By Stu Hackel
This dramatic, nasty and sometimes ugly Stanley Cup Final resumes tonight in Vancouver and the stakes are obvious for both the Canucks and Bruins. If the home team loses, it faces the prospect of traveling back to Boston with the B's having a chance to win the Stanley Cup on home ice, where they crushed the Canucks in two straight games. If the visitors lose, it will halt their mighty momentum and put the Canucks on the verge of the championship.
We ventured a few thoughts on how the series has progressed over the first four games yesterday (If you missed that, here's the link so you can catch up.) and while the series is tied 2-2, it feels more like a 2-0 lead for the Bruins, who sail into Vancouver with the wind at their backs. Whether the Canucks can dig deep and raise the level of their play to match and overcome what the B's threw at them in Games 3 and 4 is the overriding question for everything that will happen tonight.
All of it will play out with a subtext of great ill will. No Stanley Cup Final in recent memory -- and maybe even distant memory -- rivals this one for maliciousness. We wondered if the teams would play with more discipline in Game 4, but that didn't really happen, especially once the outcome was no longer in doubt. As malevolent as the first four games have been with biting, taunting, slashing, cheap shots, late shots, high sticking, slewfooting, diving, embellishing and brawling, it's quite possible that Game 5 could up the ante.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was asked about that yesterday, and he didn't want to make much of it. "Just say boys will be boys, and at times it's emotional out there," he said. "You do things that are sometimes across the line, sometimes on the right side of the line. It's just hockey."
And so it is. But as a showcase for the sport, this angry final might not be a spectacle that the NHL wants. After a strong start, the US TV numbers are trending down (many thanks to Steve Lapore for those figures from his fine Puck the Media blog). While some of that certainly has to do with one team's market not being in the US, the conduct of the series as it has progressed can't be dismissed as a potential factor either. Aggressive and physical play is one thing, venomous is something else. Fans in Boston and Vancouver may love it (good thing those two groups are separated by an entire continent) and some who are elsewhere might, too, but others not so much. In the States, the casual viewer who might tune in could decide instead to watch other less-malignant sports, vampire shows, reality TV or whatever else attracts casual viewers these days.
But we're watching Game 5 and here are some of the things we'll be looking for.
1. The Canucks had two good first periods in Boston, but faded as the games went on. Is that because they had difficulty getting the match-ups they wanted with the long change in the second period? Is it because the physical pounding Boston administered has worn them down and they lose steam after the first 20 or so minutes? Whatever the reason, they played poorly especially in the second periods of Games 3 and 4 and will have to reverse that tonight.
2. The Bruins penalty killers have done an excellent job silencing the Canucks, who are without a goal in their last 15 attempts with the man advantage. That's 26 minutes and 24 seconds without surrendering a goal while shorthanded against a strong power play. The B's PK is rooted in Tim Thomas, of course, but also in winning faceoffs and using the speed of Dan Paille, Gregory Campbell, Patrice Bergeron, Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Brad Marchand to close off the ice available to the Canucks' attack. Vancouver tried to make some adjustments in Game 4, passing the puck better and getting more movement in the zone, but it didn't improve the team's fortunes. It's a critical area of the game, especially if the penalties pile up.
3. The goaltending duel continues to be a major feature of this final, as it is every year. Roberto Luongo faltered the last two games and his glove side has been sussed out by the B's as a weakness, although he's done well on his other vulnerable area: the shot at his feet from sharp angles and behind the goal line. Thomas' aggressive style will continue to be a focal point, if not a flashpoint of confrontation. There is some thought that Thomas has gotten in the heads of the Canucks' shooters, that they are trying to be too fine with their shots and as a result are missing the net. One TV commentator (can't recall who) suggested the Canucks would be better off shooting at Thomas' legs and trying to create rebounds (a tactic favored by Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock), which is sound advice. It's better than missing wide on the blocker or glove-side. The stats show that Canuck shots missed the net 21 times in the last two games compared to 16 for Boston, but the gap seemed much wider, probably because Vancouver has had such a hard time scoring and because so many went behind Luongo. Still, as Vigneault noted in his between-game remarks, the breakdowns in front of Vancouver's netminder have been equally egregious, and that leads to...
4. The play of the Canucks' defense corps. On TSN after Game 4, Ray Ferraro made a strong point (video) that all of Boston's four goals were directly attributed to bad plays by Canuck defensemen. We've discussed the plight of this group daily since Dan Hamhuis went down with an injury and Aaron Rome was inserted in his spot as the shutdown tandem with Kevin Bieksa. Then Rome was suspended for his late hit on Nathan Horton and Vigneault has had to improvise. If and how he uses Keith Ballard after Ballard's very shaky Game 4 is worth watching, as are the declining effectiveness of Bieksa, Alex Edler, Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo. Early indications from the Canucks morning skate point to rookie Chris Tanev taking Ballard's spot.
5. The old cliché goes that to succeed in the playoffs, a team's best players must be its best players. That's happened with Boston, but not Vancouver. The top lines are in stark contrast right now. All of the Bruins' forwards, not just the first line, have been the beneficiaries of the Canucks' poor defending, but with Peverley (and sometimes Michael Ryder) in Horton's spot, there's been no drop-off in production by the B's top line. On the other hand, the Sedin twins have done nothing for the Canucks, managing only six shots in the last two games between them. The Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg tandem has played exceptionally well against Daniel and Henrik, but so did the Bruins' faster depth line forwards, who Claude Julien deployed to disrupt them. Boston will have a harder time getting that matchup as the road team and the Sedins with Alex Burrows might rediscover their game on home ice. That game within the game could matter tonight.
6. The officiating is always worth watching, but the diving and embellishing antics of both teams in this series are making the referees' tough jobs even more difficult. It has gone on throughout the playoffs, from every team that has participated, and it's calling into question the integrity of the competition and the lack of honor among the players who are doing it. Here are a few examples...
...and sadly, it's going to continue as long as teams get the calls, the fakery is not detected, and the two-minute unsportsmanlike penalty is not assessed.
It's cheating but, as Vigneault says, boys will be boys. In this series, everything is legal as long as you don't get caught.