- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Game 7s tend to be unforgiving affairs, and when the puck dropped to start the overtime period against Chicago, Vancouver’s most-excellent season, and perhaps the future of the coach and who knows how many players were swirling down around the drain.

The Blackhawks, who bounced the Canucks from the playoffs the previous two years, had already clawed their way back from a 3-0 series deficit, then scored to tie Game 7 with less than two minutes left in regulation. Now, just 24 seconds into the extra period, they were on the power play.

“I had a good feeling going into that overtime,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville recalled afterward, and less than a minute elapsed before that premonition nearly became fact.

Chicago’s Patrick Sharp was on the doorstep of Roberto Luongo’s goal with most of the net open. He fired fast and low, but Luongo slid faster and just low enough to smother the opportunity. Some five minutes later, Vancouver’s Alex Burrows stole a clearing pass along the right boards just inside the blue line, and beat Chicago’s Corey Crawford high on the stick side for the game-winner.

“Obviously, we didn’t make it easy on ourselves,” Burrows said. “But we stuck with it and I think it’s even better getting it done this way.”

When someone ran that quote past Luongo, he had to stifle a nervous laugh.

“I mean,” Luongo began, then paused, “it’s nice to win Game 7. You can’t beat that for sure. It was tough for a few days, but we stayed with it.

“There’s no better feeling in the world,” he added a moment later, “with all the ups and downs in the series.”

Ups?

Frankly, the last real “up” anybody in the Rogers Arena could remember when it mattered was little more than a year ago, when Canada beat the United States to win the Olympic gold-medal game _ with Luongo in the net.

Sure, Vancouver had compiled the best record in the NHL in its 40th anniversary season and looked like the league’s best team steaming out to a 3-0 lead over the defending Stanley Cup champions. But then Chicago put the hex back on Luongo, forcing Canucks coach Alain Vigneault to yank him in Games 4 and 5 in favor of backup Cory Schneider, then sit him down in front of a TV set in the dressing room for the first two periods of Game 6.

“I think the best thing that could have happened to me was probably going in late in Game 6,” Luongo said. “I didn’t have to think, just go out there and play, just make saves.”

He made 31 on Tuesday night, drawing confidence from each one and resolve from that Olympic final. Game 7 unfolded in similar fashion to that one _ a late USA goal sent it into overtime _ and the same hush that blanketed all of Canada in that moment was back for Vancouver’s fans.

Not Luongo. The longer it stretched on, the more familiar it felt.

“The whole thing was pretty much the same game. They scored late, made a couple of good saves in OT and boom, we get a huge goal,” he said.

“It was almost an identical scenario. The only difference is I felt much more comfortable this time around because last time was my first time.”

Teammate Ryan Kesler, who played for Team USA in that one, summed it up this way: “I’m glad he’s on my side now.”

A day earlier, another teammate, Kevin Bieksa, gave an interesting answer when asked whether jobs were on the line should Vancouver become just the fourth team ever to blow a 3-0 series lead.

“We have a game to win for the guys in this room,” he said. “We’re not winning it for the organization’s history, or the legacy of this team.”

Maybe not, but at least now the Canucks will have that chance. Another early playoff exit almost certainly would have raised cries to break off some pieces of the team’s core _ Luongo, twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Kesler and even Vigneault.

The fact that Vancouver righted itself at the toughest moment was not lost on Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, himself a teammate of Luongo’s in the Olympics.

“You definitely take your experience from some of those big games, like the Olympics, when you play a game like tonight,” he said. “These are the types of games that define who you are as a player and as a person, and how much you can commit yourself to your team.”

Ultimately that commitment entailed swallowing a lot of pride. It began with Vigneault, who benched Luongo at crucial junctures and then gave him back the job when it mattered most. It ended with Luongo, who proved not only that goalies have to have short memories, yet not be afraid to remember why they chose to shoulder the biggest burden of anybody on the ice in the first place.

“I don’t know,” Luongo said finally, a wide smile finally replacing that nervous grin, “this one might be better than the Olympics.”

___

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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