Sportsnet is turning back the clock to relive Canada’s most unforgettable best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs series with NHL Classics: Best of Seven Series. Game 3 of the epic 2011 clash between the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks airs Sunday, April 26, starting at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT. The full broadcast schedule can be found here.
VANCOUVER – By the time the Vancouver Canucks limped into Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, it was obvious how acutely the team missed injured defenceman Dan Hamhuis, and that Ryan Kesler was playing on one leg.
Manny Malhotra had rushed back from a devastating eye injury, but was not the same player, and defenceman Aaron Rome’s suspension hurt more than people expected.
But the Canuck people forget is Mikael Samuelsson, the powerful, two-way veteran winger who had 48 goals and 103 points in his two full seasons in Vancouver. They forget because Samuelsson’s playoffs ended in the second round when he tore an abdominal muscle against the Nashville Predators.
“He should not be forgotten,” former teammate Daniel Sedin reminded Sportsnet this week. “When he stepped into the locker room, he was just so professional in everything he did, it changed the mindset for our team. It changed how we looked as a team, too, because Mikael was a guy who could play on the third line and play a checking role and be hard and physical, but he could also score some big goals. He was just a solid guy and a great player.”
The Canucks could have used him against the Boston Bruins, but were lucky to have him for the opening round against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Slowed in the second half of the season by groin problems and, as the playoff began, the flu, Samuelsson returned to the Canucks lineup for Game 3 in Chicago and scored a winning goal that gave Vancouver a 3-0 lead against its most hated rival (until the Bruins came along six weeks later).
But that goal, too, is largely forgotten, lost in the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb Raffi Torres dropped on Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook in the second period of the Canucks’ 3-2 win at the United Center.
“If you look at the game-winning goal, I don’t really skate,” Samuelsson said in a phone interview from Sweden about his backhand winner at 6:38 of the third period. “I just tried to buy myself time (because) I can’t skate like I usually do because of my groin. Every stride I took, I felt it. That was just me trying to survive.”
About to start a new job managing Sodertalje SK in Sweden’s second-division Allsvenskan, Samuelsson, 43, survived only 11 playoff games back in 2011. His winner in Chicago was his only goal of the post-season. It was also his second-last as a Canuck because general manager Mike Gillis included him in the trade for Florida winger David Booth six games into the following season.
Gillis had signed Samuelsson to a three-year contract in 2009, when the 220-pound winger chose the Canucks over several other teams a year after winning the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings.
“I called Mattias Ohlund to ask how are the guys on the team,” Samuelsson said. “The Sedins I knew from before. But there was Kesler and (Alex) Burrows and (Kevin) Bieksa. They were kind of a pain in the ass to play against, and they were talking a lot on the ice. I wasn’t used to that in Detroit. You didn’t talk that much; you just played.
“But I saw potential in that group, definitely. It felt good right from the beginning. I felt I had a voice in the locker room. Guys were hungry for success, hungry for winning. So it was too bad they couldn’t win.”
The playoffs couldn’t have started any better for the Canucks with a 3-0 lead against a Chicago team that won the Cup in 2010 and had eliminated Vancouver from the playoffs the previous two seasons.
It felt like the first-round series was over, and Torres’ massive blindside hit on Seabrook behind the Chicago net – two minutes for interference, no suspension – seemed like an exclamation point.
“I thought he was dead, man,” former Canuck Chris Higgins said. “That could have been the loudest hit I ever heard in my life. I think it really changed the way (Seabrook) played the rest of the series. You could look him in the eyes and you could tell that it hurt him. If you don’t take notice of that hit, man, there’s something wrong with you. And I’ve been hit by Raffi Torres. I know that it hurt.”
“Raffi was such an explosive guy,” Bieksa said. “I worked out with him a lot that year, and I just knew how powerful and explosive he was. When he got going full speed, it didn’t matter how big the guy was, Raffi was going to steamroll him. He had his sights set on Seabrook. He was trying to time it so as soon as Seabrook got the puck D-to-D, Raffi was going to blow him up. I don’t know if Seabrook even touched the puck. I just remember thinking that is one of the biggest collisions I’ve ever seen in my life and Seabrook must be dead. Then he kind of got up.”
The hit was a symbol of the Canucks’ physical domination of the Hawks over the first three games. Seabrook was one of a few Chicago players matching Vancouver’s combativeness.
“That first game in Chicago, we were running them through the end boards,” Canucks winger Jannik Hansen said. “Raffi was throwing hits – I’m pretty sure none of them are legal anymore. That hit on Seabrook … I couldn’t believe he got up from that. We were playing so hard, so physical and so direct, and still getting the bounces we needed. And then something happened.”
The Blackhawks were about to turn the series 180 degrees.
“Did we think we had Chicago? Yeah, a little bit,” Samuelsson said. “I knew from the years before when I was in the playoffs, the momentum swings were huge. That showed there. Once you get going, anything can happen.”
Samuelsson’s two seasons in Vancouver, which started with a 30-goal campaign, were the most productive of his 12 years in the NHL.
“I haven’t enjoyed myself better in any place through my whole career than I did in Vancouver,” he said. “With my role on the team, and the city and the people… I couldn’t believe it. It was so nice to play, first of all, for a Canadian team. I played in Hockeytown (in Detroit), but Canada and the playoffs, every round we won people were standing at the airport waiting for us. Thousands of fans in the middle of the night. Are you serious?
“That’s the things I’m going to remember. And when the anthem singer (Mark Donnelly) stopped singing, and the crowd was singing, I had goosebumps over and over again. And all the towels. That’s what I remember.
“It would have been fun to see what happened if that team won. One day.”