By Stu Hackel
Sometime in the next two weeks, one of these teams will end a long Stanley Cup drought. Each faced down a strong first-round challenge by a major rival and enters the final round relatively healthy and with good depth. Both head coaches are Cup finals first-timers, they are former minor league teammates in the St. Louis Blues organization and each ran the bench for the Montreal Canadiens. But the similarities between the two foes are less striking than their differences.
Vancouver: Able to create offense off the cycle and off the rush, and getting important contributions from their defensemen, the Canucks can produce points in many different ways with different players. The Bruins don't have anyone with the world-class talent of the Sedins and whatever concerns the Canucks had about the play of their top line (Henrik and Daniel Sedin with Alex Burrows) after the Nashville series were eased by their strong performance against the Sharks in the Western Conference Finals. Once again, they'll be up against a strong shutdown tandem, but when this top line was neutralized by the Predators, Vancouver's second line of Ryan Kesler (a strong Conn Smythe candidate) between Chris Higgins and Mason Raymond showed the ability to take control. Their forechecking, led by Kesler, will challenge Boston's defense. The very effective third line of Boston nemesis Maxim Lapierre between Jannik Hansen and human bowling ball Raffi Torres hasn't kicked in many points, but it forechecks ferociously and can change momentum with one hard shift. The fourth line that practiced on Tuesday -- Jeff Tambellini, Alexandre Bolduc and Victor Oreskovich -- indicated that Manny Malholtra may not play in Game 1. Nor will Tanner Glass. who dressed for four games during the last round. Anything that coach Alain Vigneault gets offensively from his fourth line will be a bonus, but he's generally played three lines lately, and since Claude Julien will likely play four, Vigneault's sticking with three could become a factor.
Back to the Canucks' defensemen: They are a mobile group that moves the puck well and is a big part of Vancouver's attack. Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler and Sami Salo add a dimension that is a big point of difference between these two teams. Canucks defensemen have 53 points so far in the postseason compared to 39 for Boston's. This is a fast team and its speed could pose a problem for the Bruin defenders.
Boston: The Bruins offense may not have the uber-creativity of the Sedins, but no playoff team has been better when playing 5-on-5 (47 full strength goals compared to Vancouver's 30). With a top line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic, the Bruins have a formidable threesome that has improved as the playoffs progressed. Krejci has a high hockey IQ, Horton has gotten big goals in his first postseason, and Lucic, who started the tournament poorly, has come on strong and could be energized playing against his hometown Canucks. Patrice Bergeron, the B's best all-around forward, centers the second line with Mark Recchi and Brad Marchand. This is a good forechecking and cycle line, but neither Recchi (no points, minus-5) nor Marchand (one goal, minus-3) were very productive against Tampa Bay in the previous round, although Recchi has great experience on which he can draw. Fan fave rookie Marchand plays bigger than his size and creates havoc with his physicality. Rich Peverley skated in Recchi's spot for some shifts in Game 7 against the Lightning and could jump in there again if Julien feels the need.
Michael Ryder, Chris Kelly and Tyler Seguin had moments of brilliance against Tampa Bay, although not consistently. Still, they were a reliable trio and Seguin's dynamic first two games in the lineup showed he has game-breaking qualities. Peverley played with Dan Paille and Gregory Campbell vs. Tampa Bay, but if Peverley moves up, his spot will be taken by rugged Shawn Thornton, making that trio more of an energy line and depriving Julien of four-line offensive depth. Regardless, the trio shouldn't be underestimated. Thornton's name is already on the Cup and, after missing most of the last round, he'll be looking to make an impact.
Among Boston's defensemen, Zdeno Chara's shot remains a dangerous weapon, Tomas Kaberle's playmaking is underappreciated (his five assists vs. Tampa Bay led all d-men on the four remaining teams), and Johnny Boychuk also has a big shot.
ADVANTAGE: Slightly to the Canucks, especially because of their team speed and the ability of their defensemen to contribute offensively. But don't discount Boston's depth up front, especially if Recchi finds his game again and Peverley skates on the fourth line.
Vancouver: The Canucks' depth on the blueline is the envy of the league and when Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome went down during the previous round, they were replaced without any drop-off in effectiveness. Kevin Bieksa, who has been exceptional this spring, and Dan Hamhuis will go against Boston's Krejci line. The duo was a combined plus-seven vs. San Jose, playing largely against the Sharks' top line centered by Joe Thornton. Alex Edler will pair with Ehrhoff, and they're a duo that's very skilled in the transition game. The B's may try to pound them physically and force turnovers, but Edler dishes it out as well as anyone. Sami Salo and Rome look to be the third pair. Salo has always been solid in his own end and Rome has emerged as a reliable defender. In reserve are Keith Ballard, Chris Tanev and Andrew Alberts. If Malholtra plays and plays effectively, he'll give the Canucks a strong shutdown center, although in his absence, they've used Kesler against top opposing forwards with good success. Torres is a monstrous bodychecker who hits to hurt. The Canucks pressure the puckcarrier very well, something that proved successful for both Montreal and Tampa Bay (when they did it) against Boston. Vancouver likes to outman the opposition at the point of attack and will challenge the B's to move the puck quickly.
Boston: Chara and Dennis Seidenberg will go up against the Sedins and Burrows. Chara, coming off an effective series against Tampa Bay's Vinny Lecavalier, will use his size and reach to contain them in cycle situations, where he's perhaps the best defender in the game. The Andrew Ference-Johnny Boychuk duo will take on Kesler's line and here's an area where Boychuk's lack of footspeed could be a problem, although he can stand up to their physical play. Ference has had an excellent postseason and his irritating game could be a distraction. Kaberle and Adam McQuaid will be the third unit, though Kaberle's inconsistency could be a focus for Vancouver. If Julien gets his way, Bergeron's line will likely be used against the Sedins and his ability in the faceoff circle could be a factor in keeping the puck from the Canucks. Krejci's line would then go head-to-head with Kesler's. Chris Kelly at a plus-9 has been very effective in his third line role. The B's will likely try to take the body at every opportunity, hoping to wear Vancouver down, but they'll have to show the same kind of discipline they employed in Game 7 against Tampa Bay, one of their best games of the year (and one of the best hockey games of the year, too). They don't want to give Vancouver's potent power play too many chances. Boston's game is 5-on-5 and the more the Bruins can play that way, the better their chances are.
ADVANTAGE: Slightly to Vancouver, but if Boston can shut down the Sedin line, it could alter the course of the series.
Vancouver: Roberto Luongo has looked steadier as the playoffs have progressed. He still seems to allow a strange goal every once in a while, but he also appears to be more in control. His .922 playoff save percentage compares favorably with Thomas's (.929) -- as do all his stats -- but the key for him is to know his limitations (like puck handling) and keep his composure. While still vulnerable to pucks shot at his feet from sharp angles, Luongo has also displayed better rebound control and he's improved positionally. He has the experience of winning gold at the Winter Olympics to draw upon, so he's likely able to handle the mental part of playing for the Cup. The Bruins at their best go hard to the net and their aggressiveness may pose his biggest challenge.
Boston: Tim Thomas, like his team, seems to improve in each series as it goes on. He's had some shaky moments, which are uncharacteristic. His save percentage (.929), while better than Luongo's, is lower than his sterling .938 of the regular season, but his resiliency is second to none and he can be impossible to beat later in the same game he's almost fumbled away. Thomas has been very aggressive in his positioning and teams have tried to catch him out of his net with quick passing plays, although his incredible athleticism has led to some eye-popping, game-saving stops. As always, he is capable of stealing games and series and he'll be considered for the Conn Smythe Trophy if he's at his best.
Vancouver: With a power play that has scored a tournament-best 17 goals (tied with Tampa Bay) and clicked at 28.3 percent, the Canucks hold a decisive edge over Boston. They move the puck expertly, like to go from low to high and get their mobile defensemen into the attack and stretch out penalty-killers to create outnumbered situations they can convert. Their depth was obvious when Ehrhoff was out and Salo slotted into his spot vs. San Jose to become the focal point at the blue line. The Canucks' penalty kill, which was excellent against Nashville, gave up seven goals to the Sharks, its weakest showing in any round, so it will be looking to bounce back against Boston in this area. It goes into the final having killed 80.6 percent of the opposition's advantages.
Boston: Still the weakest part of the Bruins' game. Julien made an important power play adjustment vs. Tampa Bay by putting big Chara in front of the Lightning's net, with some improved results. The Bruins scored three PPGs against Tampa Bay, their best round with the man advantage (and they didn't have a power play in Game 7), but their PP is clicking at a woeful 8.2 percent -- not what you'd expect from a Cup finalist. Still, they've managed to get this far without success on the power play. They've had to work on moving the puck more quickly to create chances and keep it basic by getting pucks and bodies to the net. The B's surrendered five power play goals to Tampa Bay and their PK is at 79.4, which is also below what a finalist usually achieves. Improvement in this area would allow them to play their physical game with less concern for the consequences. But the best strategy would be for Boston to play as it did in the Game 7 against the Lightning and stay out of the penalty box altogether.
Vancouver: Alain Vigneault doesn't get enough credit for this team's success, but he adjusted his own philosophies when Mike Gillis became GM to make the Canucks more of a puck possession team that involved the defense corps in the offense. They now play a strong game on both sides of the puck. Most recently, Vigneault made the right calls when Ehrhoff and Rome went down with injuries in the previous round, inserting Ballard and Tanev and moving Salo into Ehrhoff's power play spot (which was really a no-brainer). He has tinkered with his fourth line and even his goaltending at various points in the postseason, but he's handled his personnel well and understands what has worked for him and why. His biggest challenge may be keeping his team focused and not overconfident despite the long layoff while hanging around Vancouver where the players can hear too often how great they are. Vigneault was able to do that for the Sharks series, so it may not be a problem. He'll have to work hard to get his better forwards on the ice when Chara is on the bench and assess how the B's physical play is impacting his team. But he's good at adjusting and preparing his club.
Boston: Claude Julien showed a more creative side to his coaching in the conference finals than he's generally given credit for. Finally moving Chara to the net on the power play, putting Peverley on the fourth line to add to the depth of Boston's attack, inserting Seguin when Bergeron was injured and then moving him onto the power play and coming up with ways to beat Tampa Bay's 1-3-1 system all paid dividends. In the first round, Julien paired Chara with Seidenberg and that has been an effective shutdown pair ever since. Yes, he still can be stubborn, but he stuck with Ryder and Kaberle when the fans yelled for their heads. In both instances, he was rewarded for his patience, especially from Ryder. Julien will be challenged in this round by figuring out how to counteract Vancouver's speed and forechecking, but the Bruins have gotten better during the course of each round and Julien and his staff certainly have had a big role in that.
Vancouver: The Canucks are favored to win the Cup for good reason -- the tangibles. They excel at every facet of the game and can play any type of hockey and win. That's usually what makes a Stanley Cup champion. The expectations are high in Vancouver and a feeling of inevitability among some in the city is such that a few observers warn that the Canucks will have to guard against overconfidence. That may or may not be a real problem in the dressing room, but it always has to be a concern for a team that finishes first overall and slays some big foes on the way to the final. Malholtra's return to full practice, if not game action, is an emotional boost for this club. Kesler's suspected groin injury in Game 5 against San Jose could become a factor -- or not. He didn't look awful by the end of that game and has had a chance to heal somewhat. Still, it bears watching.
Boston: The Bruins play with great emotion, so channeling it and not letting it get the best of them by landing them in the penalty box could be a key to this series. Winger Milan Lucic has Vancouver ties and has always played well in that city. The Bruins got here by winning three OT games against Montreal in a very even full-length series, then capitalizing on the Flyers' chronic lack of goaltending before barely sliding by Tampa Bay in another Game 7. They've done it all without a power play, by getting different guys to step up at opportune times, and while not being an overly speedy team in a tournament where the games get increasingly faster. They've also come this far with a goalie who makes saves that give new meaning to the word impossible. The Bruins have elevated their game every time they've had to and if ever there was a team that takes intangibles to the bank, this is it. ADVANTAGE: Bruins