When the Canucks drop the puck against the Minnesota Wild for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers in Edmonton, it’ll be the first postseason meeting between the two clubs since 2003. (Let’s not talk about that today, shall we?) But it also marks the first time in 33 years that Vancouver will take part in a best-of-five playoff series.
For seven years from 1980 to 1986, the NHL utilized a playoff format where the opening round was just five games long, while the final three rounds were the standard seven. During that stretch, the “Flying Vee” era Canucks made the playoffs six times, posted a record of six wins and 15 losses, and only advanced to the second round once. That one series victory turned into a well documented, magical run to the Stanley Cup Final, but what about the other five?
This year’s Canucks might not have much in common with their 80s predecessors aside from a name, but there’s a rough history this team has the extremely rare chance to help repair. So today we’re going to dig into all six of those series and the tales behind them.
The DeLorean awaits. Let’s go back in time.
1980: Buffalo Sabres (lost 3 games to 1)
Remember the storied playoff rivalry of the early 80s Sabres and Canucks? It’s okay, no one does.
In 1980, the Canucks were a team on the rise from perennial basement dwellers to competitive mediocrity with a young core led by Stan Smyl, Thomas Gradin and Harold Snepsts. Under second year coach Harry Neale, Vancouver finished the season with 70 points and a sub .500 record, but still snuck into the 15th seed of the playoffs.
On the flip side, the Sabres put together the second best record in the league, thanks in large part to a 106 point season from Vancouver’s first heartbreaker Gilbert Perreault and the Vezina winning goalie tandem of Don Edwards and Bob Sauve.
The Sabres’ goalies ended giving the Canucks a first hand lesson in how they finished with the league’s lowest goals against, with Edwards hanging on for a 2-1 victory in Game 1 and Sauve pitching a shutout in Buffalo’s dominating 6-0 win in Game 2. Perreault played his part by notching a team leading five points in the series, including scoring the series clinching goal on Gary Bromley in Game 4.
The Canucks only taste of victory came in Game 3 when they escaped a series sweep thanks to a 5-4 win in Game 3 at the Pacific Coliseum. The winning goal in that contest came courtesy of Vancouver’s leading playoff scorer Per-Olov Brasar, a player so obscure I’d never heard his name until now. And he’d go on to score 63 points the very next season!
But even the Canucks’ sole win ended on a sour note, when during a late game scuffle noted agitator Tiger Williams smacked the Sabres head coach over the head with his stick, briefly knocking the coach unconscious. Somehow the refs completely missed the incident and Williams escaped without a single penalty minute, but the league did throw the book at Tiger the next day: in the form of a hefty one game suspension.
Oh, and the name of the coach he assaulted? Just some guy named Scotty Bowman.
1981: Buffalo Sabres (lost 3 games to 0)
The Canucks might’ve improved in the standings in 1980-81, but it sure didn’t help them in their rematch with the Sabres.
Vancouver brought a nearly identical lineup to Buffalo, with one very important exception. In October Canucks GM Jake Milford swung a deal with the New York Islanders to acquire goaltender Richard Brodeur, who’d go on to start 52 games for Vancouver and post a record of 17-18-16.
Brodeur’s Stanley Cup playoff christening nearly got off to a great start when the Canucks took a 2-1 lead into the final minute of Game 1 in Buffalo. But Sabres centre Andre Savard was able to tie it up with eight seconds to go, and in overtime rookie Alan Haworth completed the comeback.
That was the closest the Canucks would come to a win in this series, as the Sabres won the second game at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium 5-2 and clinched the series with a 5-3 victory at the Pacific Coliseum.
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not sure this Brodeur guy is the answer.
1982: Calgary Flames (won 3 games to 0)
Finally, we get to the good stuff.
For 1981-82 the NHL shifted the playoffs into a more traditional divisional format, with the top four teams in each division facing each other in the first two rounds. That’s how the Canucks, despite finishing with a winning percentage of .481, were able to stage a late season rally and finish second in the weak Smythe Division, earning home ice advantage against the Calgary Flames.
The Flames were just three years removed from moving north from Atlanta, but they brought a budding core group made up of Lanny McDonald, Kent Nilsson and Jim Peplinski who’d play crucial roles for Calgary in the coming years. But when Stan Smyl scored on Flames goalie Pat Riggin just eight seconds into Game 1, it was clear the Canucks finally had a matchup in their favour.
After Vancouver took the opener 5-3, a fight-filled Game 2 dragged into overtime with Brodeur and Riggin trading 38 save nights. Finally with six minutes remaining Harold Snepsts carried the puck into the Flames zone and passed off to Lars Molin for the initial shot, before the rebound popped out to a Tiger.
The Canucks would sweep the series at the Stampede Corral in Game 3, thanks to a two goal performance from Thomas Gradin and a 42 save night for the new people’s champion, “King Richard”. Vancouver would turn the momentum into a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final, but they never could’ve gotten there without their first series win in franchise history.
The first of many in this era, right?
1983: Calgary Flames (lost 3 games to 1)
Or, maybe they’ll just go back to losing.
To be fair, the ‘83 Canucks had some overly high expectations to live up to. But while Vancouver did add a talented young scorer in Tony “The Maltese Falcon” Tanti, the Flames team that would go on to two Cup Final appearances in the ‘80s were another year older and wiser.
Kent Nilsson terrorized the Vancouver defense in the series, scoring eight points in four games. While Smyl and Ivan Hlinka were able to keep pace with five points each for Vancouver, the Flames got the scoring when it counted most in overtime, with Eddy Beers winning Game 1 and Greg Meredith scoring the series winner in Game 4.
Once again Vancouver was able to avoid a full sweep with a 5-4 win in Game 3, but the steady stream of penalties and fighting majors in the series cost them against a more skilled Calgary group. No matter what the era, staying out of the penalty box is always good advice.
1984: Calgary Flames (lost 3 games to 1)
Sometimes history repeats itself.
Despite being tied with the Winnipeg Jets in points, the Canucks’ 32 wins in 1983-84 narrowly edged out Winnipeg’s 31 for third place in the Smythe and saved them from a first round matchup with Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers. But they still ran into a Flames team that wasn’t done exacting revenge for the ‘82 series.
This time the Canucks were undone by future teammate Paul Reinhart and rookie Hakan Loob, who combined for ten points in the series. The Canucks got in a single dominating performance in Game 3, putting seven pucks past goalies Rejean Lemelin and Don Edwards (yes, the same Don Edwards from the Sabres years), with a two goal night for both Doug Halward and a promising rookie named Cam Neely.
Man, when he hits his prime it’s going to be an exciting day for Canucks fans.
1986: Edmonton Oilers (lost 3 games to 0)
The Canucks took a step back in 1984-85, finishing last in the division and missing the playoffs for the first time since 1978. But in 1985-86, armed with a new general manager in Jack Gordon and head coach in Tom Watt, Vancouver was able to rebound and snag the final playoff spot in the Smythe Division.
Of course, that meant a date with the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions.
The Oilers had crushed the Canucks in the season series, winning seven games and tying once. That didn’t change in the postseason, with Gretzky and Co. outscoring a clearly outmatched Vancouver team 17 to 5 in the three game sweep.
To make matters worse, just about any other year during the Gretzky era the Canucks could’ve shrugged off a loss to the Oilers and say “at least we were beaten by the eventual champs”. But not this time. Thanks a lot, Steve Smith.
So as the current day Canucks prepare for their matchup with the Wild, there’s a few lessons they can take from these teams of playoffs past. Never underestimate where great goaltending can take you, don’t let the emotions of the postseason get the best of you and of course, avoid playing Wayne Gretzky at all costs.
Hey, in 2020 you never know what the future holds.
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