Nathan Horton

On Wednesday night the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks will stage one game for the Stanley Cup, and will give all hockey fans all we could ask for: a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals.
This is even funnier now.
In this 21st century world of saturated media (I offer as evidence that I have a blog, and you’re reading it!) we seem to have become obsessed with assigning blame to teams or athletes that lose.  The word “choke” is thrown around by hate mongers to describe each and every time someone comes up a little short, even when that loser was the underdog to begin with.  Everyone’s loving Tiger Woods’ life implosion, and he is talked about more now than he was when he was winning at an incredible rate.  America rejoiced the other night when the Miami Heat had to eat the platter of excrement that they prepared for themselves when they talked about winning seven or more championships before they had ever ran a drill together (going out of your way to stick it to an entire franchise on national television didn’t garner any sympathy points either).  And as great as Roger Federer is and was, he got more chatter relating to his decline (which lasted all of 16 months, by the way) than any of his amazingly dominant grand slam runs.

Remember when Federer was “done?”

The list of examples of our obsession with piling on losers rather than celebrating winners goes on and on, but it should not see a single entry from the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs on it.  Up to this point, I believe the playoffs have played out exactly as they should have.  Obviously, there was Ilya Bryzgalov quitting on the Phoenix Coyotes, and the much maligned Sharks doing what they do, but nothing has really happened in these playoffs that loosely resembles a choke.  Even the Capitals did what they always do, which is lose early to a team that nobody foresaw beating them.  And even then, the story was predominantly Washington, not Tampa Bay.
We’ve already laid the foundation for the Roberto Luongo “choke” in Game 7, and everyone rooting against him is ready to invalidate his entire career with any loss Wednesday night.  The jokes are locked and loaded — Monday night saw the term “Roberto LeBrongo” trending worldwide on Twitter (see paragraph 2).

Today is the biggest game of Luongo’s career, again.

But as hockey people, we’ve always held ourselves to a higher standard than fans of the other big sports, so let’s do what we should do, and focus on how wonderful it is that we have this series of moments that is a Game 7 in the season’s final series.  Someone will win, and let’s focus on celebrating them, before turning our attention to next season.  Oh, and our next season will be played in a few months, unlike those other leagues.  So absorbing yourself in Game 7 won’t go without value — you’ll get to carry that backstory into this fall and pick up where you left off.

As far as who will win Game 7, nobody knows.  But Canucks MVP candidate Daniel Sedin thinks he does.  Sedin said that Vancouver will win Game 7, just as they’ve won every home game in the series so far.  Most people are doing what we do these days and calling it a guarantee just to get eyeballs and clicks, but Sedin never used that word.  All he did was say that he believes his team is going to win, and really, there’s nothing to criticize about that.  If he’s right, then maybe he will elevate his and his brother’s status in the eyes of North American hockey fans, who have long been slammed for being “soft.”  But I don’t think Daniel making these comments have anything to do with the aftermath of a Canucks win.  For one, a Canucks win make all talk and former panic irrelevant.  Also, Sedin probably feels more free to go out and make things happen knowing that he quipped the talk early and said that the team will just win the game.  It sounds obvious that he should go out and play freely and create and score goals in the biggest game of his career, but it’s not always that easy to feel free in these games.  The magnitude of big moments has restricted the weak of heart for as long as mankind has existed.  This is Sedin saying “screw it, let’s just play.”

Luongo scared? That’s not true! Come after me, I’m a man! I’m 30!

Another possible motivation for Daniel to speak out and “guarantee” a Game 7 win is that it will lead people to talk about his statement, and not Luongo’s state of mind.  This is a tactic that has been used by coaches for a while, but it’s not something we’ve seen come from the quiet Swede before.  To me, this is proof of Sedin’s continuing evolution as a hockey player and as a man.  It takes guts to make declarations prior to do-or-die games, despite the obvious reality that these statements do not really matter.  We’ve been asking for heart and grit out of the Sedin twins for a long time.  Here’s a start.  Wednesday can be something of a finish.
Regarding Luongo’s state of mind entering Game 7, there are conflicting schools of thought, and either could prove to be right.  The conventional thinking seems to be that Luongo has been money at home, and therefore should continue to be.  A dissenting opinion is that a man can only be beaten down so many times, and Game 6 solidified that the earlier beatings in Boston were no fluke.  Luongo has been pulled twice now in the finals.  Perhaps the 19-8 overall score line has Luongo shaken in the lead up to what is close to a 50/50 game for all the marbles.
But Luongo has prevailed in this situation before.  Granted, he had an amazing team in front of him for the 2010 Olympic gold medal game, but he also had exponentially more pressure on him.  This Stanley Cup run has been very important to all Vancouver Canuck fans for the last few months.  The Olympics were an all-or-nothing proposition for the host country for four years.  Luongo managed that game well, despite allowing a game-tying goal with under a minute left in regulation.  On top of that, he fared just fine in Game 5 after two shellings, and was superb in Game 7 against Chicago in the ultimate panicked negativity situation around the team.  I wouldn’t expect another yanking of Luongo in Game 7.
A better reason that Luongo and the Canucks won’t bring home the Cup is the man in the other crease.  Tim Thomas has had one of the most outstanding goaltending seasons in recent memory, and he only upped his game for the Stanley Cup finals.  By all accounts, Thomas already has the Conn Smythe Trophy wrapped up.  There’s no reason he shouldn’t, as both teams are 15-9 through 24 postseason games thus far.  If Thomas is the unanimous MVP through 24 games, what could happen in the 25th to turn that on its head?  Nothing, and Thomas should bring home the hardware tomorrow.  The only question is whether he will do it Giguere style.  He, and Bruins nation, hopes not.

Tim Thomas wants no part of a J.S. Giguere dichotomy tonight.

Besides the goaltenders, one key for both teams is to be aggressive and not find themselves trying to counterpunch.  I think both teams will come out assertive, but Boston probably has the bodies to do it a little bit better.  While the Bruins don’t have Nathan Horton up front, they still have Chara, Lucic and the rest of the lumberjacks to bend some wills.  And speaking of Horton, how cool was it to see him at the glass swinging a towel and rooting on his teammates?  

Thank the Lord I’m somewhere that cares.
You think that guy loves finally being on a competitive hockey team after wasting the first six years of his career in South Beach?
But the Canucks won’t let the B’s come into their own building and shove them around.  I expect Vancouver to bang as much as Boston, and that’s another reason I have no problem with Daniel Sedin saying the Canucks will win.  If anything, it should galvanize the team.  Makes you wonder if the right Sedin is looking to become the second european captain to ever win the Stanley Cup (Lidstrom ’08).
I don’t think Boston has to do much differently to win the Stanley Cup in Game 7.  They’ve been in every game this series, dropping all three losses by one goal.  We know Thomas and the rest of the Bruins’ vets are going to show up.  It just comes down to who executes better and gets some breaks.  One positive thing the Bruins have going for them is the power play disparity in the series.  Vancouver, who brought a 28.8% power play success rate into the finals, is sputtering at 6.5% in the finals.  Boston, on the other hand, couldn’t throw in a power play goal leading up to the finals.  But the Bruins have bucked the trend and rolled at a 19.2% clip against the Canucks.
Moving onto strategy, one thing I would do if I was Vancouver is roll out Dan Hamhuis.  I know he’s probably very hurt, and it seems unlikely that the defenseman will play in Game 7.  But if he can skate, he needs to play.  Ryan Kesler has been doing it the whole series.  The only question really is, who gives you more, Hamhuis or rookie Chris Tanev?  That’s a rhetorical question, and therefore I just can’t see how Hamhuis would be held out of this one if he can give the Canucks even 12 minutes of pain-impaired but responsible hockey.  What do they have to worry about, next year, when they might not have a home game to win the ultimate prize?

Guess who’s feeling better Wednesday morning

Another question for Vancouver is who will replace winger Mason Raymond, who fractured a vertebra in Game 6.  By all reports, Raymond’s injury is a vicious one, and I hope he can get through his time of pain.  He is listed as out for at least four months.  It seems that CCHA product Jeff Tambellini would be the most likely replacement, although coach Vigneault has not indicated his Game 7 roster at this moment.
With all of this said, let’s realize again that these two teams have given us everything that we ask for as sports fans.  Both teams have given it everything in taking it to the final game, all while playing as collectively hurt as they’ve been in their hockey careers.  Wednesday will be the 107th game for each team this season, and it will be that magical seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals.
In many ways, we’ve become spoiled with these Game 7s in the Cup finals.  This will be the sixth Game 7 in the finals since the turn of the millennium.  The home team won the first four, before the Penguins prevailed in Joe Louis Arena in 2009 in the single most painful loss of my adult sports life.  But these games are a treat.  Just ask anyone who watched hockey from 1966 to 2000, only to see three such spectacles in those 35 seasons.  And so the moral of the story is this: enjoy the hell out of this Game 7 between the two most deserving teams in the league, and don’t pile on the loser; instead, celebrate the winner.  Not much more to say, good luck to all parties, and let’s have a great game.  Can’t wait to look ahead to the offseason.
Boston Bruins scoring winger Nathan Horton has enjoyed his first season with a good NHL team.  Horton was pegged as perhaps the acquisition that Boston needed to bolster its somewhat anemic offense enough to get over the eastern conference hump.  The Bruins already had a solid defensive system through and through, as well as a second-year starting goalie in Tuukka Rask, who unseated the former Vezina-winning Tim Thomas in 2009-10.  Rask did not provide much of an encore this season, but that was due to Thomas’ aggressive ripping back of the Vezina Trophy in surprising fashion.
As the offensive part of that bargain though, Horton lived up to his billing from the start. The Bruins began their season in Prague against the Phoenix Coyotes, and Horton wasted no time in showing that Boston was right to trade for him.  The former Panther boarded the team plane for the states with three goals and an assist in the two-game split against Phoenix.  From there, Horton has only continued to play an intricate role in Boston’s ascent to the eastern conference championship.  When the Bruins needed overtime goals in Games 5 and 7 at home against Montreal in the first round, it was Horton who lit the lamp both times.  And no Bruins goal in the last 20 seasons has been bigger than Horton’s two-handed stuff to clinch the Wales Trophy in Game 7’s 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay.

But Horton’s dream season was ended in the blink of an eye last night, courtesy of a gutless late hit by Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome early in Game 3 right at Vancouver’s blue line.  Horton had passed the puck to his left and turned up ice to look to start either a give and go or a charge to the net, when Rome dug his right skate in, lowered his shoulder and embarked on a flight that will forever change Horton’s career, and possibly his life.  By now we all know that concussions are plaguing our sport, and we don’t have to look far to find examples of a concussion destroying a playing career.
The most obvious example is of course that of Sidney Crosby, who still has not played a hockey game since January 5.  In case you’ve been living under a rock, Crosby was the league MVP in 2007, won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and scored the overtime goal in the gold medal game at the 2010 Olympic Games for Canada.  He is one of the few hockey players who had legitimate non-hockey fan buzz before he was ever drafted, and was labeled “The Next One” as a teenager.  Crosby had 66 points in 41 games this season, and is still two months away from his 24th birthday.  No matter what you think of his notoriety, there is no objective conclusion other than that he is an immense loss for the NHL, and if he never plays again, the league will be worse for it.
Another example hits a lot closer to home for the Bruins.  Marc Savard, previously a star center for the Bruins, was the most discussed concussion victim until Crosby trumped him around New Year’s.  On March 7, 2010, Savard took a trademarked elbow from Penguins goon Matt Cooke that turned the lights out.  According to reports, Savard still cannot tolerate bright lights, and has a hard time being around a commotion for extended periods of time.  Good luck playing hockey in front of 20,000 fans.  What’s scarier is that Savard said that for the first time in his life, he became apathetic about everything and fell into a deep depression.  Not depressed that he was injured and couldn’t play, but depressed.  There were alarming quotes saying things to the effect that Savard did not really care about his own life anymore.  He admitted that he did not even know why he felt this way, but he had a hard time shaking it.  Savard has played a couple brief periods of hockey since, but he too has not played a game since February 8 of this year.
And so now we lose another bright young man, who just a week ago joined me in the ranks of 26 year-old, right handed shots (that’s where the comparisons end, unfortunately for me).  Horton has been officially ruled out for the remainder of the series, but that was obvious before the man’s skull even hit the ice.
On a much more cheerful note, the NHL has continued its tolerant stance on shots to the head and late hits by assessing Rome a token four-game suspension, which just happens to be the exact amount of games left in the series, if necessary.  Rome’s suspension does not even necessarily hurt the Canucks, who are now free to activate the talented $4.2 million man, Keith Ballard.  That ought to be funny, as the Canucks are forced to replace one defenseman who has no respect for fellow players with one who nearly decapitated his own goaltender last year.
But really, we cannot blame Rome for his actions.  The man is just another in a long line of young players who play without respect for their fellow hockey colleagues.  There is no room for cowardly plays like the one Rome made last night, but the fact is that we are seeing it more and more in the financially growing world of hockey.  I am worried about this as a hockey guy.  That game was on worldwide television, and just five minutes into the game, every kid and his or her mother saw a man’s life altered.  I am not trying to dramatize what happened.  Plays like that are seen and talked about by everybody, and they have a negative impact on the number of kids who will take up the game and grow to make the sport and the league as good as it can be.  The NHL has done a good job to cultivate a landscape that has set hockey up for the rise that it is currently enjoying.  But all of that fertile ground can be blazed away by one or two unsupervised idiots playing with matches or dropping a cigarette.  We can’t stop all of the idiots from doing stupid things, but we sure as hell can create an environment that deters idiots from acting in a careless manner.  The only way to do this is to get serious about hits like last night’s, but the league has once again decided to put getting tough off until a later date.

*** Alteration 6-9-11 at 7:19 a.m. ***

Upon thinking about it further, I feel the league handed out the correct suspension.  The hit was late and vicious, and Rome should feel embarrassed about that, but it wasn’t one of the dirtiest hits we’ve seen in recent memory.  There’s no real reason to suspend the guy for next season, so at this point, I feel the four-game suspension was the right move.  Anything less, and I would still be upset about it, but the league ensured that Rome will not be able to play this season, and that seems fair enough.
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.