VANCOUVER — The greatest hockey season we’ve ever seen ended with the only loss that mattered.
The Vancouver Canucks’ quest for their first Stanley Cup was crushed Wednesday when the Boston Bruins won Game 7 of the National Hockey League final 4-0. The 41-year wait continues.
We have Lord Stanley’s park, but we still do not have his trophy.
The Canucks were close enough this spring to see the reflection of their possible immortality. But the Stanley Cup is going back to Boston, where fans’ ardent love of the Bruins has been rewarded with a championship for the first time since 1972.
The Bruins earned it. They were stronger, tougher, deeper offensively and almost impenetrable at the back with Conn Smythe-winning goalie Tim Thomas protected by one of the tightest defences in hockey. They dominated and battered the Canucks in Boston and were as good as them in Vancouver, but had to wait until Wednesday to finally win one on the Pacific coast.
Boston outscored Vancouver 23-8 in the series. Bruins’ penalty-killers outscored the Canucks’ power play 3-2. And it wasn’t a fair fight between goalies Thomas and Roberto Luongo, both Vezina finalists.
But the Bruins’ worthiness of the victory will be of little comfort to British Columbians who, despite possessing the DNA of four decades of Canuck Cup failure, desperately believed that this was the year the Stanley Cup would return to Vancouver for the first time since 1915 when the hockey team was called the Millionaires.
A lot of people are millionaires now. But nobody today feels like a winner.
No team that wins 69 games in eight months is a failure. The Canucks took the NHL regular-season title by 10 points. They never trailed in a playoff series until they lost the Stanley Cup. Next week, players Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Luongo and coach Alain Vigneault will be in Las Vegas as NHL award finalists.
This is an excellent hockey team. But they were not good enough in the final and the Canucks’ season ended like all their other Stanley Cup tournaments — with a loss. Leading 3-2 in the final, Vancouver had two chances to win once and was outscored 9-2 over the final two games.
Even their luck was gone. A stanchion supporting the glass at Rogers Arena created the bounce that led to Canuck Kevin Bieksa’s series-winning goal against the San Jose Sharks three weeks ago. And a stanchion created a breakaway Wednesday for Patrice Bergeron, who stuck a dagger through Canuck hearts when he crashed through an unanchored Luongo to make it 3-0 shorthanded late in the second period.
The Canucks’ spell, however, was broken long before then.
The Canucks lost four of their final games and were outscored 21-4, winning only when Luongo was perfect in a 1-0 Game-5 win. He was rather imperfect after that. He chided Thomas, then allowed three goals on eight shots Monday in Boston. On Wednesday, he was beaten three times on 19 shots.
Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara made one great save more than Luongo did in Game 7, blocking Alex Burrows’ shot early in the second period when Thomas was beaten and the score was only 1-0. But for the Canucks to win, not only would Luongo have had to be perfect in net, he’d have had to skate up ice and score, too.
And so instead of celebrating 2011 as the greatest year the Canucks have provided, we will speak of this time wistfully and with some regret, the way we do of 1994 and 1982, when the joy of a long playoff run was less expected and, therefore, more satisfying for its own sake.
But this was still a heckuva run. And nearly all the key participants should be back for the Canucks, who should be every bit the Stanley Cup contender next year that they were in 2011. They still must sign Kevin Bieksa and try to keep Christian Ehrhoff, too. But the rest of Vancouver’s core players are under contract and still young enough to be the best, even if they were second-best in June. Not much of that was their fault.
Maybe next season will be the year. Maybe if the Canucks get a little tougher. Maybe if Luongo is a little sharper and Daniel and Henrik Sedin can finish their chances. Maybe if the team is a little healthier. Maybe. It’s all we have for now.
Surely, one day it will happen. That’s what we keep telling ourselves. Someday.