Remembering the 2011 Playoff Run – Part I: To Slay a Dragon

On 26 April 2011, with the Vancouver Canucks’ season hanging in the balance at home, winger Alexandre Burrows pounced on a clearing attempt by Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Chris Campoli and ripped a clap bomb past goaltender Corey Crawford in sudden-death overtime. The rest—as they say—was history, as Burrows was dogpiled by his teammates while Rogers Arena and the rest of British Columbia broke into pandemonium. If there was ever a moment this vividly etched into the collective psyche of Vancouver sports fans, this one was it.

Vancouver’s run to the finals during the 2011 postseason was one of the most emotional playoff appearances in franchise history. And as we approach the 10th Anniversary of the team’s fateful run, this is my first of a three-part series recapping the most storied moments from the perspective of a Canucks fan. I look back at the key narratives that surrounded the team that year, plus how the city’s memory of the run has shaped the Canucks today.

Burrows’ overtime winner had only sent the Canucks to the second round of the playoffs. And to any outsider looking in, the celebrations looked like as if the Canucks had already won the Stanley Cup. But the cheers that resounded through the city that night more resembled sighs of relief, as Vancouver had finally rid itself of the proverbial monkey off their backs in the form of the Chicago Blackhawks.

2011 was the third time in as many years that Vancouver had met Chicago in the playoffs, and despite showing exceptional promise in their previous two meetings, the Canucks faceplanted both times in the end to disappointing exits. During the 2009 series, the Canucks blew leads in five of the six games they played, including a late lead in Game 4 that would have allowed them to take a commanding 3–1 lead in that series. In 2010, the Canucks burst out of the gate to a 5–1 victory in Game 1, before sputtering in the next three games en route to another playoff exit in six games. The Blackhawks would go on to win the Stanley Cup that year as well—the first of three over a five-year stretch.

Vancouver’s struggles against Chicago naturally made them one of the most disliked teams amongst Canucks fans. The Blackhawks buried the Canucks in games where they lost their footing, such as the series-deciding game in 2009 where the Canucks failed to hold on to a third-period lead twice. At the same time, The Fratellis’ “Chelsea Dagger,” which was Chicago’s goal song at that time, continues to haunt Canucks fans to this day. In 2018, the new Canucks DJ almost got herself run out of town when she played the same song at Rogers Arena as a joke.

But in terms of general animosity, the feeling was mutual between the two teams and their fanbases. The Blackhawks hated Vancouver’s grinders and their ability to draw penalties, while there were plenty of Blackhawks that the Canucks loved to hate as well. The list included Dustin Byfuglien, who before becoming one of the best hard-hitting scorers in the league, loved to get under the nerves of teams. There was also Dave Bolland, who often harassed Canucks even after the play was long blown dead. Many Canucks fans continue to despise the Blackhawks well after the most heated periods of their rivalry, most likely due to the headhunting elbow defenceman Duncan Keith laid on Daniel Sedin.

In 2011, Vancouver wrapped up their most successful regular season ever. Recording 117 points, Vancouver was awarded the President’s Trophy for the first time in franchise history as the league’s best regular season team.

The Canucks’ league-leading offence was led by the dynamic twins in Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who torched opposing defences with their shared ability to find each other on the ice no matter the situation. Daniel Sedin would also win the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer and the Ted Lindsay Award as the best player in the league as voted by players. Vancouver also paced the league in defence, as the team boasted a steady balance of power play quarterbacks in Christian Ehrhoff and Alexander Edler, along with shutdown blueliners such as Dan Hamhuis and Sami Salo. In goal, Vancouver enjoyed elite goaltending from Roberto Luongo, who had just won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2010 Olympic Games that took place in the very building the Canucks played their home games in. Alongside an emerging star in Cory Schneider, the Canucks’ goaltending duo also won the William M. Jennings Trophy as the tandem with the fewest goals allowed on average.

To say that the Canucks were reviled that year would be an understatement. Not only did Vancouver have a target on its back for being the best team the entire season, opposing fans also hated the Canucks for their squad of pests and agitators such as Ryan Kesler, Jannik Hansen, Maxim Lapierre, Raffi Torres, and of course, Alex Burrows. Opponents were further infuriated by the agitators’ offensive abilities, as Burrows netted 26 goals for Vancouver that year while Kesler scored 41, as the latter also went on to win the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. Those who physically went after the Canucks risked putting Vancouver up on their league-leading power play as well.

Conversely, despite being the defending Stanley Cup champions from the previous season, Chicago barely crawled into the playoffs as the eighth seed. The Blackhawks had both suffered from the infamous Cup hangover, as well as due to weaker depth was the team let go of key pieces due to salary cap issues. Nevertheless, Chicago’s last-minute entry into the playoffs all but ensured that the Canucks and Blackhawks will meet in the playoffs for a third straight year.

Coming off such a successful season, anything short of a Stanley Cup would be considered a failure for Vancouver’s devoted fans and media presence. But to hoist hockey’s holy grail, they would have exorcise their demons and defeat the defending champions.

Elsewhere in the league, as well other prominent rivalries did not match up during the first round, the Canucks-Blackhawks tilt by far had the most intriguing tale of the tape. The Canucks’ social media team coined the hashtag #3venge for the series, as fans hoped that the third time would be the charm for Vancouver to finally defeat Chicago in a playoff series.

The Canucks came out flying again in Game 1, as a lights-out Luongo backstopped the Canucks to a 2–0 shutout in front of a standing ovation at Rogers Arena. They followed up with another gritty performance in Game 2, emerging with a 4–3 victory thanks to a three-point night from Daniel Sedin. As the series shifted to Chicago for Game 3, Vancouver would put up another fight as they defeated Chicago 3–2 to take a 3–0 stranglehold lead. At the time of the series, as only two teams in NHL history have been able to come back such a deficit, some ecstatic Canucks fans already started celebrating, while local media discussed whether Vancouver would be able to pull off the sweep in the next game. But in the postgame interview, Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews told the media that the Canucks were an overrated team and promised everyone that they would expose them for what they really are.

Vancouver lasted for one competitive period in Game 4 before the floodgates opened, as the Blackhawks chased Luongo out of net before winning their first game of the series in a 7–2 rout. With the series headed back to Vancouver for Game 5, Luongo was pulled again as he struggled in front of a lifeless Canucks performance, as they dropped their second straight game in a 5–0 loss. As Luongo failed to finish the past two games, the Canucks started Cory Schneider in his first playoff game for Game 6 in Chicago. Schneider would keep Vancouver in the game with a 3–3 tie before he went down with an injury, as Luongo took the crease again to finish the game as it headed to overtime. But Vancouver’s efforts were not enough as Chicago’s Ben Smith scored late in the extra frame to send the series into a do-or-die Game 7 in Vancouver. As fast as they were once on the brink, Chicago was back on even ground with Vancouver.

Trying to avoid becoming the third ever team to be reverse-swept in the playoffs, Vancouver opened Game 7 with a real sense of urgency, as Burrows put the Canucks on the board early in the first period. The team did not let up the rest of the game, as they besieged Chicago with attack after attack, but Blackhawks netminder Corey Crawford stood tall. The score stayed 1–0 as the game headed to the third, where Burrows, who had been all over the Blackhawks net the entire night (foreshadowing!), had another opportunity to extend the lead on a penalty shot. He would be denied on Crawford’s right pad in front of a crowd that was already growing visibly anxious.

Shortly afterwards, Canucks fans thought they caught another break when Burrows drew a penalty to go on the power play late in the third. That is until Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews swooped in, undressed the Canucks defence, and buried a loose puck past Luongo to tie the game. It was the first ever shorthanded goal of Toews’ career. The silence in Rogers Arena was comparable to the Olympics just a year ago, when Zach Parise tied the game late in the third for the Americans during the gold medal game against Canada. Game 7 was going to sudden-death overtime.

Vancouver could not have a worse start to the extra frame, as the Blackhawks were given an early power play when Burrows knocked down Chicago’s Duncan Keith. The Blackhawks were dialled in on the man advantage, with Luongo making a tremendous save when he robbed a one-timer from Toews to winger Patrick Sharp. It would be one of the greatest saves in his career as minutes later, after a failed clearing attempt from Chicago’s Chris Campoli, Burrows stole puck and ended the series with a slapshot past Crawford. The Canucks have finally knocked off the defending champions and conquered the mountain that was the Chicago Blackhawks. Both Luongo and Kesler later commented that the game was more important to them than the gold medal game a year ago, when the two players faced off against each other.

Two legendary calls were born out of Burrows’ heroics. “After three seasons and 19 games against Chicago, for Vancouver, it’s a wonderful day for an exorcism” was the call from CBC’s Jim Hughson after taking in the energy of the crowd. Sportsnet’s John Shorthouse simply yelled “They’ve slayed the dragon!” From that time onward, Burrows was dubbed “The Dragonslayer,” and 26 April is now known as “Burrows Day” among Canucks fans.

Canucks celebrate atop of each other after knocking off the Blackhawks. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

I was 15 years old when Burrows became the overtime hero in that series. The next day at school, celebrations continued among both students and teachers, and the goal was played on repeat throughout the day. It was one of the happiest stretches of time to be a sports fan in Vancouver, as just over a year ago, Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal in the same building where Burrows scored his winning goal, as Canada defeated the United States for gold in Men’s Ice Hockey at the 2010 Games.

In the same playoffs, the Canucks would go on to defeat Nashville in six games in the second round, followed by dispatching the San Jose Sharks in five games in the Western Conference Final, before falling to the Boston Bruins in seven games in the Stanley Cup Final. With Vancouver unable to win their final playoff game in 2011, recent Canucks fans continue to associate Burrows’ overtime winner as the greatest goal in Canucks history.

To this day, Burrows’ heroics remains a big deal. His presence on the team has always been special, and the dragonslayer goal was only one of the memorable goals he scored in his career. During 2008-09 season, when the Canucks were mired in the middle of an eight-game slide, Burrows scored a shorthanded goal against the Carolina Hurricanes which ended up being the game winner. It was a turning point of the season as the Canucks then went 23-7-2 and captured the Northwest Division title. Multiple figures within the Canucks community have argued that Burrows saved Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault’s jobs with that goal. During the playoffs of the same year, Burrows also scored the overtime winner in Game 4 against the St Louis Blues, where the Canucks pulled off a playoff sweep for the first time in franchise history.

For now, the dragonslayer goal continues to be the fondest memory. As the core of the Canucks declined over time, Burrows would eventually be traded to the Ottawa Senators in 2017, where he played his part in taking the Senators to the Eastern Conference Finals that year. He retired in 2018 and was eventually given a place in the Canucks’ Ring of Honour in 2019.

Following the 2011 postseason, the Canucks and Blackhawks have yet to meet in the playoffs again. Over the next years, Chicago went on to win two more Stanley Cups, establishing themselves as one of the decade’s dynasties. Vancouver’s trajectory went the other direction, as they would not win another playoff series until 2020. Regular season tilts between the two teams continue to be entertaining, but the heated rivalry died down over time. With the core of both teams’ regressing, Vancouver announced a rebuild for the first time in 2017, while the Blackhawks missed the playoffs in 2018 for the first time in a decade.

With time, it has been apparent that both organisations have developed a high degree of respect for each other, both from the heated playoff games, as well as the nostalgia from their teams’ more successful days. The Sedins played their final games in 2018, the Blackhawks had nothing but praise when asked about their careers. And when the Canucks retired their numbers in 2020, the team specifically requested the Blackhawks to be in the building on that night, signifying an official end to the rivalry.

For now. I look forward to another day when both Vancouver and Chicago will ice powerhouse teams again.

Above Featured Photo: Alex Burrows celebrates with Henrik Sedin after scoring the Game 7 overtime winner to lift the Canucks over the Blackhawks in the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

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