Feb. 26:Bruins 3 at Canucks 1
Snapshot: On a personal note, this is the match-up I envisioned at the beginning of the playoff derby. Of practical consideration, this is the best East-West match-up imaginable. Each franchise's fans have longed for a return to the Stanley Cup Final, with the Canucks last appearing in 1994, the Bruins in 1990. Both teams have built to this moment of truth by enduring hockey's hard-earned lessons via playoff hardship and heartbreak. One will emerge having completed the journey, while the other will add to its litany of leaving for the summer unfulfilled.
On the ice, these teams are in position to hoist the coveted silver chalice because of two telltale traits: they have depth and they can play the game in the open ice as well as in the trenches. Both the Canucks and the Bruins have the size to grind in the offensive zone and to defend down low in front of the net. Both have speed, which allows for quick counterattacks off turnovers in the neutral zone. As a result, the 5-on-5 hockey should be exhilaratingly hard fought. The Bruins' special teams have struggled this spring, so the longer the action remains at full and even strength, the better their chance of success.
This series will feature Bruins' captain Zdeno Chara looking to shut down Canucks' captain Henrik Sedin. Chara took care of Vincent Lecavalier in the Eastern Conference Finals while Sedin struggled against the defensive might of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference semis. In fact, linemates Henrik, twin brother Daniel and Alex Burrows were so offensively impotent that the Preds moved their stalwart defensive duo to mark Ryan Kesler and his line. It will be intriguing to see if the Sedins and Burrows can produce versus Chara. If not, can Kesler carry the offensive load as he did in round two?
Another focal point will be the goaltenders. Roberto Luongo is playing at a supremely confident and consistent level right now. The past two rounds have seen him at his very best. Meanwhile, the Bruins' Tim Thomas alternated between beatable and brilliant against Tampa Bay in the ECF. His Game 7 composure against the Bolts will be the level he'll need to replicate throughout the Cup final series. Both netminders are Vezina Trophy finalists sporting almost identical postseason numbers, yet they come at this chance for a title from different perspectives: Thomas as the late-blooming overachiever taking on Luongo, the long-standing Next One viewed by some as overrated -- despite his gaudy career numbers and Team Canada accomplishments.
Spotlights On: Roberto Luongo. With that in mind, "Bobby Lu" is once again at center stage. For whatever reason, his career has been one in which much was expected, and for the most part he has delivered. Yet, Luongo's failings have garnered more headlines than his top performances. In this, his first Stanley Cup Final, he can silence his critics once and for all or, fairly or unfairly, give them more material to use against him.
X-Factor for Bruins: Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins' centerman is trusted in every situation. He's a player who performs brilliantly in winning and sees many minutes in all pivotal situations, but Boston can not afford for him to have a tough series. His counterpart on the Canucks is Ryan Kesler, who is now the leader for the Conn Smythe Trophy. If Bergeron outplays Kesler, the Bruins' odds of winning the Cup go up significantly.
X-Factor for Canucks:Kevin Bieksa. Outside of Kesler, Bieksa has been the next most vital player for Vancouver. He is a physical blueline presence who has come up with his best when his team has needed it most. Bieksa is a gamer and I say that with the utmost admiration. His big goals, big hits and leadership air that have stood out thus far all have to be in place against the Bruins. If Bieksa continues with his fine postseason, the Canucks have a better than even chance of winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
The Pick: Canucks in six.