Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
After five days of hype and previewing, the appointed day is finally upon us. The Boston Bruins will skate into Rogers Arena tonight to kick off the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks, and the eyes of the hockey world will be on two teams who haven’t been on this stage for a long time. The Bruins haven’t been in a Cup Final since 1990, when they lost to the Edmonton Oilers in five games, and the Canucks haven’t been to the Final since 1994 when they were defeated by the New York Rangers in an epic seven game series. Both of those series obviously aren’t on the minds of the players in this battle, but needless to say the fanbases of the teams are both hungry to end their respective Cup droughts.
With the puck ready to drop in a matter of hours, the hour of truth is upon us: who will win this series and silence the critics once and for all? Will the Canucks finally win a Cup in their 40th season, and bring a title back to Canada for the first time since 1993, or will the Bruins win their first title since 1972? Those questions will be answered as we move forward over the next couple of weeks, but here are the keys to winning for each team, followed by my pick to bring home the championship.
Keys for Boston:
Consistency from Tim Thomas
In the conference final against the Lightning, goaltender Tim Thomas was arguably the most inconsistent player on the ice for the Bruins. In three of the games, he allowed a combined total of one goal, but in the other four, he allowed 20 goals. This hot and cold performance by Thomas absolutely cannot be replicated if the Bruins want to have any shot at beating Vancouver, especially considering how potent the Canucks’ offense has been.
Keep the Even Strength Advantage
All the talk throughout the playoffs when it comes to the Bruins’ scoring has been their anemic power play. Sure, they are only converting on 8.2% of their chances, but the real key to their offensive success has been their great play at even strength. The Bruins have a league-best 1.74/1 goals for/against ratio at even strength in these playoffs, which is nearly 3/4’s of a goal better than the Canucks. If they can keep most of these games at 5-on-5, they will be in a prime position to win.
Get the Early Lead
In the 2011 playoffs, the Bruins have an .889% winning percentage when they score the first goal, and they are winning nearly 80% of their games when they are leading after the first period. There obviously is a fine line between scoring first and just sitting on the lead and trying to expand it (just ask the Lightning), but if the Bruins want to beat the Canucks, a great way to do it would be to score early and let their solid defense and Tim Thomas do the rest of the work.
Keys for Vancouver:
Commit Fewer Penalties
Even though the Canucks looked pretty dominant against the Sharks in the Western Conference Finals, there was one disturbing trend that started in the third game: the Canucks started getting whistled for a lot of penalties. Whether or not three games makes a trend is questionable, but one thing is for certain: Vancouver cannot give Boston 19 power plays in three games if they want to win this series. They need to stay out of the penalty box and avoid giving the Bruins the opportunity to turn around their abysmal man-advantage unit.
It’s not a stretch to say that one of the most important Canucks in this series will be their goaltender, but really the key for Luongo will be to stay composed. He has shown flashes of the inconsistency that has given him a bad playoff reputation (especially in the Chicago series), but against the Sharks he was nothing short of magnificent. His 54 save performance in Game 5 of that series was a tremendous statement to the rest of the league that he may finally be taking the big leap forward to become known as a franchise goaltender, and he will need to maintain that level of confidence for his team to win the Cup.
Sedins Need to Play Better at Even Strength
The Sedin twins had a great series against the Sharks, but looking at their numbers, it becomes apparent as to why the Canucks only have a 1.07/1 ratio of even strength goals for and against in these playoffs. Henrik had 12 points in the five-game series against the Sharks, but seven of those were on the power play. Daniel had an even worse ratio, scoring six points in the conference finals and four of those came on the man-advantage. Nine of his 16 points in these playoffs have come on the power play. Both Sedin’s need to produce better in 5-on-5 situations if the Canucks’ offense is to improve there, because they can’t count on getting a slew of chances against a team that tends to be as disciplined as the Bruins.
Who Will Win?
Common sense would dictate that the team who has won the tougher conference should be the favorite to win the championship, and that would certainly be the Canucks. The West was a tough road this year, and they really had to work hard to get to this point, so they rightfully are getting most of the love from pundits as they make their Cup picks. I’m going to buck those experts, however, and pick the Bruins to win the series in six games. I simply refuse to believe that Tim Thomas will have as wildly inconsistent a series as he did last round, and I have a lot of faith in the Bruins defense to find a way to slow down the Sedin twins.
I’ll pick the Bruins to win their first Stanley Cup in nearly 40 years in a 4-2 victory over the Canucks in this series. This Vancouver team is arguably the best that we’ve ever seen, but the Bruins seem like they could take the underdog role and run with it in a big way.
Will I be right? I highly doubt it, considering that I picked the Sharks to win the Cup before the playoffs started, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, so Boston fans will hope that I’m right in that fashion.
Stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for all the latest happenings in the Stanley Cup Finals, and for some great coverage from both the Bruins and Canucks perspectives.