The Stanley Cup Finals are upon us again and this year's matchup is sure be an entertaining series. The Boston Bruins will take on the Vancouver Canucks in the league's first Canadian versus American team final since 2006.
For Boston Bruins, this series is all about redemption. After over 20 years of playoff struggles, the Bruins find themselves able to wash away the frustrations of the 1988 Stanley Cup Final, a four-game sweep at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers.
The Vancouver Canucks' story is similar to the Bruins. Having never won a Stanley Cup in their 40-year history and only reaching the Cup Final two times before this postseason, the Canucks are desperate to prove to their city—and Canada—that they are finally a playoff team.
Given the circumstances surrounding the Bruins and Canucks, there are a host of questions fans want answered. Read to find out some of the most pressing matters of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
In the playoffs, special teams can make or break a team's success. As evidenced by the Canucks in the Western Conference Final, a strong powerplay can give players the momentum push to pad leads with additional tallies and force opposing squads into submission.
The Boston Bruins' powerplay has been absolutely dismal this postseason. Operating at a laughable 8.2 percent efficiency (according to NHL.com) the team's powerplay has not gotten the job done in the 2011 NHL playoffs.
Compared to a Canucks penalty kill that exhibits an almost 81 percent success rate and shut down the San Jose Sharks' high-octane powerplay units, the Bruins must be shaking in their boots.
The Bruins must start converting with the man advantage, plain and simple. Failing that, their fortunes may fall very quickly in this series.
In these instances, a team's depth players can really make all the difference in a game. While a third or fourth line forward will see less minutes than a top six-er, the importance of depth deep in the playoffs cannot be overstated.
The Bruins fourth line, usually featuring Daniel Paille, Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell, has also put up strong numbers this postseason. The plus/minus of all three averages out to barely -2, respectable but not solid. Those three are going to have to sharpen their defensive skills and raise their on ice rating if they want to be difference makers in this series.
The Canucks' recent fourth line, Victor Oreskovich, Cody Hodgson and Tanner Glass, played well over the course of the Western Conference Final. Midway through the series, however, head coach Alain Vigneault swapped in Jeff Tambellini and Alex Bolduc to try and shake things up and generate more offense.
The plus/minus of the Canucks fourth line players, however, is significantly worse than the Bruins'. Tanner Glass alone is a -4, and Hodgson is the line's best as a +1. That kind of stat does not bode well for the Canucks' depth players, who may see yet another swap if Vigneault does not believe they can get the job done.
Canucks captain Henrik Sedin may be leading his team in postseason points with 21, but fans must not forget the amount of no-shows the All-Star forward had in the first two rounds of play.
According to the Canucks official Website, against the Chicago Blackhawks, Sedin had five measly assists and no goals. The next round, facing a heavily defensive Nashville Predators team, Sedin had one goal and only three assists. What kind of performance is that out of a Hart Trophy candidate?
Thankfully, Sedin came alive versus the San Jose Sharks, scoring 12 points in five games.
How will Sedin hold up against the Bruins' big defensive corps? It appears he will continue his hot streak, but even that is hard to count on. Henrik Sedin must play well for the Canucks to capture the Stanley Cup.
Playing in his hometown against his favourite childhood team, Milan Lucic will have a ton of pressure on his shoulders during this series.
The powerful left winger has, thanks to NHL.com, accounted for only nine points this playoff campaign, a significant drop from his 30-goal regular season.
Why Lucic's offensive prowess has been stunted over the last three rounds is anybody's guess. Were opposing defensemen learning his tricks? Is Lucic finding it to be a mental struggle to bring the Cup home to Boston?
Whatever the case, Lucic is a big part of the team that won the tough Northeast division in 2010/2011, and if he doesn't get back to producing like he did in the regular season, the Bruins may be dead in the water by Game 3.
Sidelined with an undisclosed injury in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, Canucks blueliner Christian Ehrhoff has left a huge void in the 'Nucks defence. Ranked fifth amongst his teammates for most points scored this playoff run, Ehrhoff's dominating presence on and off the scoresheet is necessary for the Canucks to shut down the Bruins' goalscorers.
Head coach Alain Vigneault expects the German-born defender to be ready to play in Game 1, but fans are still worried whether or not Ehrhoff will be playing at 100 percent.
Playing through injuries is something players do all the time in the playoffs, but it is especially dangerous when a team is playing for the Stanley Cup. If Ehrhoff were to go down in Game 1 and miss the rest of the finals, the Canucks will have a crisis on their hands.
The Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins both have famously rabid fanbases and loud buildings. Both have experienced Cup droughts that are probably longer than most of their newer fans, so what rink will be more intimidating for the visiting team?
Rogers Arena, formerly known as GM Place, has been consistently packed for 358 straight games—dating back to Nov. 14, 2002—and features famous fans like the Green Men (a pair of morph suit-wearing fanatics seated near the visitor's penalty box). The atmosphere in Vancouver over the past two months has been electrifying as the city rallies around the Canucks third Cup Final appearance in franchise history.
TD Garden, the Bruins home arena, is also full of rowdy hockey lovers looking to celebrate their team's first cup since the the 1971/1972 season. While TD Garden does not include fanatics like the Green Men, Bruins fans are known league-wide for being extremely passionate about their team. Look to see a sea of black and yellow every time the Bruins host the Canucks this series.
Right now it's a toss-up as to which rink is more difficult to play in, but fans will find out as soon as things get going.
Conn Smythe favourite Ryan Kesler has been the driving force behind the Canucks' speedy victory over the San Jose Sharks as well as pushing the Canucks to beat the Nashville Predators in the second round.
He is a huge force in the 'Nucks locker room. Young Canucks like Cody Hodgson, Chris Tanev and Jeff Tambellini look to Kesler for his honest and tough opinions. In the last two months, Kesler has become a fan favourite amongst Canucks Nation.
Now comes the biggest test of Kesler's career. Can he continue to rack up points against opposing teams and keep his teammates focused on their season-long goal of hoisting Vancouver's first Stanley Cup championship? What will happen if his reputation falters or he is injured in the series?
He's one of the most talked about goalies in the NHL today. At 34, Thomas is definitely a late bloomer by pro athlete standards, but nevertheless he is one of the verge of history with the Boston Bruins.
So far, he has boasted a .929 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.29, impressive considering the high caliber of teams he has had to play against to get to this point.
Reversely, fans cannot forget Thomas' falters against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Final. On four occasions, he let in four goals or more—an anomaly for the Vezina candidate but still worth noting.
Vancouver has just as much firepower as the Lightning, so how will Thomas react? Will he be overwhelmed by the amount of shots and time spent in his side of the rink? Whatever the case, Thomas must play will to give the Bruins a chance to win the Stanley Cup.
Dogged in recent years for his inability to come up big when it counted, Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo will face the toughest challenge of his career come the start of the Stanley Cup Final.
While he may have been able to win a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics and post impressive stats in both goals against and save percentage, Luongo has yet to lift the Stanley Cup. Talented he may be, this is where the great ones are judged—the Stanley Cup Final.
Intense hometown pressure to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup will surround Luongo for the entire length of the series. He played well against San Jose, but Canucks fans know just how hot and cold their goaltender can be. One minute he's a surefire Vezina Trophy winner, the next he's sitting on the bench watching back up Cory Schneider impress the entire rink.
Fans will have to wait and see if Luongo will be able to overcome the excitement and expectations in order to bring a Stanley Cup back to Canada.
After three rounds of play, the Bruins and the Canucks have plenty of highlight-reel goals to show for their efforts.
Above all playoff scoring accolades, though, comes the distinction of scoring the series winning goal for a player's team. Which Canuck will win it all for Vancouver? Who will bring the Cup back to Boston?
Players like Alex Burrows, Nathan Horton, Zdeno Chara, Kevin Bieksa and Ryan Kesler are all excellent guesses, but at this point that's all they are. As the series wears on and players go on hot streaks, fans will increase their frenzy around who is going to win their team a Stanley Cup.
Bench bosses Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault are both Cup Final virgins, so a comparison based on experience is impossible.
When it comes to overall playoff success, however, these two are almost identical. Neither one has ever moved beyond the second round of the playoffs. While Vigneault has coached in the NHL since the 1997-1998 season, his playoff record is strikingly similar to Julien's—even though Julien only joined the ranks of an NHL head coach in 2003.
Both Julien and Vigneault are also Jack Adams Award winners, an award given to the coach believed to be most valuable to his team's success.
In interviews, Julien and Vigneault are hard on reporters who pry for answers as to why the team lost, what injury a player may have, and what the plan will be for future tilts. Neither one is known for showing high levels of emotion behind the bench, an interesting situation given last year's final which featured two hothead coaches in Joel Quenneville and Peter Laviolette.
It appears these coaches are in a dead heat. Coaching perennial playoff strugglers has given Vigneault and Julien a hunger to want to produce for their respective organizations. With rosters full of the kind of talent the Bruins and Canucks boast, these two head coaches will have plenty of work to do to shut down their opponent.
With both the Canucks and Bruins reaching the end of their postseason journey, the games will become increasingly dependent on momentum and intangible edges. Each team knows how to play with one another and has studied their opponent's tendencies, but on the ice everything can go out the window in favour of emotional, impulsive plays.
Having a physical presence is key to winning a Cup Final series. The Canucks, a team not known for their physical play during the regular season, have showed signs of the kind of tough style of hockey the Bruins are known for.
In the past three rounds, the Canucks have seen the rise of Maxim Lapierre. With 54 penalty minutes thus far, he is a dominating agitator on the ice. Paired with fellow enforcer Raffi Torres on the third line, look for these two to dole out plenty of bone-crushing hits. Ten Canucks have 10 penalty minutes or more.
The Bruins current penalty-in-minutes leader is power forward Milan Lucic, with 43 minutes in the sin bin. Although his number is considerably less than Lapierre's, the Bruins' penalties are more evenly spaced amongst all team members than the Canucks. Eight Bruins players have 10 or more minutes from the previous three rounds.
Look for Lapierre and Lucic to continue to rack up rule book no-no's. If the series begins to go south for one team, watch for several heat-of-the-moment brawls and hits to happen.
The biggest question fans have as the series begins is easy; which team will end 40-ish years of Stanley Cup futility and re-energize their fanbase with a championship?
The answers to this question will not be revealed for quite some time, but until the series is over, speculations will run high.
Things like home-ice advantage, success rate in Stanley Cup Final appearances, the annual EA Sports prediction will stream out of both team's camps in the coming days. Like many sports analysts and addicts know, however, nothing matters once the puck drops. It comes down to one group of guys hungry for a championship against another group of guys with the same feelings.
As the cliche goes, once you hit the Stanley Cup Final, all bets are off.
This series is shaping up to be one of the most memorable Stanley Cup Finals in a long time. Both teams are poised to make history—whether it be with a win or a loss.
Prediction: The Bruins will win all their games in Boston, but the Canucks will seal the series with a Game 7 win on home ice.