Cup finals preview: Canucks-Bruins
Well, something has to give, right?
The Boston Bruins are in search of their first Stanley Cup title since 1972. The Vancouver Canucks are looking for their first NHL championship since entering the league in 1970. Plus, no Canadian team has won Lord Stanley's prize since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens.
Either way, a long drought will end over the next two weeks.
The Bruins return to the finals for the first time since facing Edmonton in 1990, while the Canucks make their first trip since squaring off against the New York Rangers in 1994. In both years, Mark Messier ruined each team's Cup dreams.
To get to this year's Cup finals, the Bruins and Canucks survived first-round scares and needed seven games plus overtime to move on. But the script diverges in that the Canucks have been serious Cup contenders from day one of this season; they won the Presidents' Trophy as regular-season champs and are the decided favorites entering the Cup finals given their path through the superior Western Conference. The Bruins grew into the role of Cup contender this season and had to answer to critics after last spring's historical meltdown against Philadelphia.
Regardless, they both are competing for hockey's ultimate prize.
1. The Bruins overcome last season's collapse: Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli deserves huge credit here. He didn't want last season's second-round failure against the Flyers to hang over this season like an elephant in the room. So the Bruins made it visible in their season preparation, attacked it head on and talked about overcoming it. Whatever hangover might have existed from that monumental meltdown is long gone, and the B's are a confident squad that played the best hockey in the East over the final two months of the regular season. With their season on the line Friday night at home against Tampa Bay, the Bruins delivered under gigantic pressure. Last season is done with.
2. Special teams: Oh, baby ... is this ever an ugly matchup for the Bruins. They can't score on the power play, and the Canucks are rolling along at a whopping 28.3 percent clip. Yikes, talk about a mismatch. The Bruins and Canucks have near-identical penalty-killing percentages, so that's a draw. It's on the man advantage where the horror show is setting up. The Bruins were able to beat the Lightning despite their porous power play, but that's not going to cut it against the best team in the NHL. The Bruins must figure out their power play or stop Vancouver's. Otherwise, this series will be over before you know it.
3. The Vezina club: Vezina Trophy nominees Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo will see each other again in Las Vegas for the NHL awards show June 22. Thomas likely will win the Vezina after a sensational season, but both goalies enter the Cup finals with the exact same goals-against average (2.29).
After he was shelled by the Blackhawks and pulled twice in the first round, Luongo has settled down and was downright Vezina-like against the Sharks in the last two games of the Western Conference finals, stopping 87 of 91 shots. Thomas has single-handedly won games for the Bruins in these playoffs, but also lost some by allowing shaky goals. The Lightning got to him for four or more goals three times in the Eastern Conference finals. But Thomas stood tall when his team needed him most Friday night in Game 7. It's shaping up to be an interesting goalie battle in the Cup finals.
4. The Most Hated Man in the Hockey World: Is there a beer commercial here waiting to happen? Well, perhaps the two most disliked players (by other teams) in the playoffs are facing off in the Stanley Cup finals -- Boston's Brad Marchand and Vancouver's Ryan Kesler. The difference between the two is Kesler is a world-class player who is in contention for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Marchand has had a terrific rookie season as a two-way winger who kills penalties and scores timely goals, but he's a long way from Kesler's level.
Still, what they have in common is driving the opponent batty. The Sharks, privately, could not stand Kesler. OK, so Joe Thornton went public with that one. Likewise, Marchand has done a wonderful job of getting under the other team's skin this postseason. Let's see who gets the last word when the Cup is awarded.
5. The two coaches with Habs University degrees: Claude Julien of the Bruins and Alain Vigneault of the Canucks are both French-Canadian men who cut their NHL head-coaching teeth with the Montreal Canadiens. Talk about baptism by fire. As a result, the coaches have thick skin, which has served them well because, at times, they have been under fire in their current markets. Their links run deeper -- both men also coached the Gatineau Olympiques (Hull Olympiques back then) in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In short, nothing either coach will do in this series will surprise the other.
• Zdeno Chara versus the Sedin twins: Daniel and Henrik Sedin entered the Western Conference finals under siege by fans and media in Vancouver after struggling to put up numbers in the second round against Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and the Nashville Predators. Five games later against San Jose, no one was complaining after the star-studded twins put up a combined 18 points. They're rolling entering the Cup finals, and Big Z will have his hands full on Boston's blue line. How this matchup plays out will have a great bearing on who wins the Stanley Cup.
• Vancouver: Luongo. Teammate Keith Ballard said it best recently when he complained to us that every time his team loses, Luongo takes the blame, and when his team wins, Luongo never gets any praise. Luongo's playoffs got off to a brutal start in the opening six games against Chicago (he didn't even start Game 6 after getting pulled in Games 4 and 5). But since Game 6 against the Hawks, Luongo has gone 9-3 with a .935 save percentage and 1.88 GAA, and was the reason the Sharks didn't get to make the West finals a longer series. But until Luongo wins a Stanley Cup, his critics will never let off.
• Boston: Tomas Kaberle. We're not going to call Boston's trade-deadline acquisition of Kaberle a total disaster, but it sure hasn't provided much. Julien doesn't seem to trust Kaberle a whole lot in 5-on-5 play. And Kaberle's natural skill, manning the power play, hasn't translated in Boston. A big Stanley Cup finals by the soft-spoken Czech would do wonders for his July 1 UFA future, not to mention his desire to win his first Cup ring.
• The West is best. The Canucks will complete their 40th anniversary season in epic fashion with a win over the Bruins to capture the franchise's first NHL championship. Canucks in seven.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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