Both teams come into the series with long Cup droughts. The Canucks decided to paint the length their drought on their home ice. Motivation?
This is it.
Starting tonight, an entire season of work will be validated. The proverbial blood, sweat, and tears will flow for the next 4 to 7 hockey games. Game 1 starts tonight at 8 EST, and what follows will likely become a new addition into hockey lore.
Both the cities of Boston and Vancouver have gone a long time without a championship. The Bruins last won in 1972 with the great Bobby Orr. Vancouver's was in 1970, when the local minor league team, also called the Canucks, won the Western Hockey League.
Before history can be made, before any team can think about drinking champagne from the top of the best trophy in sports, they must deal with Game 1.
Both teams face a lot of uncertainty in Game 1, for they are not familiar with each other. The Canucks and the Bruins faced each other only once during the regular season (3-1 Boston).
Despite the uncertainty, winning the first game of a series is vitally important. It gives the winning team a boost, psychological edge that the other team can be beaten.
For the home team, a Game 1 win can provide momentum going into the next home game. For the away team, a win can swing home ice advantage.
I think that Vancouver will win this series. It starts with what I predict to be a win in Game 1. Here are 5 reasons why.
After taking a puck to the eye in a regular season game against Colorado, many feared that Manny Malhotra would never see again, let alone return to play for his team.
But, here he is. After being cleared to play in the Stanley Cup Final, Malhotra can give his team a huge boost, both on the ice and on the bench.
The defensive prowess of Malhotra cannot be understated. He was a key penalty killer for the Canucks and is the team's best face-off man. In the regular season he led the team after winning over 61% of draws he took.
His play was credited for the blossoming of Ryan Kesler. Malhotra took away some of the defensive responsibility from the American star, including many of his PK minutes, allowing Kesler to be more aggressive offensively. Ultimately, Kesler scored a career high 41 goals.
If Malhotra returns to play even a fraction of his regular season minutes, it will add much to the Canucks. He can shore up an already solid defense and give other forwards (especially Ryan Kesler) the opportunity to score goals. He can add to the defensive and offensive potency of the already stellar Canucks.
Even if Malhotra cannot play significant minutes, he can give his team a huge boost. Imagine the motivation that comes from being around a guy like Malhotra. He was already a player whose discipline and focus was infectious. But now, after fighting back from such a horrific injury, just seeing Malhotra could give the Canucks even greater motivation and inspiration to win.
Bottom Line: Whether or not Manny Malhotra plays significant minutes, he can give his team a tremendous boost.
During this year's playoffs, both teams have played 3 Game 1's. Vancouver is 3-0. In their three wins, Vancouver has shut out the other team twice. Overall, they have given up only 2 goals in those three games. They have scored 7 goals.
Boston is 1-2 in those games. In their two losses, Boston has been shutout once. Overall, Boston has given up 10 goals in games opening a series. They have scored 9.
Worst of all, especially against Tampa Bay, Tim Thomas has been abused (a weak backhanded goal from defenseman Brett Clark comes to mind). Even their one victory (7-3 over Philly) was not the teams' preferred defensive style.
The Bruins have not looked good when starting a series. The fact that they rebounded in the following games is a credit to their incredible resilience.
Vancouver, on the other hand, has been impressive in their Game 1's. They shut down the Blackhawks and Predators and then were able to wake up in the third period against the Sharks. In comparison to Thomas' poor play, Luongo has been great.
Bottom Line: If Vancouver can come out of the gates like they have in the past, they will win this game and set themselves up to win the series.
The B's captain needs to come up huge in order to contain the offensive firepower of Vancouver.
The matchup that people are talking about is between the Bruins' best defensive pair, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, and Vancouver's top line, Alex Burrows and Henrik and Daniel Sedin. If Chara and Seidenberg can shut down this group, Vancouver's offensive ability will be severely diminished.
I doubt that Chara and Seidenberg will see much of the Sedin twins tonight. With home ice advantage, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault has the last change, meaning he will be able to keep his best offensive players away from the Bruins' best defensive players. The Canucks will also be able to make sure that their best defensive players will be able to neutralize the top line of the Bruins.
Simply put, the last change allows for the home team to create mismatches at will.
In the Bruins' previous two series, home ice advantage played a huge role. In Game 6, Tampa Bay used the last change to keep Stamkos, Lecavalier and St. Louis away from Chara and Seidenberg. The result was an offensive shootout that the Lightning won.
In Game 7, Boston used home ice to get Chara and Seidenberg against Tampa's best players. Because of this, Game 7 was a grinding, defensive game, with only one goal.
Bottom Line: Home ice is huge when creating matchups. Vancouver has it and can create mismatches in its favor.
Calm and Collected
Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo has been called the most overrated goaltender in the game. He gives up soft goals. He does not have the the focus required to win the big game for his team. Certainly, he cannot be relied upon to carry his team in even one playoff game.
It appeared that all of this was true for Luongo during the first round against Chicago. The Blackhawks were physical around Roberto's crease and they got in his head. After winning the first 3 games of the series, Luongo and the Canucks were pushed to a Game 7.
But times change. Since the Chicago series, Luongo has been 8-3, including a shutout. He has outdueled Pekka Rinne and last year's Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi in back to back series. In the past 11 games, he has only given up 22 goals.
Most importantly, I think, he is coming off of his best game. In Game 5 against the Sharks, Luongo made 54 saves on 56 shots. He did give up a weird goal after he misplayed a puck in the 3rd period, but he played well. He kept his team in the game despite immense pressure from the Sharks offense.
If Luongo is coming off of his best performances in the playoffs, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas is coming off of some of his worst. Despite having some phenomenal games against the Lightning, (including 2 shutouts and one of the best saves ever against Steve Downie) he also had terrible ones. He gave up weak goals and he was caught out of position many times. After giving up 4 goals just one time in the previous series, Thomas gave up 4 goals 4 times against the Lightning.
Bottom Line: Luongo is playing better than Tim Thomas. If that continues, it will give a huge advantage to the Canucks.
Just after Bieksa's crazy goal crosses the goal line.
Every team takes advantage of lucky breaks as they advance through a tournament. While Boston has had some nice plays (Thomas' wonderful save comes to mind), Vancouver simply has had more. That, combined with a few other stats and trends, might prove that destiny is on the side of the Canadians.
The most obvious example is Kevin Bieksa's overtime, game winning goal to beat the San Jose Sharks. The puck fluttered perfectly to the defenseman's stick after caroming off of the stanchion. Then, Bieksa fired a virtual one-timer past the skate of Niemi and into the back of the net.
It was an unbelievable goal, something that never has happened and most likely never will again. To have that amount of luck on your side is a phenomenal thing. It can add so much confidence to a team when the puck seems to always bounce your way.
Another historical fact has been cited multiple times to support the chances of Vancouver. Twice in history, a Canadian city has hosted the Olympics. Both times, the hockey team from that city has won the Stanley Cup (Montreal 1976, Calgary 1988). Guess what? Vancouver hosted the last Olympics.
The fascinating thing about this particular statistic is that Canada's gold medal win in Vancouver was led by Canuck's goaltender Roberto Luongo. Back then, the gold medal was seen as a step in the right direction for the oft-criticized goalie. Now he has the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup and put all of his critics to bed.
Bottom Line: Lucky breaks can be the difference in any game of any sport. Vancouver has gotten more during the playoffs so far. If this trend continues they can win Game 1 and the Stanley Cup.