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Canucks heave sigh of relief as they beat Hawks in Game 7 of first-round series

Vancouver Canucks' Ryan Kesler, right, checks Chicago Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson, of Sweden, during the first period of Game 7 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday, April 26, 2011. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)

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Vancouver Canucks' Ryan Kesler, right, checks Chicago Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson, of Sweden, during the first period of Game 7 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday, April 26, 2011. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)

VANCOUVER - It was a dramatic ending that could prove to be just the beginning for the Vancouver Canucks.

Alex Burrows scored his second goal of the night at 5:22 of overtime to give the Canucks a thrilling 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of their NHL playoff series Tuesday night.

It was an emotional win for a Canuck team that heard whispers of doubt after watching a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final disappear. In beating the Blackhawks, Vancouver finally exorcised a demon that had haunted them the past two seasons.

The win answered the questions about whether the Canucks had the killer instinct or the mental toughness a championship team needs. It eased the anxiety that had gripped the city and renewed hopes that the Canucks might win their first Stanley Cup.

"I never really wanted anything as bad as I wanted this game tonight,'' said centre Ryan Kesler, speaking in a near whisper.

"We weren't going to be denied. We weren't going to accept defeat. For us, it's something we needed to do. We needed to get over this hump.''

The stage had been for a gigantic Canuck collapse when Jonathan Toews tied the game with a short-handed goal with less than two minutes left in the third period. Then Burrows was called for a penalty just 24 seconds into the overtime.

But the Canucks refused to play the role of loser.

Burrows intercepted a pass from Chicago defenceman Chris Campoli and blasted a shot past Blackhawk goaltender Corey Crawford. That sparked a wild celebration where Burrows was mobbed by his teammates.

Burrows, who opened the scoring at 2:43 of the first period, was asked about the mood in the Canucks room before the overtime.

"We said, this is where legends are born,'' he said. ''We told ourselves that this night was our night.

"We weren't going to be outdone by them. We found a way.''

The nail-baiting game was a fitting ending to a tense series that saw the defending Stanley Cup Blackhawks fight off elimination three times.

A sellout crowd of 18,860 sent up a deafening roar after the overtime goal. It was the most emotion felt at Rogers Arena since Canada won the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Mixed in with the cheers were huge sighs of relief, as the Canucks had courted disaster after the best regular season in the team's 40-year history.

"There were a lot of doubts around this dressing room from the outside,'' said captain Henrik Sedin. "I can see why after the games we played.

"This is a big stepping stone for our team to show everyone what we are cable of. It was a huge win for us.''

The victory not only advanced Vancouver into the second round of the playoffs against the Nashville Predators, it also saved the Canucks from the most embarrassing meltdown in franchise history. Losing in the first round, especially blowing a 3-0 lead, would have been devastating to the players and a body-blow to the fans.

Defeating the Blackhawks, a team that was like a bully in the school yard for Vancouver, made the win a little sweeter.

"It feels great,'' said Canuck defenceman Kevin Bieksa.

"Most of the guys you respect on their team. There are a couple of those arrogant guys you love shoving it in their face. It's a good feeling now.''

Goaltender Roberto Luongo made 31 stops and ended two years of frustration against the Hawks. He might have silenced critics who said he couldn't win the big game.

"We knew it wasn't going to be easy,'' said Luongo. "We didn't script it this way.

"When our backs were against the wall, we responded and played a massive game.''

It was a frustrating loss for the Blackhawks, who came close to adding their name to playoff history.

"It sucks. It's not fun," said defenceman Brian Campbell. "We battled. We didn't put ourselves in a good position to start the series. We went after it but came up a little bit short."

Burrows had a chance to score another goal 21 seconds into the third period when he was awarded a penalty shot after being hauled down on a breakaway by Keith. Burrows fired a forehand into the Crawford's chest.

The emotion the Canucks showed on the ice after the win drained away in the dressing room. The players spoke in soft voices. There were no high fives or shouts of celebration.

Owner Francesco Aquilini watched from a corner.

"This was huge for the city of Vancouver,'' he said. "This was a huge obstacle to overcome.''

It's still a long road to the Stanley Cup final, but beating the Blackhawks was a monumental first step.

"It's a good feeling,'' said coach Alain Vigneault. "But we didn't get into the playoffs just to get by one round.

"The Cup champions pushed us to the limit but at the end we found a way to win.''

The Canucks controlled most of the game by returning to the punishing style they used to win the first two matches. Big forward Maxim Lapierre delivered some crunching blows on the forecheck while Bieksa banged bodies in front of Vancouver goal.

For most of the night the Canucks swept Blackhawks from in front of the net, allowing Luongo a clear view of the shots.

An anxious crowd was on its feet cheering several minutes before the teams took the ice before the national anthems.

All day fans were on tenterhooks waiting for the Canucks to play the biggest game in franchise history since losing Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup final to the New York Rangers.

Momentum shifted in the series like the currents in English Bay. After winning the first three games Vancouver looked to be on the verge of sweeping the series.

Instead of folding, the Hawks won the next two games by a combined score of 12-2. Chicago forced a deciding game with a 4-3 overtime win Sunday.

Only three teams had battled back from 3-0 deficits to win a best-of-seven series. The Philadelphia Flyers did it last year, beating the Boston Bruins after being three games down.

The Canucks soared into the playoffs after the best regular season in the franchise's 40-year history. Vancouver won the Presidents' Trophy for the best record in the NHL. The club set franchise records for 54 wins, 117 points and 27 road victories. The Canucks scored more goals than any team in the league and allowed the fewest.

Daniel Sedin led the league in scoring with 41 goals and 63 assists for 104 points. Luongo is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the league. Mike Gillis has been nominated for GM of the year.

The Hawks needed a loss by Dallas on the final day of the season to back into the final playoff spot in the West.

Notes: The Canucks outhit Chicago 13-3 in the first period. ... The last time the Canucks lost a first-round series was in 2002 when Detroit eliminated them in six games. ...Sunday night's Game 6 in Chicago drew an audience of 3.5 million for CBC. ...A total of 12 Canucks had played in a previous Game 7. ...Defenceman Sami Salo missed the game due to injury. He was replaced by Keith Ballard.

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