Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Stanley Cup Finals preview: Mike Woods on the Bruins

To get you set for the Stanley Cup Finals, myself and former Queen's Journal colleague Mike Woods are running one of our traditional point/counterpoint pieces predicting who will win. First up, here's Mike to make the case for the Bruins. My piece on the Canucks will follow later before the series kicks off at 8 p.m. Eastern/5 p.m. Pacific today. Take it away, Mike!

After the Boston Bruins’ nail-biting 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning last week that got them a berth in the Stanley Cup final, my first thought was that the series would be evenly-matched and picking a winner would be a toss-up.

Instead, most people outside New England seem to be casting the Bruins as underdogs by a wide margin.

It’s hard to blame them. The Vancouver Canucks are rolling; they tamed the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final’s first four games, then relied on show-stopping goaltending from Roberto Luongo in Game 5, who stopped 54 of 56 shots when his team faltered. A President’s Trophy-winning team that has hit full stride heading into the final is hard to pick against. Even EA Sports’ NHL ’11, which is 13-for-14 so far this postseason, is picking the Canucks.

But don’t count Boston out so fast. The Bruins, who seem perfectly happy playing the underdog role, bring a number of things to the table the Canucks haven’t seen yet. How Vancouver responds to them will determine who takes the cake (or, if you will, the pizza).

The series’ most important match-up is Zdeno Chara lining up against the Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The Sedins thrived, of course, against the Sharks last round, who eventually resorted to using Kent Huskins and Marc-Edouard Vlasic to shut down Vancouver’s top line, which didn’t work at all.

The Sedins had the most trouble these playoffs against Nashville. Against a strong shutdown defensive pairing in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, the twins combined for just seven points in six games—hardly top line numbers. They were also a combined minus-16 through the first two rounds.

Chara usually plays with Dennis Seidenberg, but the Big Z by himself is as good as any shutdown pair in the league. He’s likely to disrupt the Sedins’ cycle game, which is their bread and butter.

With the Sedin twins neutralized in Round 2, Vancouver beat Nashville largely due to a superhuman effort from Ryan Kesler. The Bruins and Predators are similar teams – both feature Vezina-calibre goaltending and stifling 5-on-5 defensive play. The difference, of course, is while Nashville could barely put together one scoring line, Boston’s forward depth is on par with Vancouver’s.

Boston’s top line has been as clutch as Vancouver’s, and even their third line features goal-scoring threats Michael Ryder and Tyler Seguin, who are more of a threat to score than the Canucks’ third unit. Vancouver hasn’t had to look beyond their top two lines for goal-scoring, but that could change against Boston.

Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo are Vezina nominees who have both experienced blips. Luongo’s came in the first round, when he was the backup goalie in Game 6 against Chicago before an injury to Cory Schneider forced him back into action. Thomas’s have been less significant: a couple of games against Tampa where he let in five goals, and that’s about it. Questioning Luongo’s playoff credentials is kind of tacky at this point, but unless he wins a Cup, those questions aren’t going away.

Thomas is a wild card in net, which is just the way he and the Bruins like it. Thomas’s flopping around in the net, reminiscent of Dominik Hasek in his prime, could prove to be an asset against the Sedins; it could also be a hinderance. Not to read too much into regular-season stats, but it’s worth noting that Thomas has won his last two games against the Canucks, stopping 96 of 97 shots in the process.

The biggest concern for the Bruins heading into the final, as it has been all playoffs, is their atrocious power play. It’s a disastrous 5-for-61 in the playoffs, and it took until Game 6 of the conference finals for them to score a power-play goal on the road. The Canucks’ penalty killing was third-best in the league this season, which also doesn’t bode well for the B’s.

On the other hand, it can be said that the Bruins’ five-on-five play has made up for their awful power play. After all, they’ve made it this far while firing blanks with the man advantage the whole way. If they can pick things up on the power play, they could have the Canucks on the ropes early in the series.

These teams are evenly-matched five-on-five squads, and this series has great potential to be the most compelling Stanley Cup final in years. It’s right to call Vancouver the favourite, but writing Boston off is a huge mistake. If Chara effectively contains the Sedins and the Bruins’ special teams get back on track, look for the Bruins to be hoisting the Cup later this month.

Prediction: Bruins in 7.

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