By Stu Hackel
Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final goes tonight in Boston in the wake of the NHL's unprecedented decision to suspend Vancouver's Aaron Rome for four games after his late hit on Nathan Horton.
For a contest that isn't a seventh game, this may be the most highly anticipated Cup final match of the last couple of decades. There's great curiosity about whether the patterns of play that emerged in Game 3 will carry over -- can Boston again impose its style on Vancouver? -- and how the teams will adjust with their necessary lineup changes. How will the B's will fare without one of their top line forwards and who will the Canucks bring into the lineup on defense?
And, for many, the lure will be to see if and how the two antagonists further escalate their already fierce series.
Hockey has always existed within the uneasy and unstable balance of great skill and physical resistance. That's the main reason the players and fans get so passionate. How that manifests itself on the ice tonight will be one of the main things to watch for. Will these clubs go over the line, tip the balance and engage in a slugfest, risking more penalties? Or, with the stakes so high, will they stick more to disciplined, hard-edged hockey?
Game 3 had some of both, but more slugfest than in the previous two games. And that benefited Boston. Claude Julien's decision to bring Shawn Thornton into the lineup and scratch rookie Tyler Seguin helped set the tone for the Bruins' performance. They will want to continue that tonight. But Vancouver is anything but a soft team. It is every bit as rugged and resilient as its opponent -- although the Canucks didn't show much of that as Game 3 progressed. In fact, they might as well have not come out for the third period after Boston built a 4-0 lead. The Canucks showed no pushback at all and surrendered another four goals, giving their goalie Roberto Luongo little help.
There is always talk about momentum in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and it's very questionable how much carries over from one game to the next. Sometimes a team can grab momentum and it will propel them forward in a series, but generally, there is usually no carry-over. Momentum is largely evident within games far more than it is between them. But the B's could feed off their Monday success plus the hometown fan frenzy to come out strong, storm into the Canucks' end, and try to duplicate their Game 3 result. So how Vancouver responds -- not just physically, but in all aspects of its game -- will be the evening's biggest question.
When we previewed the series, we noted that while the Canucks had the edge in many of the tangible areas of the game -- they are faster, more skilled, deeper and steadier on defense -- the Bruins thrived on the intangibles. That's what helped bring them victory in Game 3. This time, the intangible was luck. After a scoreless first period that was played on the edge and at times -- most notably Rome's hit on Horton -- over the edge of legality, the second period started with Alex Edler's stick exploding, leading directly to the game's opening goal by Andrew Ference 11 seconds after the puck dropped.
It gave the Bruins a big emotional boost, and the first goal of the game for the first time in the series. Just over four minutes later, more good fortune for Boston. On the power play, Mark Recchi tried a cross-ice pass to Rich Peverley, but it hit Ryan Kesler's stick as he was sliding back low into the zone to cut off the puck and it deflected past Luongo.
That energized the B's and their home fans even more, but nothing roused them as much as Brad Marchand's terrific shorthanded goal, started by Ference poking the puck off Daniel Sedin's stick and Marchand grabbing it in the neutral zone and dancing around and through four Vancouver skaters before patiently drawing Luongo down and firing it into the vacant top portion of the net.
Riding a wave of love from the crowd, Boston was well on the way to victory, one secured early by the Bruins' main tangible, goalie Tim Thomas. Turnovers have plagued the B's all series and did in Game 3 as well, as the Canucks pressure forecheck and closing speed forced Boston puckcarriers into hurried decisions and bad plays. But Thomas bailed them out repeatedly with saves after turnovers like this...
Here are some other things to watch for in Game 4.
1. As we noted prior to Game 3, the B's had to avoid getting into a skating game with the faster Canucks, but somehow find speed of their own. They did that by outhitting Vancouver, especially on the forecheck, and with their third and fourth lines, which are faster than their top two, outplaying their Canuck counterparts. It helped that the Canucks lost their legs in Game 3, in part from the pounding they absorbed and partly because some of their faster players, like Kesler, may be playing hurt. The Bruins will have to continue the pounding to neutralize that element of Vancouver's game and keep their faster players engaged by giving minutes to their depth forwards, something Julien does not always do.
2. Who will the Canucks draw into their lineup in the absence of Rome? He was an effective second or third pair defenseman who was pressed into the shutdown role when Dan Hamhuis went down with an injury in Game 1. Rome may have been a bit out of his depth alongside Kevin Bieksa, taking two penalties in Game 2 and mistiming his hit against Horton in Game 3. Alain Vigneault has a choice of veteran Keith Ballard, once a star blueliner in Florida, who has not flourished in his first season in Vancouver, or rookie Chris Tanev, who Vigneault dressed for two games earlier in the playoffs. There's some speculation that both may dress and Andrew Alberts will sit.
It's a great luxury to have such blueline depth, but there's no question that without Hamhuis and Rome, Vancouver's defense looks a bit less imposing. It especially looked tired in Game 3, down to five men after Rome's ejection. It was also down to five after Hamhuis was injured in Game 1. Even with six d-men dressed, fatigue could set in, especially for the guys who Vigneault relies upon most: Bieksa, Edler, Christian Ehrhoff and, to a lesser extent, Sami Salo.
3. The B's will likely compensate for losing Horton by bumping the speedy Peverley to the first line. He was a first-liner in Atlanta and he gives the top line with Lucic and David Krejci a different element than Horton, who carries two inches and 20 more pounds than Peverley and plays like it. So the chemistry of this line will be challenged. Lucic will have to carry the physical burden and he has not had a consistent postseason. Seguin will be back, and could take Peverley's spot with Chris Kelly and Michael Ryder on the third line. There's no loss of speed or skill with Seguin in place of Peverley, and that was the B's third line for much of the Eastern finals against the Lightning.
4. How will Luongo react to being shelled in Game 3? Many were surprised that Vigneault kept him in for the third period and exposed him to four more goals behind a team that had lost its pep, but Luongo supposedly told the coach not to take him out. He has played quite well since the first round, with the occasional bad goal, and he wasn't terrible despite the inflated scoreline of Game 3. Still, he's going to have to probably stand up to another inspired Boston showing, and be especially good early on as Boston is likely to come out flying.
5. The special teams battle shifted last game. The B's scored two power play goals and two shorthanded, while the Canucks were blanked in their eight PP attempts and gave up two shorties. If Boston can continue to score with the extra man and stymie the Canucks' man-advantage, it will drastically improve its chances in Game 4. For the Canucks, whose power play is the best in the game, the key is quick passing and continual player movement, especially involving their defensemen. They haven't' done much of that in this series and it's an element they'll need to recapture to thwart Boston's hopes of evening the series.
6. Boston did a much better job of getting traffic in front of Luongo in Game 3, in part because of the fatigue of the Canucks defensemen. At the other end, where the Canucks had been driving the net since Game 1, Thomas literally took matters into his own hands on Monday when he leveled Henrik Sedin on this play, occasioned by more Bruins confusion with the puck in their own end.
It certainly pleased the crowd, but Vigneault said this morning that the Canucks have spoken with the NHL about this play. They've been in a dialogue, through series supervisor Kris King, since before Game 1 about Thomas's aggressive style. "We've talked to the NHL about him initiating contact like did on Hank," Vigneault said at his press briefing. "They're aware of it. Hopefully they're going to handle it." If the league agrees, the Bruins will be told that there are limits to what Thomas can do.
7. It's a brutally hot day in Boston and if the heat effects the ice, it will slow the game and make puckhandling more difficult. That's what you'd call a real home ice advantage.
8. The officiating in this game will be more scrutinized than any other so far. Dan O'Halloran and Kelly Sutherland are the referees and Jay Sharrers and Jean Morin are the linesmen. They will have a great deal to do with setting the tone for this game. How much nonsense they allow, whether they want to make their presence felt early in order to keep things under control or let the players run more freely will be important in defining how this game is played. And the flip side of that is how disciplined the teams will be. The Canucks have prided themselves all year in "playing whistle to whistle." That means not engaging in extra-curricular activities once the play stops. They have increasingly gotten away from that as the series has gone on and they'll want to reel that in. On the other hand, the B's did a good job of distracting the Canucks in Game 3 after the whistle, and that contributed a great deal to how that contest played out.
In any case, as we said off the top, there should be huge interest in this game -- and big TV numbers for Versus, CBC and RDS -- because of the edgy nature of the last one. Whether Rome's suspension or the need for team discipline stifles the edginess will be an important theme. If not, this series could be bound for more trouble.