By Nick Craddock
TheSportsKraze is officially an international enterprise now that I, fair-haired Canadian Nick Craddock, have signed on to be a contributing writer for this blog. Naturally, there’s no better to way commence my blogging than with a post on the NHL. And lo and behold, the Stanley Cup finals begin Wednesday!
Without further adieu, here’s a preview of what to look for in this series between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks:
Forwards: Vancouver’s top-six playoff points leaders: Henrik Sedin/Ryan Kesler/Daniel Sedin/Alex Burrows/Mason Raymond/Chris Higgins. Boston’s top-six playoff points leaders: David Krejci/Nathan Horton/Patrice Bergeron/Brad Marchand/Chris Kelly/Michael Ryder.
The Canucks’ President’s Trophy-winning season was largely fueled by the work of their forwards, who from No. 1 to No. 12, comprise arguably the deepest group in the league. The Sedin twins—Henrik and Daniel—pack a mighty one, two-punch and will be expected to shoulder most of the scoring load for Vancouver again. Complementing the Sedin twins has been the bring-your-hardhat-and-lunch-pale, workmen-like efforts of Ryan Kesler and Chris Higgins, who was picked up at the trade deadline as an afterthought yet paid dividends. The added bonus has been the offensive touch of Higgins and Kesler, in addition to their physical and defensive play.
The Bruins’ forwards, though deep, lack the star-studded caliber of the Canucks’ lineup. Krejci, Horton and Bergeron would probably rate as second-line forwards for most elite teams in the NHL. Furthermore, scoring that was once there during the regular season, looking at you Milan Lucic, has dropped off during the postseason. That being said, it was nice to see rookie Tyler Seguin, the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft, breakout from his season-long slumber in the Eastern Conference finals with six points. Even so, edge goes to the Canucks.
Defensemen: Vancouver’s top-four defensemen by average time on ice: Kevin Bieksa/Dan Hamhuis/Alex Edler/Christian Ehrhoff. Boston’s top-four defensemen by average time on ice: Dennis Seidenberg, Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference.
Injuries ravaged the Canucks’ defense this year as Bieksa, Hamhuis, Edler and Sami Salo all missed substantial time due to injuries. All five guys have stayed relatively healthy during the playoffs and all are exceeding expectations thus far, especially Bieksa, whose five playoff goals, including the series-clincher in overtime versus San Jose in the conference finals, fall only one short of the six he tallied in 66 regular season games.
On the other hand, Boston’s defensemen, much like its forwards, are doing a serviceable job, but could be doing a lot more. After 44 points during the regular season, Chara (a.k.a. That Big Slovak) has a paltry five points through 17 playoff games and his usually robust physical game has been lacking.
The Bruins gave up a hefty package at the trade deadline for Tomas Kaberle, but the former Toronto D-man has been largely been a non-factor and continues to try and find his groove in Beantown. He needs to ask Stella for some advice on how to find lost groove, apparently.
On paper, it seems Boston has the better defensive corps, but recent production says otherwise. Canucks get the nod here.
Goalies: Picking between Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo is like picking between your children: It’s unfair because you love both Vezina Trophy candidates, but you still love one a little bit more because he guarantees a series win and then delivers a shutout in game 7 of the conference finals. That was Thomas, whose terrific comeback year from hip surgery has continued well into these playoffs.
Luongo’s numbers are on par with Thomas’, but he did also play a large role in almost choking away a 3-0 series lead in the first round.
Call Thomas 1(a) and Luongo 1(b).
Coaches: Vancouver Alain Vigneault and Boston’s Claude Julien are evenly French-Canadian, and equally skilled motivators. Both teams were taken to the limit by lower-seeded teams in the first round only to triumph in seven games.
The coaches will have their teams prepared and raring to go. Call this a tie.
History: It’s nice to see a matchup between two teams in great hockey markets. Had Tampa Bay won, it would’ve been somewhat disheartening to have hockey-crazed Vancouver, carrying the hopes of many Canadians to bring the Cup home North of the border for the first time since 1993 when the Canadiens claimed the prize, juxtaposed with a team in Southern Florida, home of old people and bandwagon hockey fans, possibly claiming its second Cup in the last decade. Expect great atmospheres in Rogers Place and the TD Garden.
The Canucks last appeared in the finals in 1994, but have never won the Stanley Cup in the 40-year history of the franchise.
The Bruins have won the Cup five times, the last time coming in the spring of 1972, but it’s important to note that all five of Boston’s championship seasons occurred when the NHL consisted of 14 teams or less. Boston last appeared in the finals in 1990.
Likeliest candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy (MVP of the playoffs):
From Vancouver: Kesler (he’s been full of piss and vinegar all postseason, embodying what playoff hockey is all about), Luongo, (Insert first name) Sedin.
From Boston: Thomas, Horton, Krejci.
How they got here:
Vancouver: Defeated Chicago Blackhawks in seven/Nashville Predators in six/San Jose Sharks in five.
Boston: Defeated Montreal Canadiens in seven/Philadelphia Flyers in four/Tampa Bay Lightning in seven.
So, where will the series be won? Special teams. It’s as simple as that. Vancouver got a huge boost when it was announced that Manny Maholtra, who suffered a severe eye injury in March that threatened his vision, was cleared to play in this series. Maholtra was the Canucks’ best penalty-killer prior to his injury and his return won’t make things any easier for a Bruins team struggling to score on the power play all postseason. Boston was an abysmal 0-21 against Montreal and registered an underwhelming 5-40 (12.5 percent) mark in its next two series combined.
Comparatively, Vancouver had the best power play unit during the regular season and third-best during the playoffs, converting 28.3 percent of their opportunities with the man advantage.
Capitalizing on scoring chances is something the Bruins must fix. Boston may have been able to score in bunches while even-strength against Tampa and its journeyman goalie Dwayne Roloson, but Luongo is not to be confused with a journeyman. Nor is he to be confused with the lead singer of Journey.
ESPN’s NHL analyst Barry Melrose predicts the Canucks will hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup in six games. Generally, dear readers, I’d advise you not to follow the advice of a man with a mullet. However, I’ll lend some credibility to the mulleted man’s prediction by agreeing with him because I think he’s spot-on this time.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.