In a game that will give goalie coaches fodder for years to come, Tim Thomas was able to keep the puck out of his net in Boston’s 1-0 home win in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson was brilliant both before and after allowing the game’s only goal, but his 37 saves on 38 shots weren’t quite enough for the Lightning to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since winning it in 2004. The game winning goal was scored, as predicted by Tram’s Table yesterday, by Nathan Horton.
Some things that went against the natural flow of the series showed up in the stat sheet. For one, Tampa Bay gave the puck away more than Boston did, by an 11-7 clip. Second, and I know a lot of people disregard this stat, but Boston won the faceoff battle 35-26. There’s no way of knowing what might have happened offensively for the Lightning had the faceoff stats been reversed, but I’m sure most of you are already groaning. Third, Boston actually outshot Tampa Bay by a wide margin — 38-24. I said yesterday that I thought Thomas would have to make six more saves than Roloson, but that was wholly untrue, because Boston hunkered down and played a very focused all-rink game that most people thought they were capable of all along. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there were no penalties called in the entire game. If that premise would have been offered to each team before the game, Boston would have jumped at the idea and probably figured they could win by more than one goal, while Tampa Bay would have refused the offer as quickly as if they had been asked to volunteer to get beaten with a night stick. The Lightning have made a killing on the power play, and without the luxury of any last night, they were unable to assert themselves as the more offensively dominant team, and in turn unable to score at all. Credit to the referees for letting them play, as the game seems to have gotten a very strong rating in the realm of public entertainment and satisfaction.
But as much as we all loved the talent, passion and desire to ascend that the Lightning showed us, all eyes must now turn to the Bruins and Canucks, who will open their seven-game series for sports’ greatest trophy on Wednesday, June 1 in Vancouver. The Canucks have played all season with that big “40” at center ice, denoting that this is the franchise’s 40th season in the NHL.
It is well documented that Vancouver has never won the Stanley Cup, but it is interesting that when the Canucks dropped the puck on their inaugural season in the fall of 1970, it was the Boston Bruins who were the defending Cup champions. Boston won the Cup again in 1972, but have since failed to hoist the ultimate prize. The Bruins won the eastern conference, or “eastern division” or “Wales conference” as it was formerly known, five times from 1974 to 1990. In those five Stanley Cup finals series, Boston was swept twice and won a total of only five games (meaning they averaged a 4-1 series loss). The B’s never forced a Game 7 in that stretch, and thus haven’t played a game for the Stanley Cup since that last victory in 1972. In case you were wondering, Boston hasn’t won the eastern conference since 1990, and in fact hadn’t even reached the conference finals since 1992. That is all now, of course, history.
But in order for the Bruins to get a chance to finally play a game for the Stanley Cup, they will have to play with a heightened awareness and attention to detail. I am not stating the obvious simply because this is now the final round, but instead because this is the first time in these playoffs that Boston is playing against an opponent that is, quite frankly, better than they are. The Canucks seem to finally be rolling, as they have won each series in one fewer game than the last. If that trend were to continue, the Canucks would sweep the Bruins in four games, but I find that to be an unlikely outcome.
The biggest difference between the way these two teams have gotten here is the power play numbers. While Vancouver’s edge over Boston in killing off penalties has been negligible this postseason (80.8% to 79.4%), the gap in power play percentage is frightening if you’re a Bruins fan. Vancouver has played with the man advantage 60 times this postseason; Boston has had 61 power plays. But the Canucks have poured in 17 goals in those 60 chances, for a jaw-dropping 28.3% success rate. Boston, meanwhile, has only managed to tally 5 PPGs in 61 chances, which is an anemic 8.2%. Come to think of it, that’s only 1.67 power play goals per series, and two of their three series have gone seven games! I don’t think Vancouver will score on 28.3% of their power plays in the finals, but there’s no real reason to think that the number shouldn’t be around 20%, which is what both teams have allowed this postseason. So to me, the key to whether or not Boston can push this series to a deciding seventh game (or win it before that) is whether Boston can slow down Vancouver’s power play while also improving on their own unsuccessful man advantages. To put some numbers on this problem, if Boston cut Vancouver’s PP% by a third while also doubling its own PP%, the Canucks would still hold an 18.9% to 16.4% advantage, and I’m not sure there are too many people who feel that Boston has some sort of even strength advantage over the Canucks. This is why beyond just the special teams adjustments, Boston absolutely must play with an attention to detail throughout this series so that they don’t give games away, because against this opponent, they cannot afford to do so.