Canucks stun Sharks 3-2 in double overtime to head to first Stanley Cup finals since 1994

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It turned out to be a classic Game 5 between Vancouver and San Jose and one that will go down as one of the most bizarre finishes to a game in Stanley Cup playoffs history Canucks took out the Sharks in double overtime 3-2. The night’s game winner came thanks to a magical bounce off the glass that went right to Kevin Bieksa who knuckled home the game winner to beat Antti Niemi and send the Canucks to their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1994.

The first 60 minutes of the game went as up and down as you might expect with the teams trading goals and trading rushes to turn this game into an instant classic.

In the first period it was Alexandre Burrows getting the Canucks off on the right foot with a little help from Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin as they teamed up on a passing play that’s fitting for any highlight reel around.

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In the second period, the Sharks would continue to exert control over the game. Through two periods of  play the Sharks would outshoot the Canucks 25-11 and in the second, the Sharks would get one back on the power play, much the same way they have all series long, and here it would be Patrick Marleau apparently getting a stick on a point shot from Dan Boyle.

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In the third period, Devin Setoguchi would give the Sharks a 2-1 lead scoring 24 seconds into the period. With the way San Jose was dominating in shots on goal and in play all around, Vancouver’s task to get back into the game was a tall one.

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As the period wore on, the teams would trade chances and with the game into the final minute of play where things would get a bit controversial. San Jose’s Dan Boyle would clear the puck out of the San Jose end as the Canucks were turning up the pressure with Roberto Luongo out of the net for the extra attacker. The puck went all the way down and was touched up for icing. What the officials missed, however, is that the puck glanced off of Daniel Sedin’s back. That touch should’ve negated icing but instead the faceoff came in teh Sharks zone.

On that faceoff, the Canucks won it, controlled the play in the zone where Ryan Kesler would tip a Henrik Sedin shot past Antti Niemi (31 saves) to tie the game up with 13.2 seconds remaining in regulation. What was a dominating effort from San Jose was now reset with the teams headed to overtime and the Sharks playoff lives on the line.

The teams would trade chances in the first overtime but ultimately come away empty with the Sharks continuing to outshoot Vancouver in the first extra period, this time peppering Roberto Luongo for 16 shots. Overall in the game Luongo would prove to be electric stopping 54 shots. Fortunately for him, his efforts wouldn’t go to waste in the second overtime.

There, the teams took a bit more of a selective pace to the game as players grew more tired and taking chances became risky. The Canucks would get a great chance in second overtime as Chris Higgins would get a breakaway thanks to a Sharks mishandle in the neutral zone but Niemi would close the legs up and shut it down.

At 10:18 of the second overtime though, things would get weird as a Canucks attempted dump deep into the zone off the glass would hit a partition and bounce right back out to the point to Kevin Bieksa who took advantage of everyone else who thought the puck had either gone into the crowd or the netting as he ripped home a shot that beat Niemi for the goal sending Rogers Arena into jubilation. For Bieksa it was his fourth goal of the series and fifth in the playoffs.

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For Vancouver, it’s their first Western Conference championship since 1994 when they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Campbell Bowl and a spot in the Stanley Cup finals. The Canucks clinched their spot in 1994 thanks to a double overtime goal as well. History is funny that way. For what it’s worth, Canucks captain would not even touch the trophy when NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly presented it to him following the game. Keep that in mind for all of your superstition needs.

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San Jose has nothing to hang their head about. Sure the series finished in five games, but the Sharks didn’t exactly play terrible in the series. Tonight they ran into a red hot Roberto Luongo and were vexed by a pair of fortunate bounces for the Canucks. In the series, the Canucks were just a better team and being beaten by the better team is expected in the playoffs. Some folks will talk about them being “chokers” or start lumping this Sharks team with others in the past that failed to live up to expectations, but that’s just not the case here.

Vancouver will now wait to see who they’ll face in the Stanley Cup finals be it Boston or Tampa Bay. Boston will have a chance to wrap up their spot in the final on Wednesday night in Tampa as they hold a 3-2 series lead. Should Boston make the final, it would be their first appearance since 1990 when the Bruins lost to a Mark Messier-led Edmonton Oilers team. If Tampa forces a Game 7, that will be played on Friday night in Boston.

Here are the highlights from Game 5.

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Vasilevskiy turns East final around for Lightning

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Jon Cooper didn’t blame Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Tampa Bay Lightning digging a deep hole early in the Eastern Conference final.

Two games and two losses brought plenty of criticism of the young Russian goaltender. Cooper wasn’t thrilled about that.

”The questions were coming from the other side of the table, and I felt it was the questioning of Vasilevskiy,” the Tampa Bay coach said. ”We don’t. He’s been the guy for us.”

Vasilevskiy is the guy who turned the series around for the Lightning, who now lead the Capitals 3-2 and can eliminate Washington on the road in Game 6 on Monday night and move on to the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights. After a 6.00 goals-against average and .839 save percentage in Games 1 and 2, he has a 2.00 GAA and .943 save percentage since as the series’ biggest difference-maker.

”Just tried to stay positive and play my game,” Vasilevskiy said last week. ”It’s very important, especially in the playoffs. Good or bad game, doesn’t matter. Turn the page, start over again and again. That’s how you get success.”

Vasilevskiy has found plenty of success this season, his first as a full-time NHL starter. The 23-year-old is a Vezina Trophy finalist after leading the league with 44 wins and eight shutouts.

But Vasilevskiy hasn’t made it easy on himself. He rarely does.

Cooper saw it during the 2016-17 season when Vasilevskiy struggled during a stretch of 10 consecutive starts when Ben Bishop was hurt and then again late this season when a swoon by him and the entire team almost cost Tampa Bay the East’s top seed. Vasilevskiy bounced back strong each time.

”His ability to be able to turn the page now and understand, ‘You know what there might be a tough night for you, but I’m going to go out the next night anyway and I’ve got to be there for my team,’ – I think that’s where his growth process has really come in,” Cooper said.

The same happened between Games 2 and 3 in this series. The shy Vasilevskiy who has been reluctant to do interviews told a pool reporter he didn’t make any adjustments from his worst games against the Capitals to his best.

Somehow, he has looked like an entirely different goalie. Chants of ”Vasy! Vasy!” filled Amalie Arena in Game 5 on Saturday night when he stopped 28 of 30 shots, and the highest praise was reserved for inside the Lightning’s locker room.

”He’s a world class goaltender, that’s what he does,” defenseman Braydon Coburn said. ”He battles hard every day in practice all season long, and he’s raised his game in the playoffs here.”

No doubt his teammates have improved their play in front of Vasilevskiy, with defenseman Anton Stralman saying: ”We always feel like we owe him.” But against a star-studded Capitals team led by countrymen Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vasilevskiy had to raise his game to give Tampa Bay any chance.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said confidence in Vasilevskiy never wavered, and he has showed them on the ice evidence of what they’ve seen all season.

”He just expects a lot,” Stamkos said. ”You see his work ethic every day in practice. You guys don’t get to see what goes on in the room, but his mental preparation, his physical preparation, he wants to be the best all the time. He doesn’t want to give up a goal at all, including in practice. That’s the mentality he has and that’s why he’s so good.”

If the Capitals can crack Vasilevskiy like they did the first two times, there will be a Game 7 on Wednesday night at Tampa Bay. But they’d better figure that out and get an even better game from Braden Holtby because the Lightning are 11-0 in the playoffs when scoring three-plus goals.

That record is thanks to Vasilevskiy, who doesn’t like cameras but loves playoff hockey.

”It’s definitely a fun time,” he said. ”Lot of emotions. Different hockey. It’s pretty fun to play. Just excitement level is pretty high. A different season.”

AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

PHT Morning Skate: Caps face elimination; Sweden claims gold at Worlds

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• It’s do-or-die time for the Washington Capitals tonight in Game 6. [NHL.com]

• It’s not going to be another Capitals choke job, is it? [National Post]

• How missing the playoffs last spring helped the Tampa Bay Lightning make another trip to the Eastern Conference Final. [Tampa Bay Times]

Ryan Callahan had quite a performance for the Lightning in Game 5. [Sportsnet]

• George McPhee believed in his Vegas Golden Knights all along. [Review-Journal]

Paul Stastny knew he made the right choice to waive his no-trade clause to come to the Winnipeg Jets. He enjoyed his time there so much he’s open to re-signing. [Winnipeg Free Press]

Filip Forsberg‘s shootout goal helped Sweden has capture gold at the IIHF World Championship for the second straight year. [IIHF]

Jaden Schwartz of the St. Louis Blues saw his time at the World Championship end early with a shoulder injury. He should be fine for training camp, the Blues say. [Post-Dispatch]

• The Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets will play in next season’s Kraft Hockeyville preseason game in Clinton, New York. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Will giving states the option to legalize gambling in the U.S. mean the end of “upper/lower-body injury” distinctions? [USA Today]

• Rick Tocchet is determined to get his Arizona Coyotes into the playoffs next season. [Arizona Sports]

• Daniel Alfredsson talks about his new life now as a hockey dad. [Sportsnet]

• A look at the future of the Carolina Hurricanes up front. [Section 328]

• Congrats to the Fargo Force for winning the 2018 USHL Clark Cup. [USHL]

• Interesting interview with former NHL ref Rob Martell about the officating in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. [Weiss Hockey]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

How Jets can continue to contend

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Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.

[Golden Knights eliminate Jets in Game 5]

There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.

Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?

Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.

Central casting

In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.

The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.

Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.

The next steps

It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.

Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?

Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.

And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …

Restrictions coming

The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.

Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?

The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)

Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.

July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.

Wheeler’s next deal

Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.

All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.

Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.

(On the bright side, there’s some cap relief on the horizon as well. Toby Enstrom‘s deal is done. Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after next season. It’s not all bad.)

Backup plan?

When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?

Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.

***

Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)

On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.

It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights enjoying ride to Stanley Cup Final, but remain unsatisfied

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Eastern Conference Final in 2008, captain Sidney Crosby and his teammates decided to stick to superstition and not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. It didn’t work as they fell to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. A year later, as well as in 2016 and 2017, they put their mitts all over it and success followed in those Cup Finals.

So after the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 to claim the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl in their first year of existence, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was a part of those Penguins teams, told de-facto captain Deryk Engelland to pick up the trophy.

This entire Golden Knights season has been unbelievable, so might as well tell superstition to be damned, right?

***

The ride continues for the “Vegas Golden Misfits,” as they so affectionately have dubbed themselves. It’s May 20, 2018 and an expansion franchise will be competing for the Stanley Cup within the week. No one saw this coming. Not after the expansion draft last June. Not after the team finally started playing together during training camp. Not even after their hot start in October.

When did the Golden Knights starts believing this year could be something special?

“I think once we hit Christmas we had the belief in the room,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt told NBCSN afterward. “We knew we had the guys, it was whether or not we could continue to do it. We believed that we could do that. We believed in that room, all the guys it took, and however many lineup changes, that we had the guys in there that could pull something like this off.”

[Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

Head coach Gerard Gallant started to believe during a back-to-back road trip to Nashville and Dallas in early December. 

A 2-0 lead against the Predators on Dec. 8 evaporated with Nashville firing off three straight and taking the lead with 5:04 to play. Doubting Vegas would be a mistake all season, which explains Erik Haula tying the game with 40 seconds to play and Reilly Smith winning it in the sixth round of the shootout. The following night was another tough win, with the Stars keeping things tight until the very end and the Golden Knights coming out on top 5-3.

“We come out of those games, we outplayed both of those teams, played great hockey,” Gallant said. “That’s when I said to myself, this is a special team, the character on this team, they believe they can beat anybody. Going into those two buildings at that time was a big, big boost for us. It was a confidence builder for me, too.”

Those two victories were part of an 11-1-1 month to close out 2017 as the questioned about the Golden Knights’ legitimacy began to disappear.

***

“There’s no partying with me,” Gallant said after Game 5 when asked if he’s going to celebrate this accomplishment.

The quest isn’t over. The Vegas Golden Knights have evolved from bunch of expansion “misfits” to a nice story to a playoff team to a legit Stanley Cup contender over the course of six months. No one saw this coming, but the players inside the dressing room developed a belief over that period of time and that belief has manifested in reality. 

Vegas will now have a few days off as they await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. After 82 regular season games and 15 playoff games, it’s time for some rest as the mission is far from accomplished.

“It’s been an awesome ride so far. We’ve won three series. We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final, but this isn’t what we want,” Gallant said. “We want to win.”

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.