Playoff Rookies No More
Roberto Luongo was easily the most-celebrated playoff rookie', but he was by no means alone. Kevin Bieksa, Alex Burrows, Jeff Cowan, Lukas Krajicek, Ryan Kesler, Tommi Santala had never been through the grind of the post-season at this level. Nor had injury call-ups Jannik Hansen and Nathan Smith.
Well, after a quadruple overtime opener, five more remarkably and ridiculously tight-checking contests and a Game 7 thriller against Dallas, it's safe to say the first-timers now have a pretty good idea what the playoffs are all about.
"Tonight was an amazing experience. Obviously the fans were really into it and we probably played our best game of the series," Bieksa said after Monday's 4-1 win over the Stars. "Everybody stepped it up a notch, throwing their bodies around, blocking shots and doing whatever it takes to win. It's a lot of fun to play in those games."
The one word spilling out of the mouths off all of the guys who went through the playoff pressure-cooker for the first time was intensity. They all agreed that the post-Christmas push to win the Northwest Division was an experience in itself, but it was nothing compared to what Dallas dealt them.
"It was really exciting, that's for sure. It's another pace and another level. Guys really skate a lot harder and work a lot harder and pay the price a lot more. Down the stretch in the season it was huge and we stepped it up to get ready for the playoffs, but it went up another notch," said Alex Burrows. "It was unbelievable, especially tonight, the fans were really loud and gave us energy and that's what we need from them. And I'm really happy we got the win for them."
Jeff Cowan was happy about the outcome, too. Just three minutes after the Canucks took a 2-1 lead in Game 7, the feisty winger was called for tripping Eric Lindros in the neutral zone. What followed, as you can imagine, were some anxious moments in the penalty box.
"Oh yeah, I got a little worried on that one but I just believed in my teammates. We've been doing it all year and those penalty killers did it again. They did a great job," he said. "We're trying to stay even-keeled and trying not to get too fired up for games. It was fun. It was exciting."
It had been quite sometime since Lukas Krajicek had felt that excitement. The last time the 24-year-old blueliner suited up for a playoff game was four years ago with San Antonio of the American Hockey League. Toiling in Florida along with Roberto Luongo the past couple of seasons, Krajicek had only seen NHL playoff action on television. Until now.
"You just can't make mistakes and you have to be on top of your game all the time. It's much harder hockey than the regular season, but it was fun," he said of his playoff introduction. "For sure, it was fun. And you're playing for the Stanley Cup, so that's great."
And so is the story of Jannik Hansen. A ninth round pick of the Canucks in the 2004 draft (only four players were selected after him) who's never played a regular season NHL game, Hansen was in the Western Hockey League playoffs in Portland at this time last year. Here is now, just 21, moving into the second round of the chase for the Stanley Cup.
"Unbelievable. I can't even describe it - the intensity, the crowd and everything. It was amazing to be a part of," said Hansen who had a key assist on a Jan Bulis goal in Game 3 against Dallas. "We talked about it down on the farm, about being ready for every shift and not taking any nights off, but up here it's even more so. If you're not ready, you'll stand out right away."
When the playoffs began two weeks ago, depth and inexperience were a couple of the things people questioned about the Canucks. Well, depth is always an issue for every team come playoff time. And so far the Canucks have had enough of it.
As for experience, there's only one way to get that. And after just one series - guys like Kevin Bieksa, Alex Burrows, Jeff Cowan, Lukas Krajicek and Jannik Hansen now have plenty. Oh, and that Luongo fellow didn't appear troubled by a lack of experience, either.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org