Canucks: What if Nicklas Lidstrom didn’t beat Dan Cloutier from centre ice?

Nicklas Lidstrom’s centre ice goal on Dan Cloutier marked the beginning of the end for the Vancouver Canucks in 2001-02. What if that goal never happened?

Despite tremendous regular season success, the Vancouver Canucks never got close to winning a Stanley Cup in the Marc Crawford/West Coast Express Line era.

Vancouver qualified for the postseason four straight years from 2001 to 2004 and five times from 2001 and 2007 — including Northwest Division titles in 2003-04 and 2006-07. The Canucks hit the 100-point mark three times during that span.

But they never once got past the second round.

The 2001-02 Canucks were far from a legitimate playoff contender. They posted a 42-30-7-3 record (94 points), barely beating out the Edmonton Oilers (92 points) for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Vancouver’s “reward”? A first round match up with the Presidents’ Trophy winning and star-studded Detroit Red Wings.

The Canucks stunned the hockey world by taking the first two games at Joe Louis Arena, including a 5-2 blowout in Game 2. Knowing that Steve Yzerman and company would come out swinging in Game 3 at GM Place, the Canucks held off the ferocious Red Wings’ offence and were poised to take a 1-1 tie into the third period.

Until infamy happened.

Red Wings defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom fired a seemingly harmless slap shot from centre ice at goalie Dan Cloutier, who attempted to make a routine glove save. But he missed it, and the puck found the back of the net.

Brendan Shanahan added an insurance marker in the third, and Detroit skated to a 3-1 victory. Now they were right back in the series.

Lidstrom’s goal turned out to be the ultimate turning point of the series. Detroit completely took over from there, winning the next three games by final scores of 4-2, 4-0 and 6-4. The Red Wings never looked back, eventually dispatching the Carolina Hurricanes in five games to claim their third Stanley Cup in six seasons.

What if Lidstrom didn’t score from centre?

It’s often lost in the discussion of “what if” moments in Canucks history. But what if Cloutier made the save, thus keeping the game knotted entering the third period?

You can’t outright say that Vancouver would have won Game 3, nor the series. These Red Wings were loaded with seasoned veterans and future Hall of Famers: Yzerman, Lidstrom, Shanahan, Brett Hull, Pavel Datsyuk, Igor Larionov, Luc Robitaille, Sergei Fedorov, Chris Chelios and arguably the best goalie of all time in Dominik Hasek.

But let’s just imagine for a minute that the Canucks pull off the victory in Game 3. And let’s assume they finish off the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Up next, Then they would have faced the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche in round two.

Would the West Coast Express Line and company have enough magic left to beat Joe Sakic, Peter Forsbeg and company? Obviously, the Avalanche had the clear advantages across the board, but they required seven games to get past the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Kings in round one.

The defending champions were shaky throughout the postseason, and Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy struggled with consistency. But all in all, it’s hard to say Vancouver would have beaten a team that swept them in the opening round the year before. My guess? the Avs would have taken that series in five.

But in this imaginary scenario, the Canucks’ morale would have reached an all-time high after thwarting Detroit’s latest bid at a dynasty.

And perhaps that momentum and confidence would have carried over to the 2002-03 season. Maybe Vancouver would have fed off of that to finish the Minnesota Wild in round two — rather than blow a 3-1 series lead — thus punching a ticket against a manageable Mighty Ducks of Anaheim team in the Western Conference Final? Maybe the Canucks go on to defeat the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Final? We’ll never really know for sure.

All I believe is that if Lidstrom didn’t beat Cloutier from centre ice, the Canucks would have at least pulled off the greatest upset in franchise history.

Whether that would have eventually led Vancouver to its first Stanley Cup is a discussion for another day. The bottom line is that Lidstrom’s infamous goal led to one of the greatest “what ifs” in Canucks history that will always leave more questions than answers.