It comes down to this. They made the team in training camp. They got to know each other in the pre-season. They proved themselves through 82 regular season games. They battled through three rounds of conference playoffs and came out on top. And now the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins are about to face off against one another for the privilege, the honor, the glory of lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Who will win it all? Here is my prediction…
The Stanley Cup Finals
1. Vancouver Canucks vs 3. Boston Bruins
The Canucks are on an absolute tear right now. As they have advanced through each round of the playoffs, they have finished off their opponents in fewer and fewer games. They vanquished the Chicago Blackhawks in dramatic fashion in Game 7. They took care of the Nashville Predators in 6 games in the second round. In the conference finals, they made quick work of the San Jose Sharks, defeating them in 5 games. Will the pattern continue? Not likely, as the Boston Bruins stand in their way.
The Bruins have something to prove after last year’s collapse, and they’re making themselves heard. They struggled out of the gate, needing 7 games against their most hated rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. After finishing strong in the first round, they rode that momentum to sweep the Philadelphia Flyers in just four games. In the conference finals, they managed to end the Cinderella story of this year’s playoffs, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in a very tight Game 7. Will the wear and tear of two seven-game series take their toll on the Bruins? Maybe, but they also provide valuable grit, experience, and belief for a team that has the tools to take the Cup.
Both teams are Cup-worthy, but there can be only one. Let’s break it down.
Forwards: Two words: Sedin Twins. One of them led the NHL in scoring last year. This year, the other twin did it. You can’t write that stuff, man. It’s that incredible. And their scoring prowess has continued in the postseason, as Henrik Sedin is the top scorer in the playoffs with 21 points. The twins work their magic on a line with a great finisher, Alexandre Burrows. Going down the depth chart, Ryan Kesler had a breakout season and is only improving as the postseason continues. Mason Raymond, Maxim Lapierre, and Chris Higgins have been dangerous, and Raffi Torres brings the muscle for the Vancouver forwards. In Boston, Nathan Horton has been putting the nails in his opponents’ coffins, scoring game winners in both of the Bruins’ Game 7 victories. David Krejci is scoring with consistency, and the Bruins are getting scoring support from Michael Ryder, Chris Kelly, and Mark Recchi. The surprise forward on the Bruins is rookie Tyler Seguin, who has six points in 7 games in the playoffs. However, all six of those points came in the first two games of the conference finals, so the secret is out on this kid. Tampa Bay shut him down in the final five games of the series, and the Canucks will know to keep an eye on him too.
Defense: I can sum this one up in two words too, but this time in regards to one, single player: Zdeno Chara. They don’t call this guy “Big Z” for nothing. Standing at 6’9″ before lacing up the skates, this guy is a monster that you don’t want to face as you attempt to cross his blue line. He leads the postseason in plus/minus with a +11 rating. However, he only has 2 goals and 3 assists, and he’s been spending all of his time on the power play screening the goalies in the crease. While his massive body is undeniably effective at hindering a goalie’s view, he’s usually parked at the blue line, sending record-breaking 105.9 mph bombs at the net. The lack of points and his reluctance to release his slap shots leads me to believe he might be nursing an injury. Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference provide defensive support for the Bruins, but Tomas Kaberle and Johnny Boychuk have been liabilities throughout the playoffs. On the other end of the ice, Vancouver boasts a strong defensive corps including Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, and Alexander Edler. Offensive defenseman Christian Ehrhoff got injured in the conference finals, but might be able to start the Stanley Cup Finals with the extended rest. Vancouver has more depth in the defensive end, and more players who can put the puck in the net.
Goalies: Both of these goalies are nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender in the league. Both have two shutouts and 12 wins in the playoffs, and they even both sport a 2.29 goals against average! Does it get any better than this? Thomas has the slight edge with a .929 save percentage compared to Luongo’s .922 SV%. These stats are consistent to both goalies’ regular season stats, during which Thomas set a new NHL record with his .938 SV%. Luongo has more experience in the postseason, but he has historically struggled on the big stages of hockey. Thomas has been unbelievable for this entire season, and that’s not stopping now.
Special Teams: Boston’s power play has mysteriously disappeared in the playoffs, and again I contribute that to the absence of Chara’s bombs from the point. Vancouver has been killing off penalties with a strong defense and many defensive-minded forwards. They have also been clicking on the power play, using the Sedins, Burrows, Kesler, and their impressively-offensive defenseman. If Boston wants to keep their Cup dreams alive, they’ll need to create a change in these trends.
Coaches: Claude Julien was a big question mark after last season’s playoffs, but that was the past. He’s gotten his squad focused and dangerous. After a slow start against Montreal, his team made swift business of the Flyers, and he then went on to out-coach Guy Boucher and the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s preaching hard-hitting, defense-first hockey, and it’s working. On the other bench, Alain Vigneault has had to deal with substantial injuries throughout the entire season, and his team still won the President’s Trophy as his Vancouver Canucks led the NHL in points. Luck? No. Blessed with a wealth of talented players? Maybe. But it takes a good coach to keep players focused throughout a season with a revolving door of players coming in and out of the lineup.
Intangibles: Boston has a card up their sleeve with Tyler Seguin, the 2nd overall pick from the 2010 draft. He’s proven that he can get on the scoresheet in the playoffs, although the surprise disappeared after two games. If he can’t get things going against Vancouver, he can be replaced in the lineup by Shawn Thornton, who has sat since Seguin’s surge. Thornton isn’t the greatest offensive threat, but he’s a gritty, hard-hitting force who’s been here before. He knows what it takes to win it all, as he played a big role with the Anaheim Ducks when they won the Stanley Cup in 2007. He could be inserted into the lineup to shake up a Vancouver team that has seemed unstoppable. The Canucks, on the other hand, have perhaps the biggest story going into the Stanley Cup Finals. Manny Malhotra has been cleared to play after recovering from an injury that many considered career-threatening. The fact that Malhotra might be able to play again in the Finals is about as close to a miracle as you can get. Not only will Malhotra’s return provide faceoff expertise and defensive strength, it would also bring an incredible emotional lift to a team rallying around one of its alternate captains.
Prediction: Vancouver in 7