It's been a spectacular NHL playoff season that has flown by too fast. But that means we're down to the best time of year when the top two franchises face off for the Stanley Cup.
The Boston Bruins, back in the final for the first time since 1990 when they lost to the Oilers, have been led with a balanced attack and a Vezina caliber goalie who has been his best when his team has needed him most. Off-season acquisition Nathan Horton has been the team's hero on a number of occasions, the latest coming in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.
The Vancouver Canucks, returning to this stage for the first time since 1994 when the New York Rangers broke British Columbia's heart, have been the league's best all season long. Led by the twin duo of Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the Canucks have also benefitted from Ryan Kesler's playoff explosion and Roberto Luongo's realization of a long-awaited potential.
With Game 1 starting Wednesday, it all comes down to this. Vancouver or Boston? When all is said and done, who will be lifting the Cup in celebration: Henrik Sedin or Zdeno Chara?
Vancouver - 0-1-0(1 GF, 3 GA)
Boston - 1-0-0 (3 GF, 1 GA)
PLAYOFF POWER PLAY
Vancouver - 17-for-60 (28.3 per cent - 3rd in NHL)
Boston - 5-for-61 (8.2 percent - 14th in NHL)
Vancouver - 58-for-72 (80.6 per cent - 8th in NHL)
Boston - 50-for-63 (79.4 percent - 9th in NHL)
2011 PLAYOFF MVP
Vancouver, Ryan Kesler: From scoring big goals to shutting down big guns, Kesler has been a lot of everything during this post-season. After a slow start offensively in the first round against Chicago, he had seven goals and 14 points in 11 games in Rounds 2 and 3.
Boston, Tim Thomas: The veteran goalie isn’t coming close to producing the consistently stingy numbers he did in the regular season, which is somewhat odd, but he is providing the Bruins with clutch goaltending that is at times spectacular.
WHY THEY’RE HERE
Vancouver: Because they are proving the pundits who claim they are the deepest team in the NHL right. They’re getting production from all four lines and in a big way from their defense. When one facet of their game is lagging, others have stepped up with enormous contributions.
Boston: Because they got hot at the right time and took advantage of a decidedly weak Eastern Conference. Like the Canucks, the Bruins have formidable depth and goaltending and while prime timers such as Milan Lucic have struggled, lesser lights have been key contributors.
The Canucks have been en fuego on the power play. In fact, you could certainly argue it was the deciding factor in their Western Conference final victory over the San Jose Sharks. The Bruins, meanwhile, were dreadful on the power play in the first round and have upgraded to pathetic since then. Both teams kill penalties relatively well. As good as the Canucks power play is, it has surrendered three shorthanded goals in the playoffs. Edge: Vancouver.
Beyond their top players, Vancouver’s offensive thrust has inexplicably dried up in the playoffs, particularly when the Canucks play five-on-five. The Bruins, by contrast, have been far more offensively dangerous this spring than anyone thought they would be and are getting scoring from a variety of different sources. How often do you see a team score at a better clip in the playoffs than it does in the regular season? Edge: Boston.
The Canucks are, for the most part, getting some outstanding defensive play from the back end, but the big edge for Vancouver is their defensemen are getting heavily involved in the offensive aspect of the game. Like the regular season, the Bruins are giving up a ton of shots per game and putting an unhealthy reliance on their goaltending. Edge: Vancouver
The much-maligned Roberto Luongo still looks shaky at times, but he’s been getting stronger as the playoffs progress, to the point where he was a major difference maker in the San Jose series. Tim Thomas has alternated between brilliant and brutal, sometimes within the space of a couple of minutes and there is no doubt he has not been near as good or consistent in the playoffs as he was in the regular season. But the thing the Bruins like most about Thomas is that when they really, really need a save, he has been there to give it to them. Edge: Vancouver.
If there were an award for the most improved coach in the NHL, Canucks bench boss Alain Vigneault might win it. Vigneault has not been afraid to lean heavily on his top players and let his fourth-liners watch from the bench if he feels that will give his team an edge. People were predicting Claude Julien would be fired when the Bruins went down 2-0 to Montreal in the first round, but his ability to match lines and defense pairings has been a huge factor in Boston’s success. Edge: Even.
So far, both teams met their greatest adversity in the first round. But the Canucks have had a much harder road, facing much more difficult teams, on their way to the Stanley Cup final and have persevered, which will serve them well in the last round. Since they slayed the beast that was the Chicago Blackhawks, they’ve been playing with more swagger and authority than ever before.
When we were forecasting our Cup winner while doing our annual THN Yearbook last summer, we chose the Canucks, then changed our minds to the Bruins the next day, then went back to the Canucks the day after that. Indecisive? Yes. Geniuses? Yes again. Vancouver in six.
POLL: Who will win the Stanley Cup?
THN PUCK PANEL - STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper