Love 'em or hate 'em, Canucks on verge
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- These Vancouver Canucks are not an easy team to warm up to.
They have bitten their opponents and knocked them unconscious with dirty hits.
They have mocked the Boston Bruins -- and, in turn, been mocked back -- and they have faked grave injuries.
They have behaved, at times, like children with the media.
But like them or not, this Vancouver Canucks team will not take a knee.
After being outscored 12-1 in Games 3 and 4 in Boston, the Canucks returned serve with another gritty performance in Friday's Game 5, riding Maxim Lapierre's early third-period goal to a 1-0 victory. The win gives Vancouver a 3-2 series lead and a chance to win its first championship Monday night in Boston.
We're not sure whether it was ironic that Lapierre scored the game-winner, jamming home the rebound of a Kevin Bieksa shot that bounced off the back wall from along the goal line, or just a plain travesty.
In the first period, there was Lapierre, yammering at Boston captain Zdeno Chara, and then doubling over as though run through by Genghis Khan himself when Chara's stick brushed against him. Thankfully, no penalty was called against Chara, and Lapierre avoided what could have been a diving call. At the time, it was the kind of play that earned loud derision in the press box.
That Lapierre scored the game's lone goal, though, was a credit to his efforts, and the efforts of linemates Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen in a game that was a litmus test for the Canucks' character.
"He was really good tonight. I drove to the rink with him and I knew he was prepared. He really wanted this game bad," said Alex Burrows, who made headlines earlier in this series after he was penalized for biting Patrice Bergeron and was also whistled for diving late in the first period Friday. "The way he was skating with the puck with confidence and really getting on the forecheck, finishing all his hits and [scoring] a big goal ... that's what we need from him."
Torres, the scoring hero from Game 1, said he didn't know much about Lapierre before the former Montreal Canadien was acquired at the trade deadline, other than that Lapierre was annoying. Now, the two have found some significant chemistry on the Canucks' third line.
"He's one of those players who wears his heart on his sleeve and he's verbal, he's loud, and for him to get a goal like that, it's an accomplishment," Torres said.
Netminder Roberto Luongo revealed after the game that Lapierre told his teammates before the third period that he thought he had a big goal in him. But Lapierre joked in French that he's been saying that for 25 games now.
Friday night, he got it right.
Whether you hate all the junk surrounding the Canucks, you have to give them this: they continue to answer the bell this spring.
Every time they look like all those lovable Canucks teams that would find a way to steal defeat from the jaws of victory, they stiffen and find a way.
In a game that bore a striking resemblance to Game 7 of the opening round against Chicago, the Canucks were by far the more physical of the two teams. In that opening round, the Canucks wobbled for three straight games before delivering the goods in a close-checking, emotional Game 7. On Friday night, having raised the angst level of Canucks fans everywhere with their poor play in Boston, the Canucks did not crumble.
"We have a team in here that's grown together," said Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin, who has yet to register a point in the Cup finals. "We've all gone through a lot of stuff, every one of us. We told each other this year that the only people we can rely on is ourselves. Those are the ones we really need to play for."
It didn't matter. Instead, as they did in Games 1 and 2, the Canucks wore down the Bruins through the second and third periods. They killed off four straight Boston power plays, three of which came in the first period alone. And, in the end, they took advantage of a pinch by Boston defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and a sloppy play by Milan Lucic, who was covering for Seidenberg at the Vancouver blue line, to come up with just enough to move to within one win of the Cup.
"I think tonight as a whole, they were the better team," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "We have to again acknowledge that, because if we don't, we're not going to be a better team next game."
It is shocking to imagine that the Canucks, the NHL's most prolific team during the regular season, is this close to the grand prize by scoring just six times in five games. But they'll take it.
"I mean, we're playing for the Stanley Cup final here," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. "This is the hardest thing each and every one of us has tried to do. We're trying our best. They're trying their best. They're working their butt off, so are we. It's real competitive and real great hockey out there. I knew our guys were going to be focused. That's what we can control, is how we play."
As his counterpart did in adjusting for home games in Boston, Vigneault also answered with his own adjustments. He took defenseman Keith Ballard out of the lineup after a difficult night for the veteran in Game 4 and inserted rookie Chris Tanev. The 21-year-old played just 12:15, but was solid. Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa said the kid was so cool, he could have played the game with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"Every time we've needed [Tanev] this year, he showed a lot of poise. He can take a hit to make a play and move the puck real well," Vigneault said. "I was confident that putting him in and putting him with Andrew [Alberts], that it would work out real well for us and it did."
Vigneault was also able to get the Sedins away from the Bruins' top defensive pair of Chara and Seidenberg, something that will be that much more difficult to do in Game 6.
But the Canucks will cross that bridge when they reach it.
In the meantime, Torres will remind his teammates that close doesn't cut it. He was a member of the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers team that came from a 3-1 series deficit against the Carolina Hurricanes only to lose in Game 7.
"If there's one thing I could say, it's leave it all out there, because if you hold anything back, you're going to regret it," he said.
That's a lesson the Canucks seem to have learned, and learned well, this spring.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.