If you asked a Canucks fan at the start of the year who they would want to face in the finals, I'm sure most of them would just be happy to be there, but they have proved to be the top dogs in the league from Day 1 and now sit in a position to debate the issue.
So which would be the better matchup?
The Bruins are definitely the more physical of the two. On defense, they boast a formidable top four and Chara will no doubt have fun going up against the Sedins. We all saw what happened when they went up against a dynamic defensive duo in the Nashville series. Yes, Seidenberg might not be Suter, but he can absolutely hold his own in all game situations.
Their second pairing of Ference and Boychuck aren't exactly going to strike fear into the Kesler line, but they will be able to match the physicality of the Canucks forecheck.
The real problem on defense for Boston comes from their third pairing. Kaberle has been a nightmare on the back end and has seen his minutes drop dramatically. Vancouver would be able to exploit this lack of quality depth.
Up front, Boston have a much more balanced attack and have a nice mix of offensive and defensive players. The top line, centered by Krejci, has been producing consistently for most of the playoffs and behind him they have the likes of Bergeron, Kelly and Seguin. Quality down the middle is how championship teams are built and the Bruins have this area taken care of in spades.
In goal, Luongo would be facing the other Vezina Trophy candidate in Thomas, but he's already proved he can up his game when he matched Rinne in Round 2.
I would still give the nod to Vancouver in all three areas, but the major advantage would come from special teams. The Boston power play has been nothing short of a joke this postseason and I've never seen a team go this far without special teams production.
The one worry I would have if I was a Canucks fan would be the fact that Thomas can steal a game at any given point in time. Unfortunately for the Bruins, though, is that Thomas hasn't been as consistent as he was in the regular season.
On the other side of the continent, we have the Tampa Bay Lightning. They were supposed to get eliminated a long time ago thanks in large part to their lack of depth on the blue line. Yet, they've managed to be just fine on defense. Ohlund and Brewer would likely get the task of shutting down the Sedins, but that might be asking too much from that veteran duo.
Behind them you have up-and-coming phenom Victor Hedman. For the most part, Hedman has been great, but he's had more mental lapses than usual in Round 3 and he could be running out of steam as he continues to adjust to the long and grueling North American game. Again, like the Bruins, the quality takes a dramatic nose dive beyond the top two pairs and they would face the same kind of matchup problems with the Canucks' third and fourth lines.
What the Lightning do have going for them is an incredible trio up front. St Louis is the leading Conne Smythe candidate for the Bolts and leads them into battle on and off the ice. He produces in big games, finds ways around tough defensive checking, and is a dynamo on the power play. Lecavalier has slowed down a bit, but he brings great vision to the ice and underrated two-way ability.
Then we have Stamkos. Here is a guy that is learning more and more each and every game. St Louis has had a great influence on his game and he's under great tutelage with Guy Boucher. He can explode at any point in time and be the big game difference maker that few teams have.
The problem is that they are sorely lacking in depth beyond this group. Bergenheim was having a John Druce-like postseason until he got injured and no one knows if or how effective he'll be in the finals. Role players like Malone, Moore and Downie have given them great grit and given Boucher a multitude of options to play with.
Yet, it's asking a lot from these guys to contribute consistently. They might be able to give Vancouver some problems for a few games, but I don't see matchup problems for the Canucks in this area either.
But what could strike fear into the Canucks is what the Lightning can do on the power play and penalty kill. Vancouver might very well win the depth battle 5-on-5, but Tampa could make this a series with their special teams alone. We all saw how important this area is in the Sharks series, so Vancouver might want to take their chances with Boston just because of this.
Having said that, the biggest discrepancy the Canucks would have on paper would be in between the pipes. What was once a monumental strength for the Lightning has drastically turned into a liability. Roloson has lost all his confidence and has quickly reincarnated as Red Light Racicot or Dan Cloutier (take your pick).
Rolly still has one more game to gain it back, but we could be looking at a four-`game sweep if they don't get this sorted out in a hurry. Mike Smith has looked great in relief, but everybody loves the backup coming off the bench—it's a much different story when the backup quarterback becomes the starter.
The wild card in all of this does seem to come from behind the bench. I would much rather face someone like Claude Julian rather than Guy Boucher. Boucher has proved that he can adjust his strategy and game plan on the fly and he's become a master motivator in his first season. If something isn't working, you can bet that Vancouver will face a much different opponent in the following game.
Both teams are capable of playing good defensive games and/or opening it up to a more run and game style. With Vancouver, it's a matter of picking your poison because the Canucks have proved they can win either way as well.
At the end of the day the Canucks will enter the Stanley Cup final as heavy favorites either way and will have the mountain of expectations to win it all for the first time in franchise history. The good news is they've demonstrated that they can come through in the clutch and put the pedal to the metal when they need to.
I expect Vancouver to win regardless of who they play, but both the Bruins and the Lightning can bring significant challenges in their own way. Goaltending will need to be the difference for both underdogs, but they are climbing an uphill battle.
At the same time, that's why they play the games—anything can (and often does) happen.