By Darren Haynes, The Canadian Press
CALGARY - The Vancouver Canucks are returning home but not for a Game 7 as it looked would be the case when they took an early 3-0 lead on Saturday.
Instead, Vancouver limps home wondering what happened after a 7-4 loss to the Calgary Flames, who won the Western Conference first-round series 4-2.
"They work hard. They keep coming. I think their D got a little bit tired towards the end but they battled and they found a way and I think that's the biggest thing in any series is finding a way," said Vancouver coach Willie Desjardins. "They were in a tough spot and they came back. You have to give them credit."
The Flames hard hitting and relentless forecheck caused problems for Vancouver's defencemen, especially in the three games in Calgary where the Flames rode the energy of the raucous home crowd to three wins.
"They're frustrating to play against. They do a few things a little different than the standard team," said Canucks defenceman Luca Sbisa, whose goal gave the visitors a 4-3 lead heading to the third. "They're really hard on the forecheck. They didn't give our D much time to break out. We're a team that likes to carry the puck and have the puck, we're a possession team and they did a good job of denying us that."
The main topic in a quiet Canucks dressing room post-game was the three-goal lead less than 10 minutes into the game that they let slip away.
"Obviously being up three goals in the playoffs in a key game like tonight, you should never let that lead get away from you. Same thing going into the third with the lead, you just can't let it slip," said Sbisa.
Right-winger Radim Vrbata agreed that Vancouver needed to be better defensively.
"I know it's early in the game but up 3-0, that should be good enough, you should be able to close it out," said Vrbata, who was held to two goals after leading the team with 31 in the regular season.
"You have to give them credit. They played well. They played that series how they played the whole season, they never gave up."
Eddie Lack began the series in net for the Canucks but was pulled in Game 4. Veteran Ryan Miller took over that game and stopped all 15 shots in relief. Miller made 20 saves in Vancouver's 2-1 win in Game 5 but yielded five goals on 31 shots Saturday.
"It's frustrating. I tried working my way back to make a difference. It's hard to accept that it's over after tonight," said Miller, who was out of action for six weeks late in the season due to a knee injury.
Miller also suggested that Vancouver let its emotions get away from them early in the series.
"The guys played pretty good hockey. If we could have dialled in a few other things, I think it's a different series but that's a lot of what if's and we don't deal with that. We deal in reality and the reality is we didn't do enough," said Miller.
Desjardins said he wouldn't change a thing when reflecting on the past two weeks.
"Whenever you lose, you always back and wonder if you should have done something different. But given the same information at that time, I would have made the same choices," he said.
Vancouver also lost Alex Burrows prior to Game 4 after suffering an upper-body injury in practice.
In his rookie season, Desjardins guided the Canucks to a 101-point season, good for second in the Pacific Division and 18 points better than what the club finished last year when they missed the playoffs.
"We won some big games through the year but that doesn't make you feel any better now. That gives you nothing," said Desjardins. "But at the same time, I'm still proud of the group and proud of the city and how they supported us but we just didn't get it done tonight."