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May 30, 2011 :: 3:41pm ET
The Cup Comes Home
For the first time in eighteen years, the Stanley Cup's summer vacation will start in Canada.

LOS ANGELES, CA -- What started in October soon ends with a rush in June. In a season equally full of drama and controversy, the approximately 1,200 games contested haven't cheated fans unless you live in Atlanta, or perhaps Columbus.

We've seen the emergence of the Nashville Predators, the magnificence of Pavel Datsyuk, and the long awaited playoff toughness of Joe Thornton, who valiantly gave his best playoff performance while hiding a separated shoulder.

We've seen the further damage concussions can cause to these great group of athletes, debated the controversy of what proper punishment for bad acts should be and all agreed that Atlanta is no place for hockey.

Though we struggled through those dreary January Monday night matchups that pitted the Wild against the Islanders, we got the ultimate playoff payoff for our toiling. We've had rallies from 3-nil deficits in series, 4-love leads that weren't safe, Sean Bergenheim doing a fabulous John Druce imitation and the Sedins answering finally answering all the questions after a decade of doubt.

As the Memorial Day is celebrated stateside, two talented and weary combatants will to the ice to trying to capture victories thirteen thru sixteen that will have the most prized trophy in sports either vacationing by the Back Bay or Victoria Island. It's been almost forty years since it's seen the rocky New England shores and has yet to spend its summer in the Pacific Northwest.

So while the big timers at the NHL offices in New York would have much preferred the Detroit Red Wings in the Cup Finals, a matchup between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks offer a lot more than oodles of frequent fliers miles for the media covering all the games. Having an Original Six, major market team in Boston will allow the history and images of the old Boston Garden, Bobby Orr and Fenway Park to be used ad nauseum. The beauty of the setting behind Rogers Centre will help the Vancouver tourist bureau endlessly but that could be offset by the antics of the notorious and perhaps far too famous Green Men, stationed hard by the penalty box, ready to distract and disarm the opposition at the drop of a spandex suit.

The CBC will remind Canadian viewers endlessly of the 40 years of failure in Van City (only two Finals appearance in franchise history and the only team to lose to the Rangers since 1940). I'm sure we'll see Trevor Linden and hopefully Markus Naslund joins the party too. And about that party, proprietors along Granville Street are likely boarding up windows and reinforcing structures now in anticipation of the end of the series, regardless of the winner.

The entertainment value of the series shouldn't suffer degradation from what we’ve experienced over the first three rounds. The disparate personalities of the two net minders will set the tone; from the 'I'm just happy to be here, ask me anything' personality Tim Thomas to 'I've just gotta win this one, don't ask me about Game 6 Chicago' of Roberto Luongo, you've got both ends of the spectrum.

As dissimilar as their nature is their path to get to the cusp of a championship. Thomas, the Flint Michigan native was drafted in 1994 in a round that no longer by team that only conjures up memories of the Statsny brothers (9th round, Quebec Nordiques).

His rise to prominence didn't happen until his mid-30s after most thought he'd never return to the NHL when he signed with the Swedish Elite League in 2000. Never giving up on his dream of being an NHL star, he returned to both great accomplishment (a Vezina Trophy win in 2008-09) and riches (he'll earn $5 million a year until his 39th birthday in 2013). To his core, he remains the affable, approachable player who toiled for in posts like Birmingham, Alabama in the ECHL.

Approximately 200 feet at the other end of the rink for the puck drop of Game 1 stands Thomas' polar opposite in Luongo. The fourth overall pick of the Islanders in 1997 has been tagged with that 'never achieving potential' tag for the better part of a decade. Saddled with the burden of being a high profile player for two downtrodden franchises that are the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers, he arrived in Vancouver a twice traded goalie who never played in, much less win, a playoff game. He delivered the goods in his first season, winning a franchise record 47 games, getting the second round of the playoffs but he and his mates were easy fodder for the eventual champion, the Anaheim then-Mighty Ducks. With a stable force in net and the likes of Daniel and Henrik Sedin patrolling the offense zone, it was just a matter of time before you'd have to dial area code 604 to find the keepers of the Cup.

But you know it didn't roll like that.

There was the groin injury that took away 27 games of his 2008-09 season, then the burden of signing a mind-boggling (and likely salary cap circumventing these days) thirteen year extension that made the albatross around his neck grow larger with each playoff failure. Last season didn't start well as an early season rib injury took away a half dozen games and whispers started that perhaps Luongo might be the second best goalie on the team. Have to love the life of a backup goalie, eh Corey Schneider?

Yet, another turn in Luongo's professional life took a turn and this time for the better, courtesy of a most unlikely source, a member of the archrival Red Wings. As the 2010 Winter Olympics commenced, it was assumed that future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur would man the crease as the Canadian contingent strode for Gold. Even though the Games were set in Vancouver, the likely scenario had Roberto tuning up his second fiddle on the pine and not much more for the fortnight. As we all know, the heavily favored quintet experienced far more turbulence on their ride than expected and Head Coach Mike Babcock changed pilots in mid-flight, asking Luongo to guide them to a safe landing on the Golden runway.

If there was ever a time for Roberto to shrink in the spotlight, this was the moment. With the eyes of an entire nation upon him, he matched his U.S. counterpart Ryan Miller save-for-save and left the arena that night with Gold around his neck. The accomplishment spurred him on to a stellar 2010-11 regular season, recording his lowest goals against average and highest save percentage of his career. While not approaching his career high in wins due to the fact that backup Schneider was available in relief, he garnered a Vezina nomination that was disputed only because of the ease at which the Canucks settled into the top regular season spot in the NHL.

With matters settled through the first 82 matches, Luongo had plenty of opportunities to extend his track record of playoff failure but as the calendar hits June 1, it hasn't happened. After being embarrassingly scratched for Game 6 against Chicago in the first round, he had the perfect excuse to take a dump for Game 7. He chose to shrug that off along with a late tying shorthanded goal by Jonathan Toews to win the series. He was challenged by both the Predators and Sharks and his exclamation point was the 54 save performance (including 20 in 30 minutes of death) that elevated Vancouver to their first Finals berth since Mark Messier got the best of them in 1994.

And that's why it stands to be a short Stanley Cup Finals; since the madness started in mid-April, the Canucks were without question the deepest team of the sixteen finalists.

The first three rounds have proven it, the Sedins haven't disappeared (Henrik's Game 4 helper to Alex Burrows was Datsyukian) and the defense has been healthier than the regular season. Nashville figured they had an edge in between the pipes with Pekka Renne and that the Big Bad Beard of Shea Weber would knock the Vancouver house down but all it got them was a six game elimination.

Those going with the Bruins claim they have a major advantage in size and will pound the smaller Canucks into submission. Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic and the crew will go to work on the Sedins and will take advantage of the lack of size on Vancouver's blueline is the party line above North Station. If they do that, the Bruins deserve to win because it will be the first time in four series they've imposed their will; they've outlasted teams not hammered then into submission. The physical dominance certainly wasn't present against the far smaller Canadiens, needing a huge rally from 0-2 to get to the next round and I haven't seen any of their competition fail to take an opening period faceoff in fear of physical harm.

The only real consistent physical play is at the end of losing matches when it's guaranteed Lucic throws a dirty hit inside of the game last 90 seconds. Short of a Chara repeat performance of throwing someone into a turnbuckle, it's unlikely the physical games is a major factor in this series.
So, if not the physical, then what does this championship series hinge on?

Though the Bruins are every bit deserving of their berth, their resume truly ain't the best. They defeated a sixth seed that was a essentially a one man team (Montreal/Carey Price), a two seed that had a clueless' coach when it came to goaltending and missing their most dominant player (Philadelphia/Chris Pronger) and a five seed in Tampa that possessed less than average goaltending and a defense that draws no comparison to the 1971 Canadiens. They were life and death in two series and only stellar work in the pipes by Thomas in two Game 7s have them on the cusp of ending a drought that predates disco music.

While we think that Thomas is just that good to steal a game in this series, that's all he'll be able to do. If he plans to pilfer one, our advice is to do so Wednesday in Vancouver because the odds will shift significantly if Thomas can pull off the heist. Teams that win Game 1 of a Cup Final go on to win the series a whopping over 77 percent of the time (55-16) and Vancouver has won seven straight game ones, hence our encouragement of a sense of urgency to the Eastern champs.

We agree with most experts that the lack of offensive firepower for the Bruins will do them in; amazingly they won three rounds with a power play execution rate of 8.2 percent. While Boston backers will state that there's been little consequence of this failure, juxtaposing the Canucks 28.3 conversion rate shows the true gap in offensive talent between the two. David Krejci has emerged from anonymity and Nathan Horton has showed that GM Peter Chiarelli was dead on with his bet of bringing a talented player with no playoff experience in the mix but there's not much more ammunition left after that. Patrice Bergeron has made a great comeback and given a professional performance, you want Brad Marchand on your team because he appears to be a winner but when the super maligned Tomas Kaberle is your leading scorer from the blueline, it doesn't matter how big your team is. I just can't see the likes of Chris Kelly, Michael Ryder and Rich Peverley, (much less Lucic who only netted 3 over 18) giving them the supplemental offense needed against a club who gets a further boost by the miraculous return of Manny Malhotra, their best faceoff man (61.7% in the regular season) and one who Krejci will get a steady diet of in the dot.

Perhaps Malhotra's return is the final point of karma in this so far magical year in Vancouver. They've slew old dragons, shaken off failures of the past and enter Wednesday's game essentially the same team we saw when we made them our Stanley Cup pick in Stockholm last October (there's video to prove it). There's absolutely no reason to get off the horse now and we only wonder how fans in Toronto and Montreal will take the Cup coming back to Canada, but not to their city.

Canucks in 5. See you at the NHL Awards in Vegas.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.


 

 

Archives:
May 07, 2011 Jumbo Flavor
Apr. 05, 2011 Purple Rain
Mar. 17, 2011 Ya gotta have Hart
Mar. 06, 2011 Canucks don't care
Feb. 27, 2011 Trade Deadline: Tracking the West
Feb. 15, 2011 Same Merde, Different Day
Jan. 02, 2011 Kings of Queens?
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