It’s been a great postseason so far. 16 team started, but only two remain. We’ve seen sweeps, seven game series, highlight reel goals, and incredible saves. And now we’re ready to watch the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins battle for the world’s most revered sports trophy, Lord Stanley’s Cup.
So how did each team get here? The Bruins began their postseason with a tight seven game fight with their division rival Montreal Canadiens. The favored Bruins nearly didn’t make it out of the first round, but found a way to win the end. The next round saw them easily sweep the Philadelphia Flyers, avenging last year’s collapse the best they could. And most recently, they were taken to the brink by the Tampa Bay Lightning in a seven game series. It’s been a cakewalk or an all out war so far for the Bruins.
Much like the B’s, the Canucks were nearly knocked out of the first round by last year’s Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks. It took them overtime in Game 7 after losing a 3-0 series lead to capture a berth to the Semifinals Round. In the second round, the Canucks took some hard blows from the Predators, but ultimately won in 6 games. Their last opponent, the San Jose Sharks, were caught, skinned, and fileted in 5 games. The Canucks seem to have gotten better as the playoffs wore on.
The Canucks have never won a Stanley Cup. Their last appearance was in 1994 when that Mark Messier guy’s Rangers took the title in 7 games. But maybe more importantly, they’re trying to bring the Cup back to Canada for the first time since 1993 via the Montreal Canadiens. The Boston Bruins are looking to end a drought of their own as they are Cupless since 1972. One team will bring a long-awaited end to an era without a Cup.
The Boston Bruins play a big, bruising, physical style of play. They grind their opponents into submission with a barrage of heavy checking, which wears down the opponent’s defense and makes them very susceptible to turnovers and poor decisions, all because they hear the footsteps of Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, and Brad Marchand (the ironically smallest player in the series, but plays a big game) coming in behind them. They lead a balanced attack up front with a powerful first line of David Krecji, Nathan Horton, and Milan Lucic and have good depth on their second and third lines with the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Mark Recchi, Brad Marchand, and Michael Ryder. Rock back on your heels and you’ll find yourself pinned deep in the defensive zone with the Bruins buzzing all around.
On the back end, you can’t talk about the Bruins defense without first mentioning Zdeno Chara. He is 6’9″ and 255 pounds of black hole defense. Get near him and you won’t get out, at least not without the puck. He ruins many a rush and powerplay with his spidery long reach and huge body. He’s flanked by veteran Dennis Seidenberg, who’s proven himself to be a steady fixture on both sides of the puck. Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference provide solid play as well. And while Tomas Kaberle has been a bit of a disappointment so far based on his salary and Brian Burke wheeling and dealing, he’s still not a bad option as a third pairing defenseman.
When the Bruins defense is on its game, they only need their goaltending to be adequate. That’s how they swept the Flyers in all but one game. They’re capable of neutralizing their opponent’s offense. They’re also capable of some scrambling and can be victimized by a speed game. When that happens, they can fall back on goalie Tim Thomas to pick them up. As my pick to win the Vezina Trophy, he’s capable of catching white hot and becoming a brick wall during the course of a game. Just ask Steve Downie about a goalie coming out of nowhere to stop a puck.
The Canucks have a bit of a different attack. They have three forwards who can absolutely destroy you if they start to get it going. And to top it off, two of them have a creepy psychic twin thing going. The Sedin twins have caught fire of late and in the playoffs, have combined for 37 points in 36 games. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they’ve gotten better as the playoffs have moved on. And if the top line of Henrik, Daniel, and Alex Burrows wasn’t enough, they have as their second line center who many believe is the MVP of the playoffs, Ryan Kesler. The Canucks main knock, though, is lack of depth at forward. Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows, and Ryan Kesler have combined for 22 of the team’s 50 goals in the playoffs, and if you add defenseman Kevin Bieska’s tallies, four players account for 27 of the team’s 50 goals. That’s 54% of the offensive coming from 22.2% of the team’s skaters in a given game. But hey, they’ve gotten it done so far.
Defensively, the Canucks have built themselves one of the best defensive corps in the league. Kevin Bieska, Christian Erhoff, Alexander Edler, Sami Salo, Dan Hamhuis, and Keith Ballard. Ouch. Good luck with getting by them. And what makes them even more dangerous is that they do a pretty good job offensively as well. Combined, the defense has scored 40 points so far in the playoffs, with Erhoff, Edler, and Bieska each with at least 9 points.
Similarly to the Bruins, the Canucks also boast a Vezina Finalist in front of the net. Roberto Luongo had an excellent regular season and after a tough start in the postseason, has straightened himself out. After getting yanked and benched against the Blackhawks, he’s since played well enough for his team to have a chance to win each night. That’s what the Canucks need. They’re good enough of a team to only need the goalie to make the saves that he should while mixing in a few timely and key stops to bail his teammates out once in awhile.
In order to have success in the Cup Final, both teams simply have to continue to do what’s made them successful so far. Yes, it’s cliche, but it’s true. The Bruins need to be physical and slow the game down. Don’t allow a quick transition game and they need to make sure that when they can’t carry the puck in on the rush, they have to get the puck in deep on the Canucks defense. They’re good with moving the puck out, but if the Bruins are able to get in quickly enough and bang bodies, they have a chance to generate some scoring chances off the forecheck. An extra bonus comes if they force Luongo to come out of the net and play the puck. He’s been exposed this postseason with poor decisions handling the puck, and we’ve seen the puck take some crazy bounces off the glass and right out in front of the net throughout the playoffs.
The Bruins also need to do their best to stay out of the box. With a penalty kill of 79.4%, they’ve found themselves victimized by the opponent’s powerplay and will continue to be victimized if they allow the Canucks and their 28.3% efficient powerplay more than just a few chances per game. Heck, just two chances in a game might be enough for the Canucks to do some big damage. This takes us back to the Bruins and physical play–they need to be aggressive, but not get carried away. Milan Lucic (43 PIM) has boarded his fair share of players in the playoffs and he, along with Nathan Horton (35 PIM), has shown that enough poking will get under his skin (there is a fan in Tampa with a wet shirt because of a Bruin). Unfortunately for the Bruins, the Canucks have Raffi Torres and Max Lapierre, both of whom are more than happy to stir the pot. Flip it around, though, and the Bruins have Brad Marchand who can be a serious pain in the rear for opposing players. Even I get annoyed watching him fly around and throw his body around, and I’m safely and comfortably sitting on my living room couch watching the game.
The pests, though, need to be smart as well. If the opponent isn’t biting right away, just keep on poking steadily. If they still don’t bite, don’t do something stupid. That’s where players like Torres and Lapierre can really hurt their team. A flying elbow or a completely unnecessary boarding can not only give the Bruins a key powerplay, it can also put enough of a burr under their saddles to wake them up and turn a game around without scoring on a powerplay.
Even if they stay within the rules, the Bruins have to be smart physically and not overcommit on checks. Remember, the purpose of any check (whether a body check or stick check) is to separate the player from the puck. You don’t have to throw a highlight reel hit to achieve this. Getting caught up in throwing a hit only causes players getting caught deep in the offensive zone with the play going the other way, loss of positioning and the resulting blown defensive coverages, and sometimes even players literally skating into each other.
The Bruins have done a pretty good job of defending against the top offensive players of their opponents. Most notable of the players they’ve stopped is Steven Stamkos. He did get some skating room and shot attempts, but he missed the net on numerous occasions and just wasn’t playing like the Stamkos that tore it up in the regular season. You can bet that Chara will be playing big minutes against the Sedin twins and Kesler. Much of this series depends on how effect Chara will be against those three and if Alain Vigneault can keep them away from him with line changes and mixing and matching when he gets the chance. Home ice advantage and the second line change that comes with it should help them out.
If the Sedin twins continue their magic and roast the defense, the Bruins are going to have trouble hanging in this series. While the Bruins have dealt with opposition speed fairly well so far in the playoffs, they haven’t faced a team like the Canucks with this degree of slickness. The Canucks are the masters of tic tac toe plays and will pop the puck into the net with a series of quick, precise passes. If the Bruins are able to shut down the Canucks’ top players, players like Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond are really going to need to step it up. They are talented players but have been mostly invisible on the scoresheet in the postseason.
It’s very tempting to look at Thomas and Luongo and say that one of them will be the reason their team wins. Boston fans will say of Thomas “Well, he’s been a stud all year and stole a few games in the playoffs for us.” Vancouver fans will say the same for Luongo. But in actuality, while both goalies have at times been excellent, they’ve both also have struggled. At times, they’ve looked poor. This series will not be won because one goalie was better than the other. Just look at Ryan Miller if you want an example of a goalie that plays out of his mind in a series without having any help in front of him. If the defense doesn’t do a good job in front of the either goalie, goals will be given up. The Canucks defense must move the Bruins forwards from in front of the net. The Bruins need to get sticks, skates, bodies, or whatever in the passing lanes.
Prediction: Canucks in 6.
I’ve picked the Bruins to lose in 6 in each series so far, so either the pattern will hold or the 4th time will be the charm. Goals seem to come in bunches against Tim Thomas and I feel like the Canucks will overwhelm the Bruins defense with their quickness, especially on the powerplay. I think Kesler will continue his excellent postseason and the Sedin twins will do enough offensively to keep the Canucks in some degree of control throughout the series.
Good luck to both teams! It should be a great series.
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