Our storylines to watch in Cup finals
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun break down the top five storylines for the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins heading into Wednesday's Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals:
1. The Sedin twins
Daniel and Henrik Sedin were under fire entering the Western Conference finals, having been largely muted by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators in the second round. Well, that's old news now. The twins combined for 18 points in the five-game set against San Jose and have worked their way back into Conn Smythe Trophy talk.
Throughout the Nashville series, they kept their cool, kept their heads down and kept the same work ethic. One thing the twins often talk about is the hardship they went through when they entered the league a decade ago and struggled to become elite players. It has given them the ability to forge through adversity.
"We're happy we went through those years because it makes it easier now. It helped us a lot," Daniel said Tuesday. "We've been through a lot of tough years together. We've been getting criticized. We learned to analyze our game. It's not up to the media and fans to analyze our game; we can do that ourselves. We know if we don't score, we'll get criticized. That's the way it is. But for us, we can still feel like we played a good game even if we don't score."
The twins' attitude through that Nashville series rubbed off on their teammates.
"When your best players are your most humble players, two of the biggest team guys, with Hank and Danny, it sets the tone for everybody and that's the way it's been all year," Canucks blueliner Keith Ballard said.
The twins will have their hands full with Boston's Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. The key for the twins, along with linemate Alex Burrows, will be to keep their feet moving and use their speed and agility to make it as hard as possible on the Bruins' top defensive pairing to contain them. Look for the twins and Burrows to try quick passes in the offensive zone to maintain a cycle.
2. Steady Luongo
Roberto Luongo's playoffs didn't start out all that well. He got shelled by Chicago in Games 4 and 5 of the first round. Then, he didn't even start Game 6. But after his sensational Game 7 performance against the Blackhawks, he has sported a sparkling .935 save percentage.
He stopped 87 of 91 shots in the final two games against San Jose and is on top of his game entering the Cup finals, but he downplayed that his confidence began with his Game 7 win over Chicago.
"I felt good even in the Chicago series," he said Tuesday. "Obviously, I had a couple of games where things didn't go that well. I think as a group we didn't play our best hockey those two games, myself included in that. But the first three games, I felt good. And Game 7, we saw what happened. So I've felt good the whole playoffs except for maybe those two games."
We might all look back at coach Alain Vigneault's gutsy decision to start Cory Schneider over Luongo in Game 6 and wonder whether that wasn't the mental break Luongo needed to reset his focus.
"I think Roberto's been real consistent for us all year long. He's always been the guy," Vigneault said Tuesday. "What happened in Game 6, obviously we had lost momentum, and Chicago had a tremendous amount of momentum going their way. Between coaches and management, we talked about making maybe a change there. ... I think that changed the momentum of that series.
"We should have won [Game 6]. We outplayed Chicago. I think the whole organization, players and coaches and management, were confident that in Game 7, we'd get the job done."
Canucks fans haven't embraced Luongo the past few years, but his teammates have never lost faith.
"I think he's just been awesome all year," Ballard said. "He's a guy that you watch him and it never looks spectacular. He makes the amazing saves when he has to, but his positioning I think is so good that pucks just hit him. That's not because he's lucky and that's not because the other team has bad shooters; it's because he's so good at getting himself in the right position."
Whether it's fair or not, Luongo won't get his critics off his back until he wins the big one. He's four wins away from that.
3. The deep end
There isn't a Nicklas Lidstrom or Chara among them, but there is a secret weapon the Vancouver Canucks possess as they pursue their first Stanley Cup: a defensive cadre that is as deep as any in the NHL.
Even when top defenseman Christian Ehrhoff was injured in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, the Canucks never missed a beat. Ehrhoff will return for Wednesday's Cup finals opener and said the team's depth has been key to the team's success from the beginning of the season.
"It's been huge for us. The last couple of years, we've always been plagued with injuries on the back end," Ehrhoff said. "That's something [GM] Mike Gillis addressed by bringing in a lot of guys, and we got 10, 11 guys that all can play in the top six, so when a guy is missing games to injury, we don't miss a beat. We fill that spot right in."
Gillis said building a solid blue line was his top priority when taking over the post.
"I spent three years trying to get the best defense we could assemble so we could play any style of game," Gillis said. "We wanted puck-moving defensemen who could join the rush. That was the style of game we decided upon."
At this stage of the season, having such balance has been key in dealing with injuries and staying fresh during a long playoff run.
4. Under pressure
Regardless of whether you believe the Canucks carry the weight of a nation on their shoulders as they attempt to become the first Canadian team to win a Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993, the fact that it is a point of discussion tells you just how much attention there is on the Canucks across the country.
Within the city of Vancouver, fans are going to live and die with every goal, every win and every loss.
"This city is great. I think it's great," Canucks defenseman Alexander Edler said. "I think everyone loves playing here with the fans here and how much they all care and how much they want it. So I think it's just a boost for us to have our fans behind us."
But does he feel the weight of a nation on his shoulders, especially since the Canucks have not won a Cup since coming into the league in 1970?
"No, I don't think so. Not that way," he said.
Still, it will take a great resolve not to notice the greater discussion about this team's place in the pantheon of Canadian hockey. Even the debate over whether the Canucks represent Canada or whether there is an equal amount of resentment in other Canadian cities has been given air in the days leading up to this series.
One thing is for certain -- no one in the Bruins' dressing room has had to answer questions about whether they represent the Stanley Cup hopes and dreams of an entire nation. Maybe it's something, maybe not.
5. The power hour
If you want to look at one statistic that told the story of the Western Conference finals, consider this -- Vancouver scored nine power-play goals in its five-game series victory over the San Jose Sharks. Those nine goals represented almost half of the 20 goals the team scored in the series.
Daniel Sedin leads the way for the Canucks with five power-play markers this spring, and Ryan Kesler has four. But the Canucks like to share the wealth with the man advantage, as eight players have struck on the power play this spring. Defenseman Sami Salo, for instance, has three.
"It was good in the regular season, too," Sedin said. "We've been scoring some timely goals, have two really good groups going out there. If we don't score, we have a second group that's equally as good. I think that's the key to having a good power play."
What we've seen so far in these playoffs from Tim Thomas is the ability to be downright out of this world while also allowing the odd soft goal; but, in the end, when the Bruins have needed him most, he's been as clutch as ever.
"I often bring up Grant Fuhr," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said Tuesday. "You've seen him in the past win series, win games, sometimes win games by letting in five goals, but making seven [outstanding] saves. Tim has shown us a lot of that. I've seen the comments after these games ... where he may have let in two or three soft ones. Every time, he'll come back and there will be a clutch time at the end of the game where he'll make two or three terrific saves that will win the game for us.
"Generally speaking, I would characterize his game for these playoffs as outstanding. You're going to see goals here or there, but as you know, he's a competitive competitor. He wants to win."
Thomas, the odds-on favorite to win a second Vezina Trophy, needs to have his best series of the playoffs for the B's to have a chance to upset the favored Canucks. Quite frankly, he needs to steal a game or two.
Thomas epitomizes the underdog story. His well-documented journey through Finland to the NHL waiver wire to Vezina Trophy winner now has him staring at his greatest opportunity of all.
"Having taken the long road just to get to the NHL, I think I appreciate the opportunity to be here in the Stanley Cup finals, the opportunity that this presents," Thomas said Tuesday. "It's exactly where every hockey player wants to be, but it's hard to get to. Now that we're here, we should take advantage of it and try to take home the Cup."
He's got a fan across the ice.
"Tim's had an unbelievable season, probably the best in the league," Luongo said. "He's given his team a chance to win every night. ... He's a battler; he never gives up on a play. He'll do whatever it takes to make a save and he'll use whatever part of his body. You have to have a lot of respect for a guy like that."
2. The top men on defense
Chara and Seidenberg have been one of the most impressive top defensive pairings in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now, they face their greatest challenge of all: stopping Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
"Oh, it's going to be easy," Seidenberg joked Tuesday. "No, it's going to be pretty tough obviously. I think we've faced pretty tough challenges in the past with Montreal, Philly and Tampa, so I think we've been tested and we're ready for it."
Chara, challenged in trying to stop mostly Martin St. Louis in the Eastern Conference finals, understands this is a unique challenge.
"They know each other extremely well," Chara said of the Sedins. "They know where they are even without looking at each other, so it makes it a challenge and hard to play against them. We just have to try to take as much away from them as we can."
What's been interesting to watch is the Chara-Seidenberg partnership. Boston coach Claude Julien put them together for Game 3 of the Montreal series in the first round and never looked back.
Credit Chiarelli for seeing in Seidenberg what many didn't. He picked him up before the trade deadline last season, a puzzling move to many. Now, we see what the Bruins' GM had in mind.
3. Five-on-five play
The B's have been deadly in even-strength play in the postseason. Their five-on-five goals-against/-for ratio is tops in the playoffs at 1.74. Vancouver is fifth (1.07).
Why the success?
"I think our system has made it what it is," Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said Tuesday. "It's the way we put pressure; we're all in sync, especially on our forecheck and our defensive-zone play."
The key for Boston will be to stay out of the box against a Vancouver power-play unit that is humming at more than 28 percent.
4. Yes, the power play
The fact that the Boston power play stinks isn't news; it's become a way of life. And while players and coaches insist they are working hard to fine-tune their wretched man-advantage play, maybe, in the end, it just doesn't matter.
"I think at the beginning of the playoffs, we felt like if we couldn't get our power play going, we were in big trouble," Julien said. "But here we are in the finals, so we've managed to survive."
Now, given how potent the Vancouver power play is, one would think the Bruins would have to do something to counter-balance that. Of course, staying out of the penalty box will be key, but the Bruins also believe they have made some adjustments to try to correct some of the problems with a unit that has managed to score just five times on 61 opportunities this spring. Just one of those power-play goals has come on the road.
But moving defenseman Chara to the front of the Tampa Bay net in the East finals did seem to create some better scoring opportunities for the Bruins, even if they didn't capitalize on their chances.
"We certainly made some little tweaks here and there, hoping to be able to turn the corner on that," Julien said.
As for whether the dearth of goals is getting to be a mental issue for the Bruins, Tomas Kaberle insisted his dreams aren't haunted by images of the power-play unit's futility.
"I sleep OK," he said. "We know we have to pick it up on the power play and we had a few meetings in the dressing room, and hopefully we can adjust some things and play well."
Will this be a dam-burst effect?
"I hope so," Bergeron said. "That'd be great, and that's obviously what we're hoping for and couldn't come at a better time than this series right now."
5. The big line
Much is made of the Boston Bruins' offensive depth, and they do represent one of the finest five-on-five teams in the NHL (see above). But if there is an offensive catalyst, a unit that will need to be firing on all cylinders if Boston is to win its first Cup since 1972, it is the team's top line of Nathan Horton, David Krejci and Milan Lucic.
When they go, the Bruins win. It's as simple as that.
There's been much attention here at the finals on Lucic, the local Vancouver boy who was a junior star here before becoming a top power forward with the Bruins. And Horton has gained more than a little notoriety after scoring the winning goal in two Game 7s this spring, the only player in NHL history to accomplish the feat.
But the engine that drives this line is slick Czech center Krejci, who is tied for the playoff lead with 10 goals. He leads the Bruins in postseason scoring with 17 points even if he lacks the profile of most other stars in this series.
"He could be pretty underrated for some of the people, but I think for us, we know how good he can be and how good he is," Bergeron said.
Krejci, the 63rd overall pick in 2004, said he thinks the line has become more than the sum of its parts this spring.
"I think as a line we're way better than as individuals," he said. "I think we know each other pretty well. We have a good chemistry on and off the ice. We read off each other pretty well. ... So I think we've been playing pretty good hockey. Hopefully we can keep it going."
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.