Monday, May 30, 2011

Broons and 'Nucks: A Cup Finals Preview

Just one series to go, folks. Let’s cut to the chase and take a look at the line-by line matchups for the 2011 Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks:

Sedin-Sedin-Burrows vs. Chara-Seidenberg

Strength versus strength here in a battle between Vancouver’s vaunted first-line forwards, including the wonder-twins, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and Boston’s powerful top-line defenders, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. It will be a massive tactical battle on par with some of the great clashes in Stanley Cup history. The only thing that could keep these heavyweights from sparring is the off-chance that B’s coach Claude Julien makes the decision to split the pair up to deal with the multi-line threat that the ‘Nucks represent…but the Lightning essentially provided the same challenge and Julien stuck to his guns, so I don’t see it happening. The Sedin twins have been unspectacular by their standards for much of this postseason, yet have still put up a combined 10 goals and 37 points (more than half of which have come on the powerplay)…not too shabby. Alexandre Burrows has been solid with a 7-7-14 line.

On the Bruins’ side, Chara is Chara, a dominant force at gap control, physical play and all-around defensive acumen. His partner, Seidenberg has been a revelation this postseason, delivering an immense performance as Boston’s #2. He hurdled past Eric Brewer for the league lead in blocked shot with 55, is top-10 in hits, leads the NHL in total time-on-ice, and has been on the ice for more of his team’s goals than any defender in the league—by a very wide margin (30 to 24 over Chara… he’s been on the ice for more than half of Boston’s goals).This is one matchup that could go either way – and I’ll guess the result will change from game to game, but look for Boston to win this matchup more times than not. Slight Advantage – Boston

Raymond-Kesler-Higgins vs. Boychuk-Ference

This is the matchup that will make or break the Bruins. Assuming Julien doesn’t separate his Dynamic Duo of Chara and Seidenberg, it will be up to Andy Ference and Johnny Boychuk to stop Vancouver’s second line which is centered by the game-changing two-way forward Ryan Kesler. I don’t expect the Bruins to stop him, I only hope they contain him and minimize his impact. Boychuk is one tough customer and Ference doesn’t back down, but it’s hard to believe these two match up well against Kesler & Crew. Kesler’s linemates Mason Raymond and Chris Higgins aren’t exactly fearsome with only fifteen points between them, but they’re both talented and speedy enough to challenge the Bruins consistently. Significant Advantage – Vancouver

Torres-Lapierre-Hansen vs. Kaberle-McQuaid

Vancouver’s third line is not particularly explosive. With twelve points between them, they’ve mainly held serve as defensive stalwarts. I don’t see Tomas Kaberle and Adam McQuaid having significant problems keeping them in check. The real question is how well the Canuck’s third line plays against the Bruins scoring lines. They have been really effective in handling opponents’ best threats (Torres, Lapierre and Hansen are all plus players and among Vancouver’s top performers in +/-), opening up the ‘Nucks top two lines to go all-out offensively. I give the slight edge to Boston here because of Kaberle’s potential offensive production….I think he’ll put up at least 5 assists in this series, finally somewhat vindicating Peter Chiarelli’s trade. Slight Advantage – Boston

Lucic-Krejci-Horton vs. Hamhuis-Bieksa

Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis have been fantastic this postseason, each with impressive +/- and point production. Bieksa has been particularly amazing, leading all NHL defensemen in 5-on-5 goals against per 60 minutes as well as scoring more goals than any NHL-blueliner whilst consistently being tasked with stopping an opponent’s top forwards. The Vancouver D-men certainly have a difficult task ahead of them, but after handling the likes of Thornton, Marleau, Kane and Toews; how difficult could the Bruins’ top line be?

David Krejci might be playing the best hockey of his young career at an all-too critical time. With sixteen points and nine goals in the past two series, the B’s number one pivot has staked a claim to the playoff goal lead, and is closing in on his regular-season total of thirteen…in 75 games. He’s scored more game-winners than anyone else this postseason with four. Nathan Horton has been a wonderful story, accumulating an impressive line of 8-9-17 with three game-winners—including two overtime scores and two game-seven series clinchers (as the first player in NHL history to accomplish this). He’s defined himself as a player who performs in the clutch seems like a steal after being acquired in the offseason for Dennis Wideman and a 2010 first. Milan Lucic has had modest production compared to his line-mates with only three goals and nine points, but his physical play and seemingly indomitable will has inspired his teammates and made up for his meager scoreline. It will be curious to see how this will all play out—Hamhuis and Bieksa are not undersized by any standards, but Horton and Lucic are experts at using their size to initiate the cycle and maintain puck control. I don’t know how long Krejci and Horton will be able to keep up their torrid pace, and they might be going up against some excellent defensive forwards, but you have to imagine the B’s will hold the edge in this matchup. Moderate Advantage – Boston

Marchand-Bergeron-Recchi vs. Edler-Ehrhoff

This projects to be another situation where Vancouver is evidently superior., this is a devastating pair of puck moving, intelligent defensemen. While not the most physical pair, both have the capacity to play with an edge and win defensive battles. Boston’s second line forwards saw a significant dip in production during the Eastern Conference Finals, totaling three goals combined. Mark Recchi hasn’t sniffed the scoresheet since the Conference Semifinals. Bergeron and Marchand have been productive otherwise, with ten goals and twenty-seven points between them. Aside from Manny Malhotra, Bergeron significantly outclasses all other pivots in this series at the dot, and he’ll need to continue to provide excellent defense and zone-control with his linemates if they continue to fail to produce. With the offensive potency of the Canuck d-men, Vancouver must be expected to win this battle, but I never count out Bergeron. Moderate Advantage – Boston

Ryder-Kelly-Seguin vs. Salo-Ballard/Tanev/Rome/Alberts

If the Bruins are to win this series, they’re going to need their secondary scoring to step up. Their third line projects to be a far more effective offensive threat than Vancouver’s. What remains to be seen is if the myriad defenseman who could fill the ‘Nucks’ final pairing. Christian Ehrhoff and Keith Ballard are the pair I believe will end up filling those slots, if Ehrhoff has indeed recovered from a shoulder injury he suffered against San Jose… but Aaron Rome is an equally plausible replacement if he’s healthy. Ehrhoff is one of the leaders in playoff production from the point, but none of the others are especially talented blue-line scorers, but they are all strong defensemen to fill the number 6 slot.

Chris Kelly and Michael Ryder have each put up eleven points, which is solid production from lower-line players. Tyler Seguin’s six point outburst in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals made him an instant superhero in the Boston Hockey community, but while his point totals haven’t increased in five games, his play has been nothing short of excellent, earning nearly fifteen minutes of ice time during game seven. He will have to score, along with his linemates if the Bruins have optimism for a Cup victory. Despite the challenges, I feel the Bruins will come out on top in this matchup, Seguin will push the Canuck defense and create plenty of opportunities. Moderate Advantage – Boston

Paille/Thornton-Campbell-Peverley vs. Bolduc-Hodgson/Malhotra-Glass

Without Thornton, this line’s advantage in physicality is lessened, but their speed and offensive capabilities are more than a match for Vancouver’s fourth liners. If Manny Malhotra comes back, it gives Vancouver a dominant faceoff man to compete with Bergeron…other than that the ‘Nucks don’t come close to matching up with Boston here. Don’t expect either fourth line to pay major minutes, but Boston’s will get more playtime and be more productive. Significant Advantage – Boston

Vancouver PP vs. Boston PK

Just like the series with Tampa, Boston’s PK finds itself up against a dominant powerplay anchored by an extremely talented first unit. The powerplay is Vancouver’s bread and butter, 35% of their offense has come off the PP during this postseason. The Bruins managed to play decently against an equally strong PP in Tampa except for a one-game outburst. Vancouver’s power play numbers are somewhat inflated due to having the fortune of three 5-on-3 goals and facing the 24th and 25th worst regular-season penalty kills in San Jose and Chicago (whereas Tampa had succeeded against the 1st and 2nd best PKs before meeting Boston). The Bruins are a superior 5-on-5 team and must resort to being disciplined to prevent the Canucks from utilizing their most dangerous weapon, but there is no doubt who owns the edge. Significant Advantage – Vancouver

Boston PP vs. Vancouver PK

The Bruins fortunes on the powerplay are positioned to turn for the better with the improved play of Tomas Kaberle and the fact that Vancouver’s postseason penalty kill is the worst they’ve faced. If the Canucks play sloppily and give the B’s many early opportunities to break out of their PP slump, the Bruins could turn it around. However, at this point it’s a safe bet to assume Vancouver will be able to at worst minimize the damage Boston could manage with the man advantage. Expect at least a few goals from the B’s but it would be truly shocking to see their powerplay flourish in the Cup Finals after so many problems. Moderate Advantage – Vancouver

Tim Thomas vs Roberto Luongo

This series is certainly setting up as a goaltender battle for the ages. Two of the most skilled goalies of the past decade (and 2 of the 3 Vezina finalists this year) will duke it out for all the marbles. Because the balance of talent in the teams’ skaters so significantly favors Vancouver, if Luongo minimizes his mistakes, many believe the Canucks are a shoo-in for the championship. On the other hand, Boston’s inconsistently dazzling Thomas must be excellent for the Bruins to have a chance. Their significantly contrasting styles can be over-simplified as size, athleticism and method (Luongo) vs. agility, aggressiveness and drive (Thomas). In a seven-game series, give me the goalie whose desire and resolute will to be victorious trumps precision of form. Thomas is my guy here, by a hair. For the Bruins to win, he’ll need to play the best hockey of his life. Slight Advantage – Boston


The Bruins are largely without injury, if you don’t count Marc Savard at this point (and no one really does, sorry Marc). Steven Kampfer is supposedly at or nearly- ready to play following a late-season leg injury. However it is unlikely that he will be called upon unless more than one Bruins defender goes down. Vancouver, on the other hand has several defenders coming back from injuries that cost them significant playing time in the San Jose series. Aaron Rome and Christian Ehrhoff will likely be available for game one. Winger Mikael Samuelsson is out for the season following surgery to fix an abdominal/sports hernia issue. In a surprise announcement, injured center Manny Malhotra has been cleared to play following his nearly miraculous recovery from a horrific eye injury suffered towards the end of the regular season. Malhotra gives the Canucks more strength down the middle and a devastating weapon at the faceoff dot. Still, Boston’s lack of any injuries to their starting lineup gives them a slight edge but Malhotra’s amazingly rapid recovery and return will give the Canucks a significant morale boost. Slight Advantage – Vancouver


Cup coaches Alain Vigneault and Claude Julien share much personal history: They were both head coaches of the Q’s Hull Olympiques, were teammates on the minor-league Salt Lake Golden Eagles, and most recently were both Head Coaches of the NHL’s Canadiens. This is the first time in the history of the NHL that two French-Canadiens have skippered both franchises heading to the Cup Finals. Both coaches stress defensive responsibility but Alain is regarded as a much more talented offensive and special-teams mind. However, with the pressure squarely on Vigneault whose team was expected (perhaps demanded) to get this far, Claude can focus on managing matchups and coming up with an effective strategy to counter the powerful Canucks. Slight Advantage — Boston


Vancouver native son, Milan Lucic, is returning to the city where he is so fondly remembered for helping the WHLs Vancouver Giants win their most recent Memorial Cup title in 2007. While his postseason has been far from stellar and his enemy combatant status might make him a villain to some Nuck Heads, most in Vancouver still recall “The Shift” and his three years there with high regard.

Both the Canucks and the Bruins are among the NHL’s most championship starved franchises, with the Canucks having not won a Cup since their inception in 1970 and the Bruins having failed to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup since their 1972 championship season. Both Boston and Vancouver are cities eager to see a return for sport’s greatest trophy.

The pressure is certainly on Vancouver, owners of the 2011 President’s Trophy, with the best record in the regular season, whereas few pundits picked Boston to make it to the third round, let alone contend for the franchise’s sixth Stanley Cup. Vancouver has the added pressure of trying to become the first Canadian franchise to win the Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. With the Sedin twins playing more like the Art Ross trophy winners they were during the past two NHL regular seasons and embattled goaltender Roberto Luongo returning to the form that earned him a spot as one of the Vezina Trophy finalists and not the hapless netminder we saw in Vancouver’s first-round series versus Chicago. The Canucks’ talent for and willingness to utilize the dive against a physically imposing Boston team may give them opportunities on the PP that could shift the balance of the Finals. Slight Advantage — Vancouver


There are those out there in hockeyland, analysts whose acumen far exceed my own, who say this series will not make it past game five and that Vancouver’s potent offense and daunting special-teams play will be too much for the Bruins, who will be quickly overpowered. However, the Claude Julien-era Bruins have never lost a playoff series in fewer than seven games despite talent mismatches which greatly exceeded any we will see in this series. There is no question that Vancouver possesses the three most dangerous offensive talents in this series, and that their powerplay prowess might be too much for the B’s to handle. I see matchups the Bruins can exploit, like their considerable size mismatch on the first line and their powerful defensive pair of Chara and Seidenberg may be able to manhandle the Sedins enough to mitigate their outstanding abilities. The fact that they are considerable underdogs might actually feed into the Bruins’ perception that they’re being disrespected and propel them with passion to a series victory.

All things considered I think we’re in for a surprise. I anticipate Boston dropping the first two in Vancouver on the backs of the ‘Nucks vaunted man advantage. The Bruins will ride an increasingly unbeatable Tim Thomas for two wins at home, sending the series back to British Colombia knotted at two games apiece. A third and final OT winner from Nathan Horton will put the B’s one win away headed back to Beantown. Tim Thomas will rise to the occasion in game six, stopping all shots faced for his second shutout of the series (and fourth of the postseason) to secure the Stanley Cup for the Boston Bruins. Thomas’ performances will earn him the Conn Smythe Trophy as Boston beats Vancouver 4 games to 2.

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