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
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
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
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