By Stu Hackel
It's Game 7 tonight, one last contest for the silver bowl named for Fredrick Arthur Stanley, Lord Stanley of Preston, the 16th Earl of Derby KG, GCB, GCVO, PC. Yes, that was his official title when, as Governor-General of Canada, he donated the trophy as a challenge cup for the country's top amateur hockey team in 1882. The Stanley Cup is now the most famous and storied trophy competed for by professional athletes in North America. Players on both the Bruins and Canucks, regardless of their country of origin, have played their entire lives for a chance to have their name engraved on it.
That includes Tim Thomas, the Bruins goaltender from the hard-bitten industrial town of Flint, Michigan, who has distinguished himself above all others this spring. "When we're in the garage or driveway playing as a kid and you're fantasizing," Thomas said on Tuesday, "well, I was Stevie Yzerman, which doesn't make sense for a goalie, but you're saying to yourself, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, you're not saying Game 6, you know? So this is really, you know, what every kid dreams about."
Dreams are important and no one achieves greatness without them. But it will be transforming those dreams into desire and then execution that will likely carry the evening in Vancouver. The team that plays better and tries harder should be the one that skates with the Cup. Of course, as we've seen all spring, anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and we fully expect one final bizarre chapter will be written in the story of this year's very bizarre tournament.
The home team has scored first and won every game so far. The games in Vancouver have all been low-scoring, one-goal decisions. The games in Boston were overwhelmingly dominated by the Bruins. It didn't seem as if the same two teams were playing in the different venues. As we mentioned in our discussion of Game 6 yesterday, if things hold to form, the Canucks will win a low-scoring, one-goal game on their home ice, but there are just as many reasons to think the Bruins will break the pattern as reasons to think they won't.
For the very nervous fans of both teams, there won't be much solace in the hours leading up to the drop of the puck. Their uneasiness is compounded by each of these franchises' long Stanley Cup droughts -- 1972 for the Bruins, in the great era of Bobby Orr; never for the Canucks dating back to their 1970 debut in the NHL. Many of today's fans were not around four decades ago, but they carry the frustrations of all those years with them anyway. With frustration comes anger and it seems as if that anger has been transmitted to the players -- or maybe the players' anger has been adopted by the fans. No matter, because it's been a jungle out there on the ice (and we wouldn't be entirely surprised if it ends like this.)
"I had a casual chat with some of the officials who do the games and they were a little surprised that the players have been out this far on the edge," TSN's Bob McKenzie said prior to Game 6. And how that edgy behavior is managed could be a key factor in game's outcome.
Most often, when teams have this much at stake, they tend to discipline themselves and there was no better example of that than the Bruins' terrific performance in their hard-checking, penalty-free 1-0 win over Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the eastern final. But even if the B's decided to clean up their act for this Game 7, the level of animosity between them and Vancouver is such that the Canucks, who have been equally antagonistic, probably wouldn't respond in kind. So don't expect Lady Byng hockey tonight, and if it's not a close game in the third period, it's not impossible that someone will take liberties and things could get ugly, as we've already seen in this series.
Here are some other things to look for in this last game of the season:
1. Goaltending, naturally, will continue to play a huge role in the outcome. Thomas has easily been the more consistent of the two netminders and, for the most part, is at the top of his game. While less consistent, Roberto Luongo has been, for some reason, exceptional in the games played in Vancouver, winning two by scores of 1-0 and another by 3-2 in overtime. Which Luongo shows up tonight? And if he falters early, how long will Alain Vigneault wait before giving him the hook and inserting Corey Schneider? Probably not very long, is the guess here. The leash will be short.
Glenn Healy of CBC has noticed a pattern with Luongo -- and certainly Boston has noticed it as well -- that if he surrenders a goal on the glove side, he then tries to compensate by not dropping down as quickly, and that exposes his five hole. And it works the other way if he's been beaten between the legs first. At the other end, Thomas has been exceptional on shots he can get in front of, but his aggressiveness can be used against him by a team that moves the puck quickly. The Canucks have that ability, but they haven't shown it much and credit Boston's defense for that. And that brings us to...
2. Each team's defense corps has had strong moments and weak ones, but there's no room for error tonight. The B's blueliners have done a generally good job of boxing out the Canucks down low and Zdeno Chara's physical play against the Sedin twins has been a major factor in their lack of production. Still, the B's d-men do tend to cough up the puck, like here in Game 6 when the score was still 2-0 for Boston.
Were it not for Thomas, the whole series would have looked much different, but it's better for Boston if their defensemen handle the puck more safely in the face of Vancouver's pressure. On the other hand, while Luongo has allowed a few goals on stoppable shots, his defensemen -- especially in the games played in Boston -- have made bad decisions and given the B's far more room than they should. Boston's speed up front has shown itself to be better than many expected and keeping a tight gap will be important for Vancouver's blueliners tonight.
3. We know about the injuries to Nathan Horton, Dan Hamhuis and Mason Raymond. We don't know for sure about the physical condition of other players. NBC, TSN and SI.com's Pierre McGuire, who has been around both teams, has said in his various media appearances during the last few days that he believes Ryan Kesler is playing badly hurt and well below his usual effectiveness and wonders if Kevin Bieksa is 100 percent or at least worn down. Those are two key Canucks. Two other Vancouver d-men, Alex Edler and Andrew Alberts, left Game 6 early, but are expected to play. Amazingly, Vigneault hinted that Hamhuis might return for Game 7 after not having skated after what has been described as a "serious mid-section injury" in Game 1. We'll see. If he can play and be effective, it would be quite significant for Vancouver. McGuire says he thinks Boston is generally healthier. When the series ends, we'll find out the truth about who was playing with what maladies. Whether the injured players on either team who are hiding their ailments can dig deep for one last game is an important issue.
4. Who will come into the lineup in place of Raymond (Jeff Tambellini is considered a likely candidate) and will Vigneault reconfigure his forward lines? He has lots of options here if he wants to do something other than insert the injury replacement in Raymond's spot alongside Kesler and Chris Higgins, although he'd risk disrupting some chemistry if, for example, he put Jannik Hansen on the second line, away from Maxim Lapierrre and Raffi Torres, who have been very effective in their home games. Vigneault discloses almost nothing before game time, so this one is a wait-and-see, but TSN's Ray Ferraro (video) thinks Vigneault will put Hansen with the Sedins, move Alex Burrows to Kesler's line and put Tambellini with Lapierre and Torres, where he played at one point this season.
5. Who will elevate their play? We've seen some exceptional performances by some players above what they've done in the past. Brad Marchand is a perfect example -- and so is Mark Recchi, considering how spotty his play was prior to this series. In fact, most of Boston's players all the way down to the fourth line and third tandem have risen to the occasion, and while they haven't been productive on the road, they've turned in six strong games. The Canucks are still waiting for some of their better players to make their mark -- the Sedins most notably, although they were much better in Game 6. The players who have elevated their games -- Bieksa, Alex Burrows and the Lapierre line, for example -- will have to do it again, especially if the Sedins continue to underachieve and with the Kesler line hobbled and uncertain.
On his Team 1200 Ottawa radio hit this morning, McGuire and host John "JR" Rodenburg discussed who might step up tonight to make a difference. McGuire wondered if fatigue and talent would force the stars to cancel each other out after Rodenburg rattled off the list of names of little-known recent Game 7 heroes: the Penguins Max Talbot, the Hurricanes' Frantisek Kaberle, the Lightning's Ruslan Fedotenko and the Devils' Mike Rupp. It's possible a third- or fourth-liner will again be the hero tonight.
6. The Canucks get last change at home and that is a plausible reason for the difference in character between the games in Vancouver and Boston. As we've mentioned before, and as Claude Julien acknowledges, it throws off a road team's rhythm to have to change out of a bad match. In addition to Vigneault getting the defenseman on he wants in the Vancouver games, the Lapierre line has been very effective pushing the play into the B's zone when skating against the Krejci line and that is one reason Boston has had trouble manufacturing offense and getting the sort of momentum on the road they did a home. If this continues tonight, perhaps Julien might try juggling his lines or some other maneuver to get his forwards going.
7. Face-offs did not start out being much of a determining factor in this round. In the first four games, the team that won the majority lost on the scoreboard. But in Games 5 and 6, the winning team also won the face-off battle, and in Game 6, the B's margin of victory was 46-28. It's not a predictor in this series like it has been in others, but it is instructive to know that the Bruins Chris Kelly, who takes a lot of faceoffs when killing penalties, is leading the series with a 58.2 winning percentage while Henrik Sedin, who takes a lot on the power play, is at 42.2 percent. Patrice Bergeron is at 54.8 for Boston. Ryan Kesler is also doing well for the Canucks at 54.5, but Manny Malhotra, Vancouver's face-off specialist, is only at 50 percent. Glenn Healy has noted on the CBC telecasts that Malhotra has had a very hard time winning face-offs on the left side of the ice.
8. Special teams, of course, are crucial tonight, especially if the game gets chippy. The B's power play has done much better as the series has gone on, benefiting from big scoring games at home, where they have five goals with the man advantage. Vancouver has but two, and while they looked better at it in Game 6, scoring once, they haven't been as dominant in this area as they were prior to this round. Boston's PK and Thomas are the main reasons why.
9. Momentum, as we've noted, doesn't often travel game to game, but it does shift within games. The Bruins have been excellent riding their momentum in their home games, showing an ability to make the most of their chances and putting the Canucks on their heels. They haven't done it on the road yet, but that doesn't mean they won't. The Canucks showed little pushback in those instances in Boston and pretty much surrendered to the inevitable. How the Canucks react to a Boston goal will be worth watching.
10. With the vitriolic nature of this series, how the game is refereed will be an important factor. If the game degenerates into a street fight, both teams are capable of handling the rough stuff, but calling penalties does effect the momentum. The way the zebras manage the jungle could play a big role in tonight's outcome.
And this one goes out to the Big Man, wishing him well...