Remembering the 2011 Playoff Run – Part III: The Best to Never Win

In 1994, the Vancouver Canucks embarked on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Taking on their powerhouse division rivals in the Calgary Flames, Vancouver pulled off a spectacular comeback from a 3–1 series deficit, winning all of the series’ final three games in overtime. Pavel Bure’s double overtime goal in Game 7 continues to live on as vivid memories for longtime Canucks fans. In the next two rounds, Vancouver also easily dispatched lofty contenders in the Dallas Stars and the Toronto Maple Leafs. They then met the President’s Trophy-winning New York Rangers in the Final. The Rangers posted 112 points in the regular season to the Canucks’ 85, which was the largest difference in the Cup Final since 1982, a matchup that also included the Canucks. That year, Vancouver held a 41-point difference with 77 points against the New York Islanders, who promptly swept the Canucks.

However, despite the perceived difference in skill in 1994, the Canucks took the Rangers to seven games anyway. But in a cruel fashion that has seemed to define the franchise’s history, the Canucks fell just short of their ultimate goal. Just like their initial series against Calgary, Vancouver attempted to pull off another comeback from a 3–1 series deficit, and came within a whisker of doing so. In Game 7, with the Rangers leading 3–2 in the third, the Canucks beat Rangers goalie Mark Richter twice, only for both instances to ring off the post. The Rangers would hang on to win, capturing their first Stanley Cup in 44 years. This photo of Canucks captain Trevor Linden and goalie Kirk McLean consoling each other after the Game 7 loss is one of the most iconic photos in franchise history, as not only did it earnestly capture the heartbreak of an underdog just falling short, but also reflected the team’s incredible journey in that run.

To add insult to the already-injured psyches of Canucks fans, a downtown gathering that numbered up to 70,000 to follow Game 7 broke out in fights that later escalated to riots. And while Downtown Vancouver had been packed Games 5 and 6, the crowds had dispersed peacefully after the games ended. Unprepared for the violence, the police presence downtown quickly lost their control over the crowd and the riots would last until the morning after. Over 150 people were arrested and up to $1.7 million CAD (2020 value) was accrued from looting and property damage.

In my previous post recapping Vancouver’s 2011 run, I had mentioned reading a meaningful quote from The Hockey News’ Adam Proteau discussing how cheering for the Canucks often started with a ‘tantalising brush with greatness’ followed by ‘disappointment and disgust.’ I have no doubt that Proteau’s words would resonate with older Canucks fans.  At that time, as a young Canucks fan who experienced the aftermath of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, but wasn’t even born yet in 1994, reading about the 1994 Final felt like reliving a memory that never existed.

Exactly 10 years ago today, on 16 June 2011, crowds gathered in Downtown Vancouver once again after riots broke out the night before. This time, Vancouverites volunteered their skills to repair the damage left from the previous night, while many also assisted the authorities in holding the rioters accountable. Alongside the 1994 riots, the night was another event that will in infamy in the history of Vancouver.

Before the riots broke out, Vancouver had just lost their final playoff game of the 2011 postseason, in a matchup that many Canucks fans thought was a sure win. In the final part of my series recapping Vancouver’s run to the Cup Final, I recount the experience seeing the Canucks play, the aftermath of their loss, and the legacy of the 2011 roster, which still has a strong influence on the team today.

Eleven seconds into overtime in Game 2 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, Alex Burrows tucks the puck in from a wraparound after Tim Thomas miscalculates the puck’s direction. (Associated Press)

The Canucks matched up with the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. As both teams respectively led the league in goal differential during the regular season, the hockey community predicted an exciting series that would be marked by both teams playing with an edge, as well as a duel between two top-flight goalies in Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas.

Vancouver could not have asked for a better start to the series, as the Canucks handed the Bruins two devastating losses out of the gate. In a hard-fought Game 1, Raffi Torres broke a scoreless tie with 18.5 seconds remaining in the third period for Vancouver to take the opening game. Roberto Luongo stood tall with 36 saves for the shutout. Game 2 would go to overtime after another tilt of hard checking and defensive play, but Alex Burrows ended the game in just 11 seconds when he capitalised on a wraparound attempt after Boston netminder Tim Thomas misplayed the puck. Burrows’ marker was tied for the second fastest overtime goal ever in a Finals matchup. The Canucks are headed to Boston with a 2–0 series lead. In the history of the Cup Final, only four teams have went on to win a Cup after falling behind two games. By getting under the skin of the Bruin early on, Vancouver was playing its signature style of hockey and it was working. In Game 1, Burrows even bit Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron during a scuffle but was never suspended due to inconclusive video evidence.

The fanbase was elated. The Canucks seemed to have everything going in their favour. History, momentum, and perhaps even a little bit of luck? Canadian media outlets pointed to the pattern that every Canadian city who had hosted the Olympic Games the year before went on to win the Cup the year afterward. The Montréal Canadiens won the Cup in 1977 after hosting the 1976 Summer Games, while the Calgary Flames won their inaugural Cup in 1989 after hosting the 1988 Winter Games. After pulling off a dazzling Winter Games in 2010, Vancouver was looking to repeat history for a third time.

But everything fell apart when the Canucks arrived in Boston. Just five minutes into Game 3, Canucks defenceman Aaron Rome blindsided Bruins winger Nathan Horton with a hit towards the head. Horton was taken out of the game on a stretcher and had to be hospitalised. Rome was later hit with a four-game suspension, the longest ever suspension in a Stanley Cup Final, which guaranteed that he would miss the remainder of the series. The hit on Horton was the galvanising point for the Bruins, as they took Game 3 in a 8–1 rout. The last time a team had scored eight goals in a Cup Final game was in 1996, when the high-powered Colorado Avalanche torched the underdog Florida Panthers in Game 2. Game 4 ended in similar fashion too, as the Canucks left Boston by dropping a 4–0 dud. Luongo sat in goal for the entirety of both Games 3 and 4, giving up all 12 goals that Boston scored.

The Canucks would redeem themselves as the series shifted back to Vancouver, as Luongo would shut the door for 25 saves in another 1–0 win for Vancouver. But that is as close as the team will come. With a chance to close the series in Boston, Henrik Sedin squandered an early opportunity with a wide-open net, and everything went downhill from that point. In a span of four minutes during the first period, Boston would capitalise four times en route to a 5–2 win, forcing a Game 7 back in Vancouver. In the ultimate game of the 2011 playoffs, none of the Canucks’ 36 shots would go past Tim Thomas again as Vancouver dropped another 4–0 decision.

The Bruins had won its first Stanley Cup in 39 years. In front of a stunned Rogers Arena, Tim Thomas was also awarded the Conn Smythe as the MVP of the playoffs. With a .967 save percentage, he recorded the highest save rate of any goalie ever in a Cup Final. As the Canucks left the ice for the final time that season, hollow cries of “Go Canucks Go” went off meaninglessly throughout the stadium. For the fanbase, losing the Stanley Cup Final for the third time was the ultimate gut punch. In 1994, Vancouver was an underdog that fought valiantly to the end. But this year, Vancouver was the favourite to win the Cup. Not only had they failed to get the job done, the manner in which they lost was painfully brutal. All of Vancouver’s losses that series came at margins of three goals or more.

Boston was the better team in the series. The Bruins’ depth overwhelmed Vancouver while outplaying them at their own game in agitating their opponents. The Canucks also failed to find an answer for Tim Thomas the entire series, as Vancouver only scored eight goals in seven games. Tim Thomas’ performance, combined with Boston’s aggravating style, allowed the team to confidently play an offensive game. Head Coach Claude Julien’s decision to favour seasoned grit over young talent, such as benching future star Tyler Seguin for grinder Shawn Thornton, gave Boston the spark they needed when they were trailing early in the series.

However, what left Canucks fans both outraged and mortified was the physical punishment taken by the Canucks, as Boston’s agitators and pests ran amok with impunity. In Game 6, Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk boarded Canucks winger Mason Raymond that left him with a broken back. No penalties or suspensions were assessed on the play. In the same game, rookie Brad Marchand, an already known pest at the time, punched Daniel Sedin repeatedly after a dead play. Only Daniel was assessed a 10-minute misconduct. For a player who recorded 32 penalty minutes over a full 82-game season that year, Daniel led the seven-game series with 24 minutes.

Volunteers in Downtown Vancouver help remove traces of vandalism left behind by the riots the night before. (Clayton Perry Photoworks)

As explained in the earlier sections of my series, Vancouver was one of the most hated teams in the league due to their pestering style of play. Fanbases of opposing teams basked in the schadenfreude of Vancouver’s defeat. Referring to Boston’s agitating style of play, they also mocked Canucks fans for getting a taste of their own medicine. But what was initially a humiliating moment for Vancouver’s hockey fans soon turned into a humiliating moment for all of the city. As soon as Game 7 ended at Rogers Arena, riots in Downtown Vancouver broke out again. For longtime residents of Vancouver who experienced the 1994 riots, the feeling of déjà vu was an understatement.

Just more than a year ago, the City of Vancouver had been the world’s media darling over its successful delivery of the 2010 Olympic Games. The 2010 Games were the most watched since the Lillehammer Games in 1994, Canada set a Winter Games record by winning 14 gold medals, and the world looked on enviously as Vancouver was swept by a wave of red and white with nonstop celebrations. BBC Sports Correspondent James Pearce wondered if the 2010 Games were the best Games ever.

During the night of rioting, Vancouver returned to the international spotlight, and predictably for all the wrong reasons this time. The Atlantic ridiculed Canada as a country, comparing the trivial grounds of the riot to protestors risking their lives fighting for human rights in China and Syria. As expected, some contrasted the riots with the 2010 Games, as The LA Times opined that the riots showed “a darker side” of a city that successfully pulled off the Winter games. A painful loss, unrest city, and tarnished international reputation. Remember Proteau’s words on ‘disappointment and disgust’ in Vancouver? They rung truer and truer every time the riots were covered in international headlines.

Instead of publishing on the day the riots broke out alongside the Canucks’ season officially ending, I decided to publish on the day afterwards, highlighting the Vancouverites who helped restore damage from the previous night. Minimal coverage was given to those who returned downtown to clean up the mess left behind by the rioters. The Canucks also honoured the cleanup volunteers in a preseason game the season after.

I think that many Canucks fans would agree with me that external outlets blamed the entirety of the city for starting the riot. But why would Vancouverites burn down their own city and then return to clean up the day after? There are numerous accounts online that the riot had been planned, as fans remembered seeing individuals coming from out of town in riot gear on public transit before the game. While there were definitely fans who rioted, it was unfair to suggest that the entire city was responsible.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin address attendees at the ceremony of their jersey retirement in February 2020. (Bob Frid, USA TODAY Sports)

Ten years later, the era of the 2011 team is now long gone. The Sedins had played their final game and got their numbers retired in a thoughtful ceremony. No one on the roster from that playoff run remains on the Canucks except for Alexander Edler. However, the wounds from the loss in the Final that year still run deep. In an interview nine years later with the The Province, Alex Burrows admitted that the loss still stings.

Most Canucks fans still harbour a deep hatred for the Bruins. It is already enough that an opposing team shut you out in the most important game of your franchise and hoisted the Cup in your building. But the overall nastiness, uneven officiating, and the ensuing riot has made the 2011 Finals an occasion that Canucks fans may never live down. Again, to beat the dead horse: hockey fandom in Vancouver has always been about disappointment and disgust than victory and revenge. Just look at the time last year in which the Canucks beat the Bruins 9–3 in a regular season game at home. Even in the dying seconds of the third Canucks fans still pressed their team to score a 10th goal.

But today, most Canucks fans have turned away from the past decade and looked to the future. With a core of young stars that include Swedish sensation Elias Pettersson, North Dakota native Brock Boeser, and a beloved captain in Bo Horvat, fans are hopeful for the future again. They are also joined by a skilled power play quarterback in Quinn Hughes and an emerging star with Thatcher Demko in goal. And despite some illusory factors that may have helped the team, in 2020 Vancouver finally won their first playoff series since beating San Jose in the 2011 Conference Finals. For now, the team is on the right track.

But for older fans are likely much less emotionally invested due to the Canucks’ previous woes. Shannon Skanes, also known as The Hockey Guy on YouTube, is known for his level-headed and sober takes. As a Canucks fan and having watched them for over 40 years, Shannon has commented before on his channel that he has already grown numb to their losses, but has also said that he would enjoy seeing Vancouver win their final playoffs.

I like to think that in his heart, he is still a die-hard fan.

Above Featured Photo: Vancouverites leave behind their thoughts on a boarded up wall in the day after Stanley Cup riots. (Clayton Perry Photoworks)

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