Lewiston, Maine - The bar of a Mexican restaurant in Lewiston, Maine may seem a long way removed from the center of Stanley Cup action. However, watching Game 7 of the Vancouver-Chicago series on television after scouting the Saint John-Lewiston junior game brought me flashbacks of Stanley Cup action from 22 years ago that were so vivid they sent chills down my spine.
In 1989 I was a young member of the Calgary Flames scouting staff and the team had just won its second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy. However, playoff success was proving to be much more elusive. The team had suffered major upsets in the previous two springs and was now playing poorly against a scrappy, determined Vancouver team. Going into Game 7 in Calgary, you could cut the tension with a knife.
On Tuesday night, I could feel the tension in Vancouver all the way from Lewiston. Many of the NHL scouts watching the game with me gave the edge to Chicago. I disagreed. My gut told me that, like the Calgary Flames of 1989, the 2011 Vancouver Canucks may have to do it the hard way, but, ultimately, they would prevail.
During the intermission prior to Tuesday night’s overtime, the consensus was the Hawks had the momentum. However, my flashbacks were becoming stronger. Like the ’89 Flames, the Canucks would have to endure an ordeal by fire. The start of the overtime was disastrous for Vancouver. A penalty to Alex Burrows, who had been one of the Canucks’ best players, followed by an impressive Chicago power play and a goalmouth pass to uncovered sniper Patrick Sharp. Vancouver then became a team of destiny. The much-maligned Roberto Luongo made one of the biggest saves of his career on Sharp, which allowed Burrows to redeem himself by scoring the winning goal later on. The tension was broken in a wave of jubilation; the Canucks advanced to the next round. My flashbacks were accurate.
Nobody has a crystal ball. The road in front of the Canucks is long and arduous. However, nothing can surpass the level of tension that climaxed on Tuesday. The first round of the playoffs is traditionally the most pressure-packed and emotional time of the NHL season. This is especially true for teams such as the 1989 Flames and the 2011 Canucks, who both bore the double burden of regular season success combined with past playoff failures.
Look at all the Stanley Cup champions of recent years. Once they have sipped champagne from the Cup, a common characteristic of virtually all of these championship teams is overlooked: they experienced playoff failures en route to becoming champions. Think of some of the NHL dynasties of the modern era. The Edmonton Oilers of the mid-to-late-1980s, the New York Islanders of the early-1980s and even the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the late-1970s experienced bitter playoff defeats prior to establishing their dynasties.
The ’89 playoffs were difficult for the Flames. However, none of their subsequent playoff series came close to matching the drama of the first round showdown with Vancouver. In fact, none of the other series went the full seven games. The team played with much more confidence once it dealt with the first round tension and prevailed to a Stanley Cup championship. I am confident the 2011 Canucks will now be more bold and relaxed, which will allow them to play a bit more loose and aggressive in the coming rounds.
Former Calgary Flames and Pittsburgh Penguins coach ‘Badger’ Bob Johnson was only half joking when he used to say the key to winning the Stanley Cup was to win the first round. Once that emotional hurdle is overcome, talent prevails more often than not. Now we will see if the 2011 Canucks can duplicate the playoff performance of the 1989 Flames.
The flashbacks from the bar in Lewiston do not stretch that far - at least, not yet.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.