VANCOUVER – With the advantage of time and context, we can look back nine years at the 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks and conclude a couple of things.
They really were freakin’ good, one of the best teams of the last 20 years not to win a Stanley Cup. Nearly a decade later, this isn’t exactly a revelation. But seeing again on Sportsnet the team that opened the National Hockey League playoffs that spring with a fantastic seven-game series against the Chicago Blackhawks, we finally register how deep the talent ran in Vancouver.
Sure, the team was built around NHL scoring champions and future Hall-of-Famers Henrik and Daniel Sedin, and backed by one of the best goaltenders of his generation in Roberto Luongo.
But the Canucks had 41-goal scorer Ryan Kesler, the Selke Trophy winner that season, on their second line. When healthy, the four centres were: Hank Sedin, Kesler, Manny Malhotra and Max Lapierre. Fifty-point forward Mikael Samuelsson, a Stanley Cup winner with Detroit in 2008, was essentially a utility player who could play either wing and up and down the lineup.
And on the blue line, the Canucks opened the playoffs with five 20-minute defencemen: Alex Edler, Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Sami Salo. That left Keith Ballard, Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts battling for the sixth spot. Rookie Chris Tanev, who would eventually be forced by injuries into the Western Conference final and Stanley Cup final, was the ninth defenceman.
No wonder the Canucks built a 117-point regular season and won the Presidents’ Trophy by daylight.
“We went to the finals because of depth,” Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness, who was then Alain Vigneault’s associate coach with the Canucks, told Sportsnet.ca on Tuesday. “It was not because of one line, not because of goaltending, not because of any one thing. We had depth.
“Jannik (Hansen) came up with big goals, Higgy (Chris Higgins) came up with big goals. It was depth that carried that team. That’s usually the case when you go to the finals: it’s not just the stars, it’s the depth. Look at St. Louis last year, and Boston – both teams had great fourth lines. They could play against anybody in any situation. And we had that. The stars always get the attention. But, man, that team was built on depth.”
That depth was evident as the Canucks sprinted to a 3-0 first-round series lead against the hated Blackhawks.
Higgins scored the winner in Game 1, and Hansen opened the scoring in Game 2, which is being rebroadcast Wednesday night on Sportsnet. Samuelsson, who sat out Game 2 with an injury, had the winning goal in Game 3.
“We talked so much about depth and contributing and not just relying on one line, but being a four-line team,” Hansen recalled this week. “You point at your bottom six (forwards) and make sure you’re not just playing well defensively, but chipping in offensively.”
Hansen was a third-line fixture opposite wrecking ball Raffi Torres, who missed the first two games of the playoffs with a suspension earned for an elbow to the head of Edmonton Oilers forward Jordan Eberle in Game 80 of the regular season. The Canucks wingers’ centre for much of the playoffs was agitator Lapierre, who was promoted when Malhotra suffered a gruesome eye injury three weeks before the Stanley Cup tournament.
“There were stages during the season when we were playing so well as a line, but not getting much done offensively,” Hansen, who lives in North Vancouver after playing the last of his 626 NHL games with San Jose two years ago, said. “And you know a series can turn so quick if all of a sudden the offence dries up on your top guys. So it’s a great feeling when you do poke a hole in the ketchup bottle and a couple pour out.”
Poke a hole in the ketchup bottle?
“The old bottles, you hold them and shake and shake them but the ketchup won’t come out,” the Dane explained. “And then when it comes, it all pours out. The term might be the ketchup-bottle effect. Do you have that saying in English?”
We do now.
After ending the regular season on a 14-game goal drought, Hansen scored in the Canucks’ 2-0 win in the series opener, then two nights later started the 4-3 win in Game 2 by zipping a close-range shot past Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford at 7:30 of the first period.
“Burr (Alex Burrows) came off and I came on,” Hansen said of the goal. “Danny and Hank behind the net, out to me and I one-timed it.
“As the series started, and especially Game 1 and 2, everything was clicking. We had depth scoring, the top guys were doing their part, we had special teams, we scored at the right times. Everything was running smoothly.”
The Canucks were also pulverizing the Blackhawks physically, a trend that would be characterized in Game 3 by Torres’ thunderous – and somehow not suspendable – hit on Chicago defenceman Brent Seabrook.
“I learned a lot that playoff series,” Higgins said. “And one of the things I learned – I’m sorry because I know it’s the biggest cliché – but it really was shift by shift. That was our focus. That win in Game 1 just meant we had to start Game 2 well. That’s all it meant.”