Vancouver Canucks\' head coach Alain Vigneault laughs as he stops by the bench to watch a small group of players take part in an optional team practice in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday May 23, 2011. The Canucks and San Jose Sharks play game 5 of the NHL\'s Western Conference final Stanley Cup playoff hockey series Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
VANCOUVER - There's been a lot of painful bumps and twists on the road Sami Salo has travelled.
When the season started the Vancouver Canuck defenceman wasn't sure if he would ever play hockey again after rupturing his Achilles tendon last summer. Now Salo finds himself just one win away from playing in the Stanley Cup final for the first time in his 12-year NHL career.
"It's been a long journey, not just in a career way," Salo said Monday after the Canucks practised at Rogers Arena. "I'm just excited to be part of this great group.
"All the blood and sweat you poured during the season has really paid off. It is a really good feeling."
The Canucks take a 3-1 series lead over the San Jose Sharks into Tuesday night's Game 5 of the Western Conference final. A win sends Vancouver to the Cup final for the first time in 17 years.
Salo's booming slapshot was a big part of the Canucks' 4-2 win over the Sharks on Sunday. He scored twice on the power play and added an assist. Vancouver scored three power-play goals in 1:55 in the second period, all on five-on-three situations.
The Canucks have pushed the Sharks to the brink, but Salo knows that final shove may be the hardest.
"You have to have the killer instinct to try and finish those guys off," he said.
"We have seen that if you're not going out there to win, if you are just sitting back, usually things are not going your way."
Rookie Logan Couture said the Sharks are focused on forcing a Game 6 Thursday in San Jose.
"We know what to do, we know how to win," Couture said after the Sharks practised in San Jose. "We just need to go out there and do it.
"We're obviously not where we want to be. We'd rather be up 3-1. The reality of the situation now is we're down. We're excited to go to Vancouver and try and win a game."
Salo has suffered around 36 injuries, costing him over 250 games, during his career. But the most devastating came last summer when playing floor ball, a form of floor hockey, in Finland.
Friends told Salo it sounded like a shotgun blast when his Achilles ruptured. All he knew he was first-face on the floor.
"It didn't hurt at all," he said. "It was just a weird feeling.
"Three or four weeks after the surgery it was really painful at times. I got through it with the help of friends and family."
It was a long, slow recovery for the 36-year-old native of Turku, Finland. He missed training camp and the first 52 games of the season.
It was December before Salo was finally convinced he'd be able to play hockey again. In early February Salo was sent to the Manitoba Moose, Vancouver's AHL farm team, for a conditioning stint. He responded by scoring two goals in his first game.
He returned to the Canucks lineup Feb. 12.
"It's like climbing Mount Everest," said Salo. "It's very small steps from Day 1 after surgery until all the way up to the time in December when I started skating.
"You didn't see any progress on a daily basis, or sometimes even a weekly basis. You saw the light at the end of the tunnel once you . . . were able to do something you weren't able to do maybe two weeks before. You knew things were going the right way."
In 27 regular-season games, the six-foot-three, 215-pound Salo had three goals and four assists.
In 13 playoff games he has three goals, four points and averaged 17:40 of ice time.
Canuck captain Henrik Sedin said Salo is an important weapon in a Vancouver defensive unit that has scored 13 goals during the playoffs.
"We've always known in here what he can do," said Sedin. "Coming back like he did from his injury, shows how much he wants to be here and how much he wants to win."
Beating the odds is nothing new for Salo. He was the third last player taken in the 1996 draft, 239th by the Ottawa Senators.
Coach Alain Vigneault said he wasn't even sure if Salo would clear the latest hurdle.
"At his age, to comeback from such a serious injury, we weren't sure he was going to pull that off," said Vigneault.
"When he's on top of his game, he really helps our back end."
The Canucks would like to finish off the Sharks as quickly as possible, then wait for the winner of the Boston Bruin-Tampa Bay Lightning series.
Recent history shows Vancouver sometimes has trouble ending series.
Vancouver is 2-4 in playoff elimination games this spring. They are 0-2 in Game 5's.
"They say the fourth (win) is the toughest one to get," said Sedin. "That's been the case for us.
"We are going to treat tomorrow as Game 7. It's a must game for us and we are going to come out really excited."
Vancouver took a 3-0 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round of the playoffs, then needed a goal in overtime of Game 7 to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Canucks were forced to make an extra trip to Nashville in the second round when they lost Game 5 of that series 4-2. They defeated the Predators 2-1 in Game 6.
Vigneault gave no update on the status of defenceman Aaron Rome, who was injured by a Jamie McGinn check in Game 3. He said defenceman Christian Ehrhoff, who missed Game 4 with an upper body injury, is day-to-day.
Salo is in the final year of a contract that pays him US$3.5 million this season. He wants to play hockey next year, but isn't sure where that will be.
The future is uncertain for Salo, but winning a Stanley Cup would make a fond memory.
"It would be awesome," he said. "It just seems like this team has grown up during these past years.
"We knew what kind of mistakes we made and we've grown."