On the eve of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, several media, in an informal gathering, were polled.
On whom would they bestow the honour of Conn Smythe if the Canucks managed to best the Bruins?
More than a couple wrote down these two words: Kevin Bieksa.
It’s easy to forget now.
But the 2011 postseason was a revelation of sorts for Bieksa. He was fifth on the team in goals, second in plus-minus and dominated the Western Conference final like a dictator. He was the defensive leader and did whatever he wanted.
And, boy, he never looked better than in that series against San Jose. He never looked better than in Game 2, especially that breakaway goal he scored, flying down the wing, cradling a Chris Higgins pass in stride and slyly flipping it into the net.
That was cool Kevin. Smooth Kevin. Great Kevin. Vicious Kevin too, as Patrick Marleau found out when, driven over the edge, he dropped his gloves, and then got filled.
But Bieksa still has bitter feelings about that playoff run. The ending, anyway.
“I still remember the feeling of that game. I still remember how much it hurt for weeks to come. I don’t want that feeling again,” Bieksa said. “I know a lot of guys don’t.”
Those emotions came rolling back last week in waves when Bieksa flipped on a Classic NHL game on TV. It was a re-broadcast of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
“I skipped it originally,” he said. “I flipped around, and I didn’t see anything. So I came back to it. I thought ‘Ah, throw it on, see what happens.’
“I got through half of the second period and then my wife sat down with me and started watching it. When it got to 3-0, she asked me ‘How are you feeling on the bench at that point? Did you know it was over?’
“Then, all those feelings came flooding back. And I said ‘Change the channel please.’
“Just to know you worked so hard for something. Twenty-nine teams have that pain at the end of the season. I’d love to be on the one team that doesn’t.”
Bieksa went on to sign a nice five-year, $23-million contract in the offseason. But the reviews haven’t been kind since. Some contend his game has slipped. A season-long poll among The Province readers chose Bieksa as the player who has to raise his game the most to have success in the playoffs. He’s not exactly thrilled with the perception. Nor does he agree with it.
He’s got some interesting numbers for backup.
His 34 even-strength points ranked second in the NHL among defencemen, trailing only that offensive juggernaut in Ottawa, Erik Karlsson. Those 34 even-strength points are six more than Ryan Kesler had. Bieksa’s 44 points were a career high and ranked 12th in the NHL for defencemen.
He was a plus-12, and called it a great number, especially for a blueliner who spent most of the year trying to shut down the league’s top forwards. Plus, he only played half the season with Dan Hamhuis, who should be everyone’s no-brainer pick as the Canucks’ defenceman of the year.
“I feel like it was my best season to date,” Bieksa said. “I feel like I got smarter. My numbers, I’m comfortable with. It was nice to contribute a little bit more.”
What about the critique Hamhuis bailed him out of some situations by slickly defending 2-on-1s when Bieksa was caught in a pinch?
No more this year than in any other year, he pointed out.
Maybe the expectations were too high after last year’s playoff run.
Bieksa will start the playoffs paired with Alex Edler, the Canucks’ top point-producing defenceman. It’s pretty obvious the coaching staff is looking for some push from these two. They’ll be asked to generate offence in a series where there isn’t expected to be much.
“They’ll be looking for a little more offence from us,” Bieksa said.
“That said, it’s going to be a low-scoring series. We’re going to have to be good at both ends of the ice. We’re going to have to be physical. And we’re going to have to pitch in when we can.”
The debate will continue about whether this team is better equipped for the playoffs than last year’s team.
“We’re confident for sure,” Bieksa said.
“Last year, we won the Presidents’ Trophy and everyone was expecting us to go the Stanley Cup final. This year, we won the Presidents’ Trophy and I don’t think really anyone is expecting us to go.
“But we don’t care. We’re focused. And we’re ready to go here,” he added.