Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Stanley Cup Finals preview: myself on the Canucks

Here's the conclusion of this point/counterpoint setting up the Stanley Cup Finals. Earlier, my old Queen's Journal colleague Mike Woods made the case for the Bruins. Here's my take on why I think the Canucks will win.

The NHL playoffs are a funny thing, and the best team doesn't always win. In fact, as I've written before, contrary to the demands of narrative, the best team probably wins about 55 per cent of the time. That leaves 45 per cent of the time where upsets happen, and the odds may be even higher in a series like this that looks like it should be close. Thus, anything could happen here. If you're a betting man or someone making predictions, though, you want that 55 per cent chance over a 45 per cent one, and that's why I'm going with the Canucks.

What Vancouver accomplished this regular season was nothing short of historic. They finished first in the NHL with 117 points, 10 ahead of their nearest competitor (Washington) and 14 ahead of the Bruins. They scored an NHL-best 262 goals and conceded a NHL-low 185 (if you're not entirely convinced of the predictive value of goal differential, it's notable that Boston's +51 was second-best in the league, but miles behind Vancouver's +77). Even an 82-game or 162-game (as in baseball) regular season may not be enough to really give us a solid indication of who the best teams really are, but it's a pretty good sample size, and it suggests that these Canucks are a pretty incredible group.

Special teams also look like a particular advantage for Vancouver. The Canucks put up a NHL-best 24.3 per cent mark on the power play during the regular season, an area where Boston particularly struggled; the Bruins were 20th with a 16.2 per cent mark. Those trends have continued in the postseason, where Vancouver's third with a 28.3 mark (behind only first-round exitees Anaheim and Phoenix), while Boston is 14th with a miserable 8.2 mark (ahead of only the Rangers and Pittsburgh). Postseason penalty killing has also been an edge for Vancouver, where they've put up a 80.6 per cent mark against Boston's 79.4 per cent; that advantage was even more stark in the regular season, where Vancouver's 85.6 per cent mark (third in the league) was notably better than Boston's 82.8 per cent (16th). As close playoff games often come down to what you can do with the man advantage, it's hard not to like the Canucks there.

Vancouver's roster is strong throughout as well. Despite criticism of goaltender Roberto Luongo, his playoff save percentage is a sparkling .920, eighth-best all time. Boston's Tim Thomas may hold an even better .928 mark, but Luongo is no goaltending slouch, and he's got plenty of support. The Canucks' defining characteristic is their depth, as in addition to superb production from Henrik Sedin (a playoff-best 21 points), Daniel Sedin (16) and Ryan Kesler (18), they're also getting key contributions from the likes of Mason Raymond (eight points) and Chris Higgins (seven points). Their defence is also deep and consistent, with everyone from Christian Ehrhoff to Alex Edler to Kevin Bieksa having tremendous playoffs. Moreover, this year has been proof that bruins can be defeated by prominent B.C. products. I think it's going to be close, as Boston's a great team too, but I think the Canucks have enough edges to take this series.

Prediction: Canucks in seven

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