Monday June 13th, 2011

Win or lose, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas is the likely Conn Smythe winner. (Michael Ivins/US Presswire)

By Stu Hackel

With the Canucks back in Boston -- site of their horror show Games 3 and 4 -- and the Stanley Cup in the building, the Bruins will, as their coach Claude Julien says, hope "to create a Game 7."

The B's will have to be better than they were on Friday in Vancouver, when the Canucks showed the physical dimension that was missing from their play during the two previous games. The Canucks took every opportunity to smash Boston players, outhitting them 47-27, forcing numerous turnovers (NHL stats had the takeaways at 15-6 in the Canucks' favor), tightening their defensive play while getting a very strong game from Roberto Luongo, and doing all sorts of things that seemed unimaginable after Vancouver's two-game massacre in Boston. After Game 4, we wrote that Vancouver would need a massive turnaround to halt Boston's huge grab of the series' momentum and we felt somewhat skeptical that they could. But that's just what they did.

This series might not end tonight. And as we wrote prior to Game 4, win or lose, Tim Thomas has to be the strongest candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He was something of a scapegoat for the B's Game 5 loss, as his aggressive style exposed the net on the only goal of the match:

Maxim Lapierre's third-period tally caught Thomas overplaying Kevin Bieksa's point shot -- which was actually fired wide purposely to carom off the end boards and beat a goaltender who was otherwise unbeatable. The media made much of Luongo's postgame remarks that he would have made the stop because of the difference between his style and Thomas's. (That might not have been true prior to this year when Luongo, too, played a more adventurous goal -- and with poorer results.) While Thomas does get trapped and looks bad on some goals -- like Alex Burrows' 11-second OT winner in Game 2 (video) -- he prevents many, many more that would imperil other goalies because of his challenging approach and his never quitting on any shot. As good as they have been, and they've been well beyond good, the Bruins plainly don't get this far in the postseason without the goaltending that Thomas has provided them.

But now Boston faces the end of the line and that should summon a top effort in order to stay alive. It's why the fourth win of any Stanley Cup series is always the hardest to achieve. In this case, it will be especially difficult because of the way the B's have played on home ice. Both teams in this series have a jagged edge to their game which has made this series more physically intense and hostile than any Cup final in a long time, and with the stakes so high, the anger could again envelop the action and make for a very nasty game.

The comfort level both these clubs have in their own barns is one reason to suspect that this series will go the limit. There's certainly more than the emotional factor at play on home ice. The ability of the home team's coach to get the match-ups he wants has a great deal to do with dictating the run of play, as Julien pointed out in his between-game remarks on Sunday. "I think it's smoother when you have the last change," he said. "There is less changing on the fly and you get the better match-ups and that's for sure. I don't think, except for a couple of certain match-ups that both teams are trying to stay away from or to get, I think we've been more or less content with what they want against us and what we want against them, except obviously the back end is something that's been a bit of a challenge for both teams to try to get away from or get as a match-up."

He was talking about the defense pairings the coaches put out against the opposition's top lines. But it also matters how the forwards match up. Lapierre's line with Rafi Torres and Jannik Hansen is frequently out against Boston's top line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Rich Peverley (or sometimes Tyler Seguin) in both buildings and both coaches seem happy with that. In Vancouver, that Canucks line was excellent in Game 5, pushing the play and not letting Krejci's line create much offense, and that's how it seemed to go for much of the three games played in Vancouver. But it was the other way around for the games in Boston. Whether that holds true tonight will be worth watching.

And here are some other things to keep an eye on:

1. Who scores first. The team that got the first goal has won each of the previous five games of this series. Let's see if that holds up tonight. Teams that have scored first this postseason are 66-21, a .759 winning percentage, highest since the lockout.

2. The Canucks defense -- without Dan Hamhuis and Aaron Rome -- was vastly improved in Game 5, but will that hold for Game 6? It was shredded during the two matches in Boston, playing with only five men most of Game 3 after Rome was tossed for his hit on Nathan Horton and looking spent (with a rocky outing from Rome's replacement, Keith Ballard) in Game 4. Chris Tanev came in for Ballard in Game 5 and was very reliable and poised, especially for a rookie. Will that hold up in the Boston cauldron? If so, it will be a very positive development for Vancouver as the Canucks will need continued stable play from their blueliners under the pressure that the B's will almost surely apply tonight. In the last games here, the Vancouver d-men backed in early and too far, giving Boston lots of room to operate, and attack with either speed or getting pucks behind them to establish their forecheck. Keeping a tight gap will be a goal of that group tonight.

3. The Bruins' top line without Horton remains in flux. Julien says he's comfortable with either Peverley or Seguin in Horton's spot, and while they both have very good speed, neither has the physical dimension Horton had, which would be greatly beneficial in opening up the ice for Krejci and Lucic. The good news for the B's is that Lucic has played much better in this series in his team's home than in his hometown and he needs to bring his physical presence to the rink tonight.

4. Both teams have talked about and tried to get traffic in front of the opposing goalie. You can expect more of that tonight. The Canucks did a formidable job of boxing out the B's in Game 5; it was the other way around in the previous two games. It's one of the places where this game could be won or lost.

5. Boston has to limit its turnovers, a recurring problem as the playoffs have gone on and again in Game 5, and while Thomas has always been there to bail them out, they aren't going to want to give Vancouver the puck in transition too often. They have no room for error in this game.

6. Special teams again will be key. The Canucks' power play is still not producing in this series and while it looked a bit better in the last two games with quick puck movement and not remaining static, Boston's PK has been very good at blocking shots and getting in the passing lanes. The Canucks don't help themselves with the way they position their defenders on the point. Often putting a left-handed shot on the left side and a right-handed shot on the right side, they're not giving themselves a chance to fire one-timers at good angles that can get the puck to the net more quickly.

7. The Canucks had a number of odd man rushes in Game 5, and the B's defense reverted to looking vulnerable to Vancouver's speed after not having a problem with it in the two Boston games. It's something the Bruins are going to have to correct and the Canucks will be looking to exploit again.

8. Again, the officiating will be in the spotlight because of the poisonous demeanor of both teams  and because of the fakery that continues unabated in this series. Blogging on TSN, former NHL ref Kerry Fraser has some interesting thoughts on the officials' response to the players' devious conduct. Lapeirre, for all his effective play, continues to embarrass himself with displays like this...

...and as Fraser says, that really does work against a player because if the refs recognize that he's a diver or embellisher, they won't be disposed to calling penalties when he's fouled for real.

The epidemic of head-snapping when a stick comes anywhere near a player's face is also not helping matters. "I have observed players snap their head back so hard in an attempt to fool the referee I'm surprised they don't end up on the injured list with whiplash," writes Fraser, with only a little verbal embellishment of his own. He's not wrong. (By the way, there was one episode last game in which Vancouver's Alex Burrows snapped his head back and no play was called. The NBC telecast didn't pick up what actually occurred, but the CBC did and it showed Burrows had indeed been cut on the upper lip. Then it showed the replay and detected that it was teammate Sami Salo's stick that did the damage. A good non-call by the officials.)

9. The Sedins haven't scored, but they have not played terribly. They've moved themselves and the puck well, but Thomas has been there to stop them when they've been able to shake the coverage of the B's tandem that's out against them: Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. That happened more frequently in Game 5. Of course, that didn't stop Versus/NBC's analyst Mike Milbury from making derogatory comments about the twins, calling them "Thelma and Louise." In Sunday's New York Post, Larry Brooks raked both Milbury ("who apparently thinks it is insightful hockey commentary to mock the manhood and masculinity of Henrik and Daniel Sedin") and Versus/NBC ("what on earth is wrong with the North American television network executives who make the decisions to hire these people to spew their ignorance?") with great justification. Brooks calls the twins "more than exceptional athletes. They are gentlemen and ambassadors for the sport," which is true.

The Sedins are one game away from winning the Stanley Cup. That's much closer than Milbury ever came in his career as a player or as coach of the Bruins or as coach and GM of the Islanders. One wonders what fuels his oft-times mindless and tasteless remarks. In this case, it could be jealousy. Henrik had the best response, telling Chris Stevenson of The Ottawa Sun, "I think he has to be happy with his career. He did a great job on Long Island. I'm sure he is happy with that."

Good one.

"Usually, the guys who sit in those situations, they're called experts," Daniel added. "They're there for a reason, I think. We don't really worry about those kind of comments. He made a bad comment about us, calling us women. I don't know how he looks at women. I would be pretty mad if I was a woman."

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