It was a little over ten years ago, but I remember it like it was last week. I was a junior in high school, and was beside myself celebrating a goal at Joe Louis Arena that put my future alma mater ahead 1-0 on the #1 team in the nation in the CCHA semifinals. It was the only goal the Bowling Green Falcons could get past Spartans goaltender Ryan Miller, but for that one moment, it felt like a double overtime tournament winner. The shooter: Falcon freshman defenseman Kevin Bieksa.
Ninth-seeded Bowling Green wasn’t even supposed to be there, but they swept conference #2 Miami before winning a play-in game on the road at Northern Michigan. By the time the conference semifinal was getting late, the majority of the crowd was chanting “Let’s go Falcons” with their cowbells and their maize and blue jerseys. You see, it was fans of the Spartans’ hated rival, the University of Michigan, who had adopted the little team that could for those last ten minutes in what was ultimately a 2-1 escape for Michigan State. Miller won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player just weeks later, and of course the Olympic Silver Medal last winter.
While Bieksa’s goal in 2001 was scored with 70% of the host state behind him, last night’s goal was scored to the ecstasy of around 70% of a nation. Bieksa scored one of the weirdest overtime goals in hockey history, when an Alex Edler dump in caught a hanger in the glass and kicked out to the center of the blue line. The only thing was, only Bieksa knew where the puck was. The puck was wobbling and the D man had to step up and fire before everyone else realized where the puck was, and Bieksa caught just enough of it to guide it past Antti Niemi’s unsuspecting left pad and send the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since the Russian Rocket, Pavel Bure, was taking the league by storm in 1994.
Kevin Bieksa: From Cult Hero to National Savior
All of this came just one series after Bieksa’s much-maligned overtime miss against Pekka Rinne, in which Henrik Sedin fed a centering pass to the charging defenseman, who had almost the entire net open as Rinne was aggressively playing Sedin to his left. Rinne dove across the crease and made the save on Bieksa’s shot, but many people pointed to the fact that Bieksa did not get much on the shot, did not lift the puck at all, and shot it directly at Rinne, rather than the open part of the net. Bieksa brushed off the criticism, saying that he was not much of a finisher, and that’s why he does not play forward. And even though the Canucks won the series, I don’t think that misfire was completely put to bed until last night.
None of this would have happened had Ryan Kesler and Henrik Sedin not hooked up on a tip drill with 14 seconds to play in regulation to tie the game at 2. It was Sedin’s second assist of the night. Roberto Luongo again had to make over 20 more saves than Antti Niemi, as the Sharks outshot Vancouver 56-34, to no avail. Remember that in Game 4 San Jose outshot the Canucks 35-13 in a game that saw them fall behind 4-0 before eventually losing 4-2. My take on the San Jose Sharks moving forward will come sometime before the Stanley Cup Finals start, but for now, this is all about Vancouver and my fellow Falcon, Kevin Bieksa.
Bieksa has always been something of a cult hero amongst Canuck fans, due to his hard hitting, game awareness and timely goal scoring. But this is Bieksa’s “jump the shark” moment, pardon the quasi-intentional yet perfectly situated pun. No longer can people refer to the man who has scored the most famous goal in recent franchise history as anything shy of a bona fide Vancouver legend.
In fact, Bieksa better be careful, or people might start calling him Mr. May. While he only has 34 career regular season goals in 347 games played, Bieksa has amassed a shocking five goals in these 2011 playoffs. That equates to a tripling of his career goals per game total, and only improves his already heroic status in the minds of those who follow him the most. Even if he manages to avoid the Mr. May tag, there’s no guaranteeing there won’t be a “Kevin Bieksa Facts” website in the near future.
Good luck to the Canucks in the Finals, and to my fellow Falcon and game winning goal scoring defenseman, Kevin Bieksa.