Saturday, June 18, 2011

Vancouver Vanquished, Boston Captures the Cup

A funny thing happened on the way to the coronation of the Vancouver Canucks as Stanley Cup champions.

A team that supposedly didn't have as much speed or talent won the Cup.

Perhaps the Boston Bruins didn't have the speed and talent of the Canucks. What they did have, however, was a physically dominating presence on the ice; amazing heart; an unflappable demeanor; and a goalie that was absolutely incredible.

And now they have the Stanley Cup.

The seven game series was a war of attrition, especially on the Canucks. They lost Dan Hamhuis to injury;  Aaron Rome to a suspension after his cheap hit on Nathan Horton that knocked the Bruins forward out of the series; and Mason Raymond to a fractured vertebra. They had numerous players that were contending with injuries.

The Bruins had the aforementioned Nathan Horton knocked out of the series with a severe concussion. Several Bruins were themselves contending with injuries.

This is the nature of the Stanley Cup finals. The battle is not just with the opponent on the ice, but with the physical and mental grind of getting to this point. The team that can best battle through the physical limitations and displays the mental toughness to win is the team that typically hoists the coveted silver chalice.

Talent alone does not capture the Cup.

Yes, you have to have the players that can get it done. That is obvious. Talent alone, however, will not bring home the Cup.

It was the Bruins that had not only the talent, but the heart and mental toughness to win.

The Bruins battled back from a 2-0 deficit to win the series in 7 games. They absolutely pummeled the Canucks at the Gahden, making Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo look like a beer league goalie. In the first three games on Vancouver ice, Luongo was outstanding, pitching two shutouts and winning an overtime game 3-2.

Even though the Bruins could not capture a win in the first three games in Vancouver, Boston netminder Tim Thomas was spectacular, losing two games by a 1-0 margin and dropping a 3-2 overtime decision. Thomas was confident and solid in net. In watching the series, it never seemed that he got rattled, and his confidence in net carried over to the players in front of him.

By contrast, the Canucks looked as if they carried the weight of the President's Trophy on their back, along with the expectations that they would finally bring the Cup back to Canada after an 18 year absence. With each passing game, that weight got heavier. After the Bruins tied the series at 2, one could see the Canucks gripping their sticks more tightly. Suddenly, the smiles on the faces of the Canucks players vanished.

Each team held serve on their home ice in games 5 and 6, setting up a deciding game 7 in Vancouver. Everyone knew the home fans would be in full throat for this one, and once again the pressure shifted to the Bruins, who had been unable to solve the Canucks on their home ice.

I felt that the team that scored first would be the team that would win the game.

That team would be the Bruins.

The Bruins would take a 4-0 win on the Canucks home ice to capture the Cup. Boston physically wore down the Canucks and took away the offensive threats of  the Sedins, Kesler, and Burrows. The Canucks had no answer for the stifling defense of the Bruins and the wall that was Thomas in net.

The post mortem of this series can be distilled down to three key points: the outstanding play of Thomas in net; the consistently tough physical play of the Bruins; and the subsequent disappearance of the key offensive threats of the Canucks.

Thomas posted a remarkable 1.15 GAA and a .967 save percentage in the finals. Even in defeat, he made amazing saves and kept the Bruins in the contest. The Bruins squad seemed to sense that they were always in every game they lost, just a goal, a play away from turning the tide in their favor. That sense of confidence pervaded their play as they seemed loose and confident. The effect on the Bruins of Thomas' play in net was incalculable.

By contrast, the Canucks- and by extension, their fans- seemed to be holding their collective breath waiting for Luongo to collapse. After the first two games on home ice, that did not appear to be in the offing. That confident veneer was shattered after the next two games in Boston. Now, the question of the fragility of the Canucks netminder started to emerge. And you know, those questions had to be in Luongo's mind.

By game 7, the physical play of the Bruins appeared to have completely worn down the Canucks. The Bruins took every opportunity to hit the Canucks all series, and the toll mounted. By game 7, the Canucks looked a step slower and were taking the brunt of the physical contact. This wore down the Canucks and limited their effectiveness, especially in the offensive zone. There was no effective answer from the Canucks to the physical play of the Bruins, and this helped to turn the tide of the series and the pivotal game 7 in favor of Boston.

The disappearance of the scoring stars of the Canucks can be at least partially attributed to the physical play of the Bruins. However, the response of the Canucks to the punishment that the Bruins brought to the ice was, at best, baffling. The Canucks spent more time diving and complaining to the officials than answering the physical challenge. For Canuck fans, the play of the Sedins and Kesler in particular is disappointing. The lack of scoring presence of the Canucks stars in the championship series doomed them. No doubt, they were dinged up in the series. So was everyone else. The fact is that on the most important stage, they did not elevate their game.

And they will live with this for a long time.

The Canucks had a great season. You can't take that away from them.

Boston had a better season.

The Bruins validated some time worn adages in this series: strong goaltending can carry a team to victory; physical play can turn the tide of a seven game series; and heart wins out over talent.

And that is what makes a champion.

My pick for this series: Canucks in 6

The outcome: Bruins in 7

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