VANCOUVER- As the waterfront roars with a tidal wave of blue, green and white, hockey-crazed Vancouver sits just hours away from hosting its first Stanley Cup Finals game since 1994.
With banners in windows and jerseys on backs, the mellow vibe of this beautiful city will soon give way to all-out frenzy.
For the Canucks and their opponents from the East, the Boston Bruins, the first battle will be calming the storm inside. The series features two-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Recchi among other veterans, but both rosters are riddled with Finals neophytes.
A few younger players on each team admitted they might not have slept much last night while the veteran Sami Salo remained confident he would be rested and ready for battle. Most players, including the Boston rookie Tyler Seguin, emphasized preparing effectively and relishing the high stakes.
“I think we’re pretty calm,” said the Canucks’ alternate captain Daniel Sedin.”There’s going to be some nerves tonight, obviously. If you don’t have nerves tonight, I think something’s wrong with you.
We’re excited. We’re going to have fun and enjoy every moment of it. We’re ready to go.”
Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, who previously played in the less intense Florida market, lauded the passion of his seemingly permanent home in Vancouver.
“It’s fun to play in the city when you’re winning,” Luongo said. “Everybody knows who you are and is very supportive, especially at this stage of the season when your team has a chance to win the Stanley Cup.”
Luongo, who was the winning goalie for Canada when they captured Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010 against the United States, said that his preparation and approach were different for this series. He said there was more intense preparation strategically and a bit of a “mind game” that would unfold over the seven-game series as opposed to a single-elimination international tournament.
Many players in the series have competed internationally in the Olympics, World Championships and amateur tournaments but all seemed to agree that the Stanley Cup was hockey’s greatest prize.
“When you play this long, with good friends and teammates, it’ the biggest game you can play,” Daniel Sedin said.
The series marks the first time two European captains will compete against each other in the Finals. Three years ago, the Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin’s Swedish National Team teammate Nicklas Lidstrom became the first European captain of a Stanley Cup champion.
“I think both of us are very proud of being where we are. It just happened that you have two teams with European captains,” said the Slovak captain of the Bruins, Zdeno Chara.
Chara and Sedin will likely be matched nose-t0-nose throughout the series, with Chara and defense partner Dennis Seidenberg taking on the Sedins and their linemate Alex Burrows.
Both Sedins remarked the tremendous reach of the towering Chara, who stands over seven feet tall on his skates. In turn, Chara praised the ability of the Sedins to elevate the offensive play of all their teammates as well as the singular chemistry between the twins.
“(That chemistry exists) because we play together a long time. We played on the same line since we were 12 years old. It has nothing to do with telepathy,” Daniel Sedin said.
On special teams, the playoffs’ plus-minus leader Chara will spearhead a tenacious group of penalty killers. They will face the daunting task of slowing down Vancouver’s power play, whose 28.3 percent conversion percentage tops all teams that advanced past the first round.
“We don’t have a setup where we know where everyone is going to be, and the other team doesn’t know for sure where the guys are on ice,” Henrik Sedin said. “A lot of puck movement, players moving around. That’s key to success: We’re tough to read.”
Boston’s power play has struggled tremendously. Their 8.2 percent conversion rate remains the lowest among all teams that advanced past the first round. In their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against Montreal, they became the first team in NHL history to advance without scoring a single power-play goal in the series.
Chara figures significantly into their plans with the man advantage. A gifted puck-mover with the hardest shot in the NHL (measured at 106 mph), Chara has been lifted from the blue line and plunked down low.
“Usually I like to look over the guy’s shoulder in front, I don’t know if that’s going to be possible unless we put a ladder in the crease,” Luongo joked Tuesday.
Luongo added that he felt Chara’s best asset was his shot. While there seemed to be little hope of budging him from the goalmouth, Luongo said he was comfortable with Chara’s explosive shot being lifted from the point.
Although lineups and match-ups have been added to George Carlin’s list of what are now nine dirty words in the series, Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien and General Manager Peter Chiarelli both effectively intimated that Patrice Bergeron’s line would be the preferred forward match-up against the Sedins.
That would also likely mean that Ryan Kesler’s line would be pitted against Boston’s top line of the Vancouver product Milan Lucic, center David Krejci and right-winger Nathan Horton.
Horton, a teammate of Luongo’s in Florida, came from the Panthers in a trade before the season. In his first ever Stanley Cup Playoff appearance, he has reached the Finals and become one of Boston’s top offensive players.
“It couldn’t have been any better. I had an unbelievable year with my teammates. It’s been a lot of fun,” Horton said. “To be in the spot we are in now, it’s something that you do dream of.
To a man, both teams were cautious not to savor their success to this point for more than a moment. They also both showed a great deal of respect for their opposition.
“You don’t want to open up too much with this team. They’re pretty talented,” Horton said. “You want to be patient, play smart, get pucks in deep, grind it out that way. Just don’t turn the puck over, don’t give them too much.”
The mutual respect may be strongest in net, where two of this year’s Vezina Trophy finalists will square off–the large-looming Luongo and highly unorthodox yet highly effective Tim Thomas. Both teams’ skaters emphasized strong net presence, rebound chances and varying their attack as critical to scoring on the two stingy goaltenders.
“(Thomas) will do whatever it takes to make a save, he’ll put any part of his body in front of the puck,” Luongo said. “You can’t teach that stuff. I mean, which way is it? I don’t know.”
On the Boston side, there remains no shortage of British Columbia connections with their team president Cam Neely, elder statesman Recchi and the nouveau Neely, Lucic, all hailing from the province.
“We all grew up Canuck fans. Obviously I grew up watching Stan Smyl, that group of guys there, when they went to the Finals,” Recchi said.
Both teams have built the depth to sustain injuries with the Bruins’ acquiring Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley to shore up their forward depth and Canucks’ dressing nine different defensemen during these playoffs.
“On both sides there’s lots of guys that could be an x-factor in this series. That’s why both teams have gotten this far,” Recchi said.
“Obviously your top players have to play well. At the same time, you know, they’re not always going to play great. It’s when you have other depth players on your hockey club come up big, that’s what gets you to the Stanley Cup.”