the Canucks' enough support to pull out a series-tying victory. With the game tied 2-2 after the period, the game would once again be decided in sudden death overtime. The Flames' were called for a too-many-men penalty during the extra frame. The resulting powerplay saw Trevor Linden scoop a Pavel Bure rebound behind a fallen Vernon. Suddenly, the series was all tied at 3 games each, but the Canucks definitely had the momentum on their side.

Game seven would once again be decided in over time. The Canucks' Greg Adams would score late in the third period to tie the game at 3, thus forcing the extra frame. The over time period was dominated early by the hometown Flames. Kirk McLean stymied the attackers time and time again, including one save which is now considered on of the greatest moments in playoff hockey history. At roughly the halfway mark of the fourth period, Theoren Fleury and Robert Reichal came in on a broken 2-on-1 rush with only Jyrki Lumme back to defend. Fleury perfectly faked a shot and turned it into a pass over to Reichal, forcing McLean to make a split second jump. McLean flung himself feet first and managed to get his left toe on the puck just in time to deny the Calgary shooter. Even the goal judge signalled it was a goal because he couldn't believe McLean was able to make that stop! Video replays show the puck was stopped right on the goal line.

Late in the overtime session the Flames dumped the puck out of their zone and on to the stick of Dave Babych. The veteran Canuck would move it over to new Canuck Jeff Brown, who would in turn spot Pavel Bure streaking at the Flames' blueline. The airborne pass managed to find its way through a maze of players right on to the tape of Bure's stick. The Flames' defense is caught almost off-guard as Bure splits the defense to go in on Mike Vernon all alone. Bure would quickly fake to his backhand before returning to his forehand to slide the puck past the outstretched Calgary netminder.

The miracle was complete. The Canucks came back from a 3 games to 1 game deficit to win the series, and were riding a wave of momentum into the next round.

The Canucks faced the Dallas Stars in round 2 of the playoffs. Vancouver would once again start on the road in Dallas. First game went to Vancouver on the basis of a 6-4 victory.

Two days later Kirk McLean registered his 2nd shutout of the post season en route to a 3-0 victory. That game will be forever remembered for a vicious elbow delivered by the Canucks superstar Pavel Bure on Dallas tough guy Shane Churla. The elbow, which would draw a fine from the league, perhaps sent a message to the rest of the NHL - Don't mess with Pavel, he can and will take care of himself! The hit also marked the beginning of Don Cherry's "Bure's a weasel" campaign on Hockey Night in Canada. Lost in the mayhem of the controversy was the fact that Bure scored 2 of the 3 goals in the game and probably played his best playoff game up to that point.

The two teams would return to Vancouver for the next 3 games. Dallas would crawl back into the series with a 4-3 victory in game 3. But the Canucks responded in game 4 with a 2-1 overtime victory. With the Stars on the ropes, the Canucks headed into game 5 determined to capture the series victory and avoid having to return to Dallas for a game 6. In an workmanlike effort, the Canucks played perfect defensive playoff hockey to win 4-2, and secure a berth into round three with a 4-1 series victory over the Dallas Stars.

Vancouver would have to wait to see who their next opponent would be. A pesky San Jose team took the Toronto Maple Leafs to a full 7 games before finally bowing out. That would set up an all Canadian showdown between the rested Canucks and weary Leafs. The winner would have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup!

Many Canuck fans - and for that matter, many of the players - believe the victory over Toronto was the biggest highlight of the entire Cup run. In a sense it was a battle for the unofficial Canadian championship if you will.

Game one would go to the hometown Leafs. A 3-2 victory came in overtime. The loss was a disappointment to the Canucks as they had really been coming on as the game got later, and the rust wore off from their long break.

But the Canucks would return the favor in game two. The Canucks would edge out the "Buds" with a 4-3 victory.

The Canucks would return to Vancouver once again for the next three games. Kirk McLean, who already had two shutouts, cranked his game up yet another notch. Games 3 and 4 were both convincing Canuck victories, and Captain Kirk didn't surrender a goal in either game! Game 3 was won 4-0 while game 4 featured a 2-0 final score. The back-to-back shutouts gave Kirk 4 shutouts in the post-season, tying an NHL record for shutouts in one playoff year. The record, shared by 7 other goalies, was first set back in 1926!

Game 5 was played in Vancouver with a chance for the Canucks to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals while on home ice. And that is exactly what they did. The game was close and went into overtime tied at 3. But Nelson British Columbia's Greg Adams snuck the puck past fallen Leaf netminder Felix Potvin to win the game and win the series.

Many think of this series and this win as the real highlight of the Canucks magical run. The all Canadian showdown between Toronto and Vancouver and the excitement generated by the victory. But the Canucks had to regroup and refocus as they still had more hockey to play. This time, they were going for the Stanley Cup!

The Canucks had to wait to see who would be their opponent in the Finals. The New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers series was dragged out to overtime in game 7 in a very close and very physical series. The series highlight was a game 6 victory by the Rangers. Mark Messier proclaimed boldly before the game that they would win, and Mess went on to score a hat trick leading the Rangers to victory. In game 7 big Stephane Matteau would score in overtime to give the first place Rangers the right to meet the Canucks in the Finals. The Blueshirts were going after their first Cup in 54 years. The Canucks were going after their first Cup ever!

Game One was held in Madison Square Garden. The Canucks showed a bit of rust throughout the game as they had a long layoff, giving the Rangers an early series advantage. But Kirk McLean showed absolutely no rust as he stymied the Rangers time and time again. 52 saves McLean made in total in game one. He kept the Canucks in the game and forced overtime. His goaltending performance in that game is now considered to be one of the magical moments in playoff history. With just 30 seconds left in the first overtime period, Greg Adams, the Canucks overtime hero time and time again, stepped into a shot that wired past Ranger goalie Mike Richter. Much to everyone's surprise, the Canucks stole a victory from the heavily favored New York Rangers!

The unforunate part about game one and the goaltending heroics is that the rest of the team didn't play that well. And that trend would continue in the next three games. Game two was a 3-1 victory for the Rangers. The score flattered the Canucks performance. Game 3 was controversial in that the Canucks exploded out of the gate but then Pavel Bure was kicked out of the game for a highstick on Glenn Anderson. That seemed to swing the momentum back into the Rangers favor and they went on to win the game rather easily, 5-1. Game 4 saw the Canucks come out hard but Brian Leetch, the eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner, took control half way through the game. A major turning point was in the second period when Pavel Bure was stopped by Mike Richter on a rare Stanley Cup penalty shot. The Rangers won the game 4-2 and had a stanglehold on the series, 3 games to 1.

The Canucks were previously down 3 games to 1 in the Calgary series, and managed to come back. That was the task they faced again, only no one expected it. The Rangers appeared to be playing at a level higher than the Canucks, and New Yorkers were already beginning to celebrate their first Cup in 54 years.

Game 5 was played in New York, and you know the Rangers wanted to clinch the series on home ice. The Rangers stormed out to take a 3-1 lead after one period. But the second period was one of the wildest periods in Finals history. The Canucks exploded for 5 goals, led by Pavel Bure and Geoff Courtnall with two apiece. The Canucks then shut the door and won the game 6-3. The Rangers' victory parade was cancelled.

Game 6 saw the Canucks come home to the boisterous Pacific Colosseum. The task was simple. Win and you play game 7, lose and that's it. The Canucks handled the Rangers surprisingly easily in the first period, landing 15 shots on Mike Richter, but only coming out of the period with a 1-0 lead. Geoff Courtnall would make it a 2-0 lead early in the second only to watch Alexei Kovalev narrow the lead to 2-1. Canuck Captain Trevor Linden out-hustled Mark Messier behind the Ranger net and got the puck to Jeff Brown who made it 3-1. The fans were going crazy, the Canucks had all the momentum.

Then one of the weirdest plays in playoff history occurred. Geoff Courtnall rang the puck off of the inner crossbar of the net and started celebrating another goal. The only problem was the puck bounced in and out of the net so quickly that the referee assumed it hit the outside crossbar. Meanwhile the Rangers took the puck and went to the other end of the ice and Mark Messier subsequently scored a goal too! The Canucks persuaded the referee to do a video review on Courtnall's shot and it was then that it was revealed that Courtnall had indeed scored! So Courtnall's goal counted, and it was 4-1, not 3-2 had the Rangers goal counted!

That play seem to take the remaining wind out of the Rangers sails for that game. The Canucks hung on to win 4-1 in what is generally agreed to be the greatest game in Vancouver Canuck history.

As the final seconds in the game counted down, Mark Messier attacked Trevor Linden twice with a vicious and unpenalized assault with his stick. Linden crawled back to the bench in agonizing pain. Canucks play by play announcer Jim Robson famously proclaimed "He'll play. You know he'll play! He'll play on crutches!"

Game 7 was to be played in Madison Square Gardens. Perhaps the most exciting Stanley Cup Finals in a long time came down to a game 7. Unfortunately for the Canucks, their brush with glory came just short. The Rangers held an edge from the beginning of the game. Trevor Linden, playing the game with broken ribs, potted both Vancouver Canuck goals as the Rangers held onto a 3-2 lead late in the game. With about 6 minutes left in the third period, Geoff Courtnall placed a perfect pass on Nathan Lafayette's stick. The New Westminister rookie rung the puck off of the goal post. Had it been a centimeter over the other way, the Canucks would have forced overtime. The Rangers clung to their lead, and eventually time ran out on the Canucks.

The Canucks went home devestated and empty handed as the Rangers partied for days. What an awful feeling to get so close and walk away with nothing, yet knowing they were every bit as good as the Rangers.


Jason Chuck said...

Great recap to be able to relive such a magical year, thanks for documenting in such detail!

Unknown said...

Awesome playoffs. One of the best. I think it was THE best. But your recap of game 5 in the finals is a bit off. The Canucks had a 3-1 lead, not the Rangers. The Canucks scored 3 goals straight, and then the Rangers scored 3 goals straight, and then the Canucks scored the final 3 goals again straight.