NHL playoffs

The Stanley Cup will be in Boston tonight, but the Bruins intentions are to keep it in its case and next day air it back to Vancouver.
The Vancouver Canucks are looking to win the first road game in these Stanley Cup finals in Game 6 tonight.  If they are successful, the Stanley Cup will be theirs.  We’ve seen this same situation in Game 6 of the finals the past three years, with Detroit and Chicago clinching the Cup on the road in 2008 and ’10.  If the same result happens tonight, the Canucks will win the game’s biggest prize for the first time in the franchise’s 40 seasons.  Conversely, the Penguins stayed alive at home in 2009 before hitting the road and winning the Cup in Detroit in Game 7.  Boston will want to channel that black and yellow home ice success tonight.
Everybody has an opinion, but nobody knows what will happen tonight.  Here’s one thing I’m thankful for: that Dirk Nowitski and the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title last night.  Before my hockey readers get upset, here’s two reasons why.  First, and most obviously, they beat the jerks that are Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.  But second, and more importantly for the NHL, the NBA finals are over.  Tonight, the sports world gets to fully turn its attention to Boston for what could be the last game of the season.  There’s no “superfight” of a Miami Heat game 7 to worry about (yes, NBA playoff games are “games;” NHL playoff games are “Games”).  All of the casual fans will be locked into Game 6 tonight, and if necessary, Game 7 on Wednesday night in Vancouver.  There’s no quantifying how important it is for the NHL that the biggest and most polarizing story in the NBA in decades is now over, or at least on hold for a while.

Photo courtesy
Dirk Nowitski is excited to bring you an uninterrupted game or two of the Stanley Cup Finals. You’re welcome, world.
As far as tonight’s game goes, anybody can point to any stat they want to make their case for which team will win.  For Boston, there’s the fact that they outscored Vancouver 12-1 in their two home games, and have won nine of ten games at home since dropping the first two games of the playoffs to Montreal.  There’s the resiliency that the Bruins have shown with their backs against the wall in two Game 7s just to get to this point.  But, then there’s the fact that the man who scored the game-winning goals in both of those Game 7s, Nathan Horton, is not walking through that door, at least not this season.
Photo courtesy
Nathan Horton: Not Walking Through That Door

For Vancouver, there’s no reason not to be confident tonight.  Sure, they fared terribly in Boston last week, but it’s a new day, and funny things happen when championship trophies are in the building.  I mean honestly, did anybody think Miami wasn’t winning that game last night?  As far as actual on-ice results go, the Canucks can look to the fact that they finally may have figured out their post-Hamhuis/Rome defensive lineup, as rookie Chris Tanev joined the lineup as the sixth D man, relegating Keith Ballard back to the bench.  The result was Roberto Luongo’s second 1-0 home shutout of the series, and thus we can probably expect the same six on the blue line tonight for Vancouver.  Hamhuis travelled with the team, but that was a foregone conclusion, seeing as they might be skating with the Cup tonight.  He is listed as out for tonight’s Game 6.
Photo courtesy
Luongo won’t win the Vezina this year,
but he hopes to raise the Stanley Cup.

Photo courtesy Getty Images
Thomas will win his second Vezina, but
hopes to avoid being awarded the Conn
Smythe Trophy for Playoff MVP — at least
not tonight.

What do you guys think will happen tonight?  Will Vancouver finally win the most coveted prize in hockey, or is this thing going back west for a Game 7?  And in the event of a Canuck win tonight, is Tim Thomas still the Conn Smythe winner?  I would have to say yes.
Stumbling around a playing surface that could only loosely be called “ice,” the Vancouver Canucks saw their series lead evaporate Wednesday night in Boston, thanks to a 4-0 Bruins victory in Game 4.
The pucks didn’t want to lay flat and glide for either team, but the newly sprayed rink seemed to particularly frustrate the Canucks, who repeatedly had pucks jump their sticks at the wrong moments.  It was already a hot day in Boston, as the temperature peaked in the mid-90s.  On top of that, apparently there was a Glee concert Tuesday night at TD Garden, and therefore the playing surface had to be remade entirely in the heat.  CBC’s Jeff Marek predicted that the result would be a playing surface that would slow the game down and hinder creativity, and he turned out to be spot on.

But both teams had to play on the crappy rink, so why did Boston seem to handle it so much better than Vancouver?  There’s the typical argument that the Bruins are much more physical, and that the finesse game of the Canucks couldn’t flourish on top of a slightly chilled swimming pool.  But I’m not sure that’s what we actually saw, as Vancouver outshot Boston in every period.  Sure, often times the shots on goal statistic gets skewed once the score gets out of hand, but why then did Vancouver outshoot the B’s in the first period, when the game was still very much in doubt?  To be honest, I thought Vancouver played a pretty decent first 25 minutes.
A better explanation of this game could be that Tim Thomas was simply great again, and that Vancouver made clear mistakes on every goal.  Thomas scored another shutout — his third in the last nine games.  Add to that stretch three games in which Thomas allowed only one goal, and the soon-to-be two-time Vezina Trophy winner might be in what the cool kids call “the zone.”  This is an issue that Vancouver must solve soon, because while you can expect players to play great at home, hot goalies are perhaps the best ingredient for a road victory, which is something that Vancouver cannot afford to concede in Friday night’s Game 5.
Speaking of conceding, each of the first three goals saw a specific mistake by a mid-to-low end Canuck skater.  I hate to cite college football, or as it should properly be called, “semi-pro legalized prostitution,” but Raffi Torres reminded me of that University of Texas safety that just jogged out of bounds to let Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree walk in for the game-winner a few years ago.  Instead of trying to defend a flying Rich Peverley, the Canuck third-liner got caught not moving his feet around the boards on the blue line, and let Peverley make him look more like a football punter than an NHL tough guy.
Boston’s second goal was that snipe by Michael Ryder from the left wing, but the time and space to shoot was due to Canucks D man Sami Salo never wanting to stop the puck or impede Ryder’s progress.  To make matters worse, Salo did that thing where you throw your stick six inches in front of the shot, which effectively gives your goaltender two things to worry about: the initial shot, and the potential deflection.  Salo only needed to lean and reach because he wasn’t moving his feet, and it cost the Canucks on that one.
The third goal for the Bruins led me to eat some crow.  I’ve been calling for Keith Ballard’s insertion into the lineup since stud defenseman Dan Hamhuis went down with an injury in Game 1 of the finals.  Instead, Andrew Alberts got the call, and played just fine.  Then Aaron Rome got suspended, and it was finally time to throw in Ballard, the $4.2 million healthy scratch.  At first it seemed Ballard was doing fine.  He was advancing the puck and sending it away when it fell in a vulnerable position for the Canucks.  But then in the middle of the second period, Ballard fell down behind his own net, albeit after a little chop by Bruins forward Brad Marchand.  After laying there for a couple seconds, Ballard got up and shifted over to try to cancel out Patrice Bergeron, who was at the left post.  Ballard kicked and swatted, but couldn’t make contact with the puck, which Bergeron chipped right out in front to Marchand, who fired a backhand off Luongo’s glove and in.  The play caused a bit of a stir for Canucks fans, who point to this as an example of why Ballard cannot regularly crack the lineup on this team.  But at least it’s not like Ballard is on the books for $4.2 million for each of the next four years, while blue liners like Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff, Alberts and Salo are unrestricted free agents in less than a month.  What’s that you say?  Oh, that’s right, it is like that.  It’s actually exactly like that.
Roberto Luongo was pulled from the game after allowing the fourth goal, and Cory Schneider came in and saved all nine shots he faced in just under 16 minutes of play.  I don’t think there’s another goalie controversy, and I think it’s probably a waste of time to talk about it.  But, we all remember the circus surrounding the latter half of the Chicago series.
One potentially notable statistic is that while Vancouver won its home games by a combined score of 4-2 (which was 2-2 through the first 59.5 minutes of each game), Boston smashed Vancouver to the tune of 12-1 in its home games.  Doesn’t make you feel comfortable if you’re a Canuck fan.
To close, this is now the third year in a row in which the first four games of the Stanley Cup finals have been won by the home team.  Vancouver will be looking to channel 2010, when Chicago rebounded for wins in Games 5 and 6 to win the Cup over Philadelphia.  Boston, meanwhile, needs only to look to its black and yellow brethren in Pittsburgh, who prevailed over Detroit by winning Games 6 and 7.
Vancouver has been outscored by five goals in the 2011 playoffs, which is alarming considering where they are.  Much of that is explained by their two stinkers each against Chicago and Boston, however.
Game 5 is Friday night at 8 p.m. ET, 5 p.m. PT live from Vancouver on NBC, CBC and RDS.
Yesterday, Tram’s Table gave scientific evidence that Game 3 should belong to Boston.  After that scary injury to Nathan Horton just five minutes into the game, the Bruins made good on my nonsensical trend argument by running the record of post-lockout home teams to 6-0 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals.  What’s more of a talking point seems to be the manner in which they did it: by pounding Vancouver 8-1.
Last night’s game was one in which momentum seemed to play a big role, as Boston not only scored twice on the power play, but also twice on Vancouver’s power plays.  One would have to think that momentum played a part in those shorties, as Boston got the snowball rolling immediately after the first intermission.

With the series back to an interesting 2-1 count, everyone is inevitably going to refer to Game 4 as “pivotal.”  And while it is true that Wednesday’s game should go miles toward determining who will lift the Cup, each team has to approach the game fresh and without any lingering emotion of the first three games.
For Vancouver, it is important that they clear their minds of Game 3, and remember that the next one is always the biggest one.  In truth, they came to Boston seeking a split, and they are still in contention for just that.  It would be silly to try to preach about what a Game 4 win would mean for the Canucks, so we’ll just call it a BFD.
Boston must also forget about Game 3, because they don’t get to take any of those goals with them.  Last night’s game is done and dusted, and they still have 60+ minutes to go before they can feel content with their work at home.  This is an intense spot for the Bruins, as they must fight the urge to feel vindicated with their 10-5 series lead in goals.  Bruins backers were arguing that the B’s should feel good about themselves because they could have won either game in Vancouver, and last night’s annihilation will only add to that positive feeling surrounding the team.  But often times we have seen that positivity morph into complacency, and that is why the Bruins must play Game 4 as if they have three losses.  Because, while a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit is not impossible to overcome, it’s much more difficult a task than this team wants to force itself to accomplish.
Yesterday we looked at how every Stanley Cup final since the lockout has started in exactly the same way:  with the home team holding for a 2-0 lead, then hitting the road for a loss.  For those interested, Game 4 went to the road team from 2006 to ’08, with that team consolidating their newfound 3-1 series lead into the Stanley Cup championship all three times.  But in the past two playoffs, the home team held serve again in Game 4 to even the series.  Last year, it didn’t matter, as Philadelphia lost the next two games to Chicago, who won the series in six games.  But in 2009, the Penguins turned their 2-2 series into a title by winning Games 6 and 7.  In the five seasons since the lockout, the Pens are the only road seed to win the Cup.  Boston looks to join them on that list, and the next step on that journey is Wednesday, June 8, when the Bruins will host the Canucks again at 8 p.m. ET, live on Versus in the U.S.
The Vancouver Canucks must play tonight’s Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals in Boston as if it was Game 7.  Yes, the Canucks have a 2-0 series lead, but since the NHL returned from the lockout in 2005, we have seen home teams go 12-0 in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.  So, why the need for urgency?  Because all of those teams have hit the road with their 2-0 series lead and promptly lost Game 3.

Here’s the breakdown:

Playoff Year
Road Team w/ 2-0 Lead
Home Team w/ 0-2 Deficit
Game 3 Result
Series Result
Oilers 2-1
Canes in 7
Senators 5-3
Ducks in 5
Penguins 3-2
Red Wings in 6
Penguins 4-2
Penguins in 7
Flyers 4-3
Blackhawks in 6

That series-shifting third game takes place tonight in Boston, where the Bruins will be looking to continue this annual trend of lower seeds cutting their series deficits in half in front of their rabid home crowds.

In order to do so, I don’t think the Bruins need to categorically change anything.  One thing everyone is talking about is the poor outing Saturday night by the big captain, Zdeno Chara, but the Slovakian defenseman is still a very important player for the Bruins, and one that I believe they can count on tonight.  Boston went on the road for two games against the team that everyone on the continent has anointed as the future Cup champs since the calendar turned, and the B’s made a good account of themselves.  They hung in there as far as shots on goal go: Boston was outshot only 67-66 over both games.  That means both teams are averaging a healthy 11 shots per period.
But just because the Bruins have recent history and desperation on their side doesn’t mean that tonight’s win is just going to fall into their laps.  Vancouver knows how to tighten the vice, as they have flown back home for Game 5 with a 3-1 lead in all three of their playoff series this year.  In truth, the 3-1 result is all Vancouver really wants; a split is all any road team ever wants coming in.  There’s no reason to fear three games for the Stanley Cup, especially with two being played in their own building.  But the easiest way to guarantee at least that 3-1 result is to win tonight, and be able to enter Game 4 on Wednesday with pretty much no pressure.  Sure, there would be the excitement of potentially winning the greatest prize in sports, but not pressure per se.  At least, not until they lose a game.
Both teams just need to keep doing what they’re doing, and whoever does that best will win Game 3.  Could this be the game where Vancouver’s power play dominates, or will Tim Thomas backstop Boston to another home win, as he has done in seven of the Bruins’ last eight home games?  Only time will tell, but Vancouver held up its end of the post-lockout trend-extending bargain by winning the opening two games at home.  Now it’s time for Boston to do its part in making home teams 6-0 in Game 3s of the finals since 2006, and give us a series to get excited about.  If the Bruins can do that, we can put words like “sweep” and “clinching” on ice for a while, and instead get amped up for a “pivotal” Game 4 on Wednesday.  Because, you know, all Game 4s in a 2-1 series are “pivotal,” if they’re anything at all.
The puck drops shortly, but I wanted to write a little something about a couple of things to watch for in tonight’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.

My previous post following Game 1 pretty much sums up my feeling about the early parts of this series, but there is something that I would suggest to each team to further its effort to win Saturday’s big one.

For the Bruins, please stop pretending that just being 6’9″ tall makes Zdeno Chara a regular Tomas Holmstrom.  He’s not.  Don Cherry talked about this on Coaches’ Corner in Game 1, but Chara’s form in front of the net is awful.  He does absolutely nothing to screen Roberto Luongo, but instead jumps out of the way of shots whilst trying to tip them all.  For one, he’s not used to tipping pucks in front of the net, you know, because he plays defense.  Two, the guy has won the hardest shot competition multiple times, so why take that aspect of his game away on every power play?  I hope for the Bruins’ sakes that they give up on this ill-concocted scheme and get back to playing the kind of hockey that got them here.  That kind of hockey starts with Chara and Dennis Seidenberg on the blue line, not fidgeting around like a pee wee team with a few supreme players that dominate at every position.  Hell, if we’re playing pee wee style, why not use backup goalie Tuukka Rask as a forward on the power play?  You know, because your best players can play every position at the highest level…

For Vancouver, I don’t have suggestions so much as questions.  It appears that center Manny Malhotra is finally ready to come back, which should be a huge boost for the Canucks in the faceoff circle.  Malhotra typically is right there with Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews amongst the league leaders in faceoffs won.  Additionally, Malhotra should only add to Vancouver’s defensive prowess, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his addition results in the Canucks outshooting the Bruins tonight, unlike in Game 1.

The second question mark for the Canucks revolves around stud defenseman Dan Hamhuis.  He is being reported as a game-time decision, but it appears that Vancouver is making plans to play Game 2 without him.  There are a few options for the Canucks, but the obvious one is the $4.2 million healthy scratch, Keith Ballard.  It’s been certainly a down year for Ballard, his first with the Canucks, but the guy sounds like a player who is dying to get another chance.  Here is a good article on Ballard by The Hockey Writers.  Obviously, the Canucks have a great back end no matter who fills the void left by Hamhuis’ injury.  But Keith Ballard is the only one that has proven, known upside from the last time he’s been seen for the squad.

The rest of the Canucks’ top four, Bieksa, Edler and Ehrhoff, are good enough to step up and play a few extra minutes each as well.  Sami Salo and Aaron Rome have been playing as the team’s third pair of defensemen, and now it will be interesting to see if one of them gets moved up, or if that spot on the top four gets filled by Ballard.  One would have to assume the idea of rotating lines in-game is a possibility, but if I had to guess I would say the minutes will shake out on the bottom of Vancouver’s D according to the way the refs call the game.  Salo plays a lot of special teams, while Rome usually plays his hockey at even strength.  Vancouver is probably going to want an opportunity to use a lot of Salo, because the Canucks need to get that power play back up and running after Game 1’s doughnut on six opportunities.  Either way, I would advocate using Bieksa, Ehrhoff, Edler, Rome, Salo and Ballard.

*** I am now finding out that the 6th D man will be Andrew Alberts, and not Ballard. ***

Tonight’s Game 2 between Boston and Vancouver is on NBC, CBC and RDS live at 8 p.m. ET, 5 p.m. PT in the United States.  I hope you all enjoy it.
It’s come time to make a prediction on the Stanley Cup finals, and I’m not going to make you read to the bottom to find out what I think.  I’m picking Vancouver to win in six games.

My look ahead to the series can be found in this previous post, so I’ll quickly say some things about this prediction.

  • A six game series is not a short series.  In fact, it’s the closest thing one can get to a seven game series.  So by picking Vancouver in six, I’m definitely taking Boston seriously in this series.
  • While Boston handled its one very physical opponent (Philadelphia) well, the Bruins have needed wins on home ice in Game 7s to dispatch of more flowing offensive teams in Montreal and Tampa Bay.  Vancouver probably falls closer to Tampa than it does Philly.
  • Vancouver’s talent is the deepest in the league this year.  They have three lines that are legitimate threats to score on any shift, and a stable of defensemen that can take care of business in front of Luongo, while also playing a key role in the offensive setup for the Canucks.
  • I usually do not pick very good teams to get eliminated on home ice, but two things went into my picking the Bruins to do just that.
    • Boston seems too good for me to think that they won’t find a way to win two games, and
    • Vancouver is a very good road team (27-10-4 in regular season; 5-3 in playoffs).
I plan on evaluating this series as it goes on, but I know you guys want some sort of prediction, so there it is.  Game 1 is tonight (Wed) at 8 p.m. on NBC in the United States. Boston at Vancouver tonight and Saturday.
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.