By Stu Hackel
Alain Vigneault said all the right -- and predictable -- things at the podium after his team lost Game 4 to the Bruins, 4-0, on Wednesday night to even the Stanley Cup final at two games apiece. Asked about his team's confidence, he responded, "It's real good. You know, if somebody would have told me at the beginning of the year that we could play for the Stanley Cup, best two-out-of-three series with home ice advantage in front of our fans, I would have taken those odds, I would have taken that anytime to play for the big prize."
But what if that someone had also told him that his Canucks had just been outscored 12-1 in the last two games, the biggest two-game margin in Cup finals history, that his best players weren't playing like his best players, that his defense corps had wilted, that his power play had gone south, that his goaltender had stopped making the big saves, and that his team was being physically dominated and worn down? How much confidence could that inspire?
One hesitates to say that this series is over, because fans and observers often overreact to the most recent game and perhaps we're being guilty of that here. We are well aware that anything can happen in the playoffs.
Vigneault's own confidence springs in part from the Canucks' first-round rebound. They were dismantled by Chicago twice after grabbing a three-games-to-none lead, the combined score for those two losses being 12-2. They lost Game 6 in overtime, but looked better doing it, and then came home for their dramatic Game 7 win in OT (one of the best games of the playoffs, along with Boston's Game 7 win over Tampa Bay).
However, the Canucks were healthier then. They had their full defense corps available and the Blackhawks were not the four-line deep team that Boston is. It's going to take a massive reversal of form for the Canucks to regain the swagger they had before this series, even prior to Game 3. The Bruins have all the swagger right now. They effectuated a massive shift in the competitive balance on home ice, raising their play to a level the Canucks have yet to match, and it's possible they have done so much damage to Vancouver's game and psyche that recovery is not in the cards.
We mentioned yesterday that momentum doesn't usually carry over game to game in the playoffs. Each game usually takes on its own personality and has its own momentum swings. But that doesn't mean that teams never grab momentum and ride it from one game to the next and all the way to the Cup. It happened in 1995, for example, when the Devils took on the heavily favored Red Wings. After a Game 1 win in Detroit, New Jersey stunned the Red Wings by winning Game 2, the signature moment in that match and the series being Scott Niedermayer's goal where he went end to end...
...going through four-time Stanley Cup champion and former Norris Trophy-winner Paul Coffey to score off the end boards. Niedermayer shocked Detroit with that goal and served notice that the upstart Devils were the real thing. They won that game, the Wings never recovered and Detroit was done in four.
Is it possible that Brad Marchand's goal in Game 3, in which he went right through almost all the Canucks...
...will be that shocking, signature moment for Boston the way Niedermayer's goal was for New Jersey?
Here is what the Canucks have to overcome to turn the tide. First, they have to overcome a Boston team that is firing on all cylinders and not giving them any room to operate. When the Canucks get to the net, they are boxed out by Bruin defenders. The shooting lanes and passing lanes are regularly clogged. Boston, on Wednesday night at least, has corrected a turnover problem and the Bruins' play in the neutral zone has forced Vancouver into poor decisions with the puck. And the Canucks have no answer for Tim Thomas in goal, neither his acrobatics nor his pugnacity...
...and that got Thomas, Chara and Kesler roughing minors and misconducts for Kesler and Chara.
The Canucks have gotten no production out of Henrik Sedin in this round, and only a goal and an assist from Daniel. The second line of Ryan Kesler, Chris Higgins and Mason Raymond have no goals, two assists. By contrast, Boston's second line of Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi have five goals, four assists.
The Canucks' defense, so important to the attack, has gotten no goals, one assist. The B's blueliners have one goal and eight assists.
In their defensive roles, without Hamhuis and Rome in the lineup, the Vancouver d-men look like a mess. Vigneault has had to overuse Bieksa, Edler and Ehrhoff, who are not displaying the speed or quick reactions they did earlier in the postseason. Consequently, they're lacking the defensive confidence to close the gap between the D and the forwards, backing in too deeply and giving the Bruins all sorts of space to create speed. Speed was supposed to be the Canucks' game plan against Boston, but it's been turned around. Inserting Ballard into the lineup for the suspended Rome didn't work out well. Ballard was very shaky as a shutdown partner for Bieksa -- not a surprise since he hasn't generally faced first-line skaters in months -- and he was wisely shifted off that pairing after the first period.
In goal, Roberto Luongo somehow has to find his game again. He's not making the big saves. Vigneault pulled him on Wednesday night and inserted Corey Schneider, and that might spark a goaltending debate in Vancouver, especially after the thousands watching the game in Rogers Arena cheered Luongo's departure.
Most importantly, the Canucks' power play has gone powerless: 1-for-22 in the four games. In a physically contentious series like this, not making the opposition pay for sins of commission is a sin of omission. And the B's are big-time sinners, none moreso than the amazing Marchand, who is skating with speed no one anticipated, showing hand skills previously undetected, and not forgetting his main role as one of the best agitators in the NHL, as he displayed late in Game 4.
Even his goal on Wednesday night was a terrific combination of what he brings each time he steps on the ice.
Marchand quickly closed on Ballard, just maybe tripping him behind the net by skating into his leg and kicking it out from under him (perhaps an uncalled penalty, but it matters little now). He disrupted Ballard's attempt to reverse the puck to Henrik Sedin, caused magnificent chaos and a mad scramble, then calmly ended the play with a superb backhander past Luongo and a knowing nod of the head. Any Bruins fan has to love it. Any Canucks fan wants to have Marchand throttled.
Of course, all this could change with the venue. Home teams in Stanley Cup Final play are 27-8 since the lockout, a .771 winning percentage. Canucks fans are every bit as supportive and crazed as their counterparts in Boston. Getting the matchups with the last change may help Vigneault awaken his top scorers. This could be one of those series where the home teams win all their games.
Or it could be one of those series where momentum really does travel from game to game.