|Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa (photo: Getty)|
The Vancouver Canucks are favored to win the Stanley Cup, and our Jared Lane details how this will happen:
By the time Lord Stanley’s Cup is hoisted in the coming weeks, a long drought that has weighed heavily on the shoulders of both an NHL franchise and its fan base will finally be lifted.
The people of Vancouver have followed the ins and outs of the Canucks for 40 years, but have yet to be rewarded for their loyalty and passion. The dramatic run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 1994 only solidified the relationship between the Canucks and their city.
Now, after 17 years of heartbreak, the Canucks are entering their Stanley Cup Finals match-up with the Bruins, more poised than ever to get the monkey off their collective backs.
For the good people of Beantown, it’s been 39 years of disappointment since Bobby Orr led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 1972. In the face of last postseason's disastrous meltdown against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Bruins were out to prove to the hockey world that they were not "chokers."
A victory over their arch-enemy, Montreal, in a hard-fought, seven-game opening-round series, followed by a romping of the aforementioned Flyers, certainly went a long way in shaking the “choker” label.
It’s been an equally intriguing run for Vancouver, which exorcised some demons of it own, particularly in a first-round victory over the Blackhawks.
The Canucks have been in cruise control ever since, as they disposed of the upstart Predators and dismantled the Sharks in quick fashion.
This series is full of interesting match-ups, so let’s take a look at the players whose performances have the most at stake in their team’s respective bids for sport’s most hallowed trophy.
In the post-lockout NHL, the key to success has arguably been building from the goalie and out. The Bruins and Canucks are prime examples, as both Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo are extending their Vezina Trophy-caliber regular seasons through the playoffs.
Entering the Finals, Luongo might be playing his best hockey since he arrived in Vancouver. Ever since his personal meltdowns in Games 4 and 5 against Chicago in Round One, Luongo's performance has been nothing short of spectacular, highlighted by his 54-save outing in the double-overtime clinching game of the Western Conference final.
Every hockey fan knows of Thomas' plight, going from career minor-leaguer to Vezina Trophy winner, virtually overnight. Naturally, Thomas has provided leadership to his squad.
Offensively, it’s tough not to admire the Canucks’ depth. Henrik and Daniel Sedin led the way with 18 points against the Sharks, and Ryan Kesler has stepped up and scored big-time goals. Finally, Alex Burrows has provided some crucial secondary scoring, registering 14 points thus far.
Boston's plan to take down the Canucks begins and ends with shutting down these players.
Boston also boasts an impressive set of forwards. The top line of Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton has been magical this spring. Krejci leads all playoff goal-scorers with 10, while Horton has come up with 17 points of his own.
In the face of this offensive star-power, the team that gets a boost from its role players may just win the series.
The potential return of Manny Malholtra would be huge for Vancouver. What’s more, the energetic and physical play of Jannik Hansen, Raffi Torres, Maxim Lapierre and Mason Raymond nicely compliments the speed and skill of the Sedins.
Boston will look to the line of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Mark Recchi to continue to log important minutes, play strong two-way hockey, and provide offense.
Both teams pride themselves on defensive responsibility. Zdeno Chara leads the way for the Bruins’ defensive corps. Add to that the physical play of Adam McQuaid, Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference — a trait that exemplifies what it means to be a Boston Bruin.
Kevin Bieksa has risen to the occasion and has arguably been Vancouver’s best defenseman. Bieksa has a mean-side to his game; but his offensive abilities have been critical to Vancouver’s success.
As it is with every playoff series, special teams will have a major impact in deciding the victor. Boston's power play must be better; its putrid performance almost cost it the series against Tampa Bay.
Meanwhile, Vancouver’s power play is red-hot; in its Game 4 victory over San Jose, the Canucks scored on three consecutive 5-on-3 power plays.
It should be a hard-fought series. With Luongo playing brilliantly, and the Sedins firing on all cylinders, the Canucks will be difficult to play against.
My prediction: Canucks in six
* Dwayne Roloson’s heroic goaltending for Tampa Bay does not mean that he will be employed for more than 50 games next season. GM Steve Yzerman realizes that Rollie will turn 42 in October and must be rested over the 82 games so that he’s fit for the playoffs. Thus, the big question: Will Mike Smith –- remember, he played well pinch-hitting for Roloson – be Goalie 1-A?
* Interesting insight: Both Finals coaches – Alain Vigneault and Claude Julien – are French-Canadian. Ditto for ousted Guy Boucher of Tampa Bay.
* Of all the unknowns who became known through three playoff rounds, former University of Maine standout Teddy Purcell ranks at the top. The Lightning surprise tallied six goals and 11 assists for 17 points in 17 playoff games. Against Boston, he lit the red light five times in seven games.
"We always knew that Teddy had the skill," said Boucher, "and always believed that he was a really good player. The thing is, he didn't know how good he was."
Purcell becomes a restricted free agent this summer.
* Although GM Don Waddell indicates there may yet be a buyer for the Thrashers, few in the NHL hold hope for that kind of miracle. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg folks are quietly going about the business of readying a franchise for next season.
But this much is certain: Despite a report in the Globe and Mail last week, none of the governors have been asked to approve the move, although they all are aware of the situation. When asked, an OK will be rubber-stamped and the Thrashers will fly north -- unless that mystery prospective Atlanta bidder fools all of us.
* As mentioned here in a previous issue, only two American cities are regarded as NHL-caliber should another franchise move be necessary: Houston, which now has its AHL club in the Calder Cup finals, boasts an ideal NHL arena but the major question is whether the fan base is big enough.
Meanwhile, a local group in Seattle is making noise about fitting a franchise in Bettman, Inc. Trouble is, a new arena would have to be built in Washington State's largest city. The existing building, Key Arena, is basketball – but not hockey – friendly.
* Their alias – the “Green Men” – is strictly descriptive, but their antics throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs have won them a following, which even includes some of their targets – the visiting players who end up in the penalty box at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena.
“They’re wonderful,” said San Jose defenseman Douglas Murray, who, on a few occasions, got a close-up view of the act. “We’re in the entertainment industry and they’re hilarious.”
But not everyone connected with the NHL agrees. The two Canucks fans – who go by the names “Sully” and “Force” – are clad head-to-toe in green spandex and have had a few restrictions placed on them by the league.
“We can’t touch the glass or do headstands anymore,” explained Force. “It’s funny how we’ve directly affected the game.”
* Western Conference finals hero Kevin Bieksa's road to the NHL was about as surreal as his double-overtime, series-winning goal in Game 5. Former GM Brian Burke (Providence, R.I.) recounted this unusual story:
Bieksa, who got his start when the Canucks brought him to their AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, on a professional tryout, was at a bar one night and was challenged to a fight by teammate Fedor Fedorov.
"They go outside," said Burke, "and Bieksa drills him with one punch. He knocks Fedor stone cold and cuts him wide-open, leaving him lying on the pavement."
Bieksa figured he was done with the Canucks organization and would be sent home the next day. "Send him home?" Burke recalled. "I said, 'We're going to sign him tomorrow!'"
Stan Fischler can be reached at FischlerReport@aol.com.