As the hockey world prepares for the biggest, most revered series in the sport—the Stanley Cup Finals—two teams on opposite sides of North America prepare for their first appearance on the big stage since the early 90's.
For the Boston Bruins, the most recent year they won the Eastern Conference was 1990—until now. For the Vancouver Canucks, they last won the Western Conference in 1994. No players remain on their current rosters either of those two Cup-contending teams; this is a completely new experience for everyone.
While they skate vigorously up and down the ice in their practice rinks, all of us who don't have to actually play in the games are still preparing for them. Except, for us, it's our predictions, not our game faces.
There's a lot of uncertainty about how the Bruins and Canucks will match up against each other. As it usually is, these two opponents only met once this year—a 3-1 win for Boston. How will the two veteran goaltenders on each end of the ice compare? Can the Sedin twins take control of the series? What about Boston's dangerous top line?
We make our crazy, outlandish and unmistakably bold 15 predictions for the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals right here.
Yes, indeed, we know; Henrik has a six-game point streak (and 13 points in it) going into Game 1 of the Finals.
But by the time Wednesday comes around, he won't have played for eight days. Henrik will be rested, no doubt—just like the rest of the team—but he'll also be cooled off.
For Daniel, it's been a much less productive postseason up to this point, and he's not even close to leading the league in points like his brother is. However, he has shown up most of the time in the important games; Daniel had a combined four points in the Canucks Game 4 win and series-winning Game 5 victory over the Sharks, and he also scored the game winner in the series-deciding Game 6 of the Nashville series.
We're going to go out on a limb, like always, and say that Daniel's glimpses of clutch performances will turn into a full-blown fantastic clutch series at a certainly clutch time for him.
What, no David Krejci, Nathan Horton or Patrice Bergeron, you ask? Well, Ryder has a few key advantages over those players.
First of all, Ryder is 31, while not one of those other three Bruins are over 26. That experience factor, and subsequent additional amount of playoff experience (he's made the playoffs every season over his six-year career), is a big boost when it gets down the Cup Finals.
Also, this a contract year for Ryder, who's no automatic resign for the Bruins, and the team expects to see something special out of him if he's going to stay on the roster. He's been quite solid in the playoffs already, with five goals, six assists and a plus-six rating, but there's still going to be some extra motivation in the former eighth-round draft pick.
Those factors will all collide to create an excellent series for Ryder, earning him top honors on the team as well as a new contract.
Despite the emergence of Chris Higgins and a few of his teammates, depth scoring has not been a key asset nor a major strength of the Canucks during these playoffs. Other than their top four forwards—the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows—and top pairing defensemen—Christian Ehrhoff and Kevin Bieksa—no one else has double-digit points.
They certainly aren't comparable to the system the Tampa Bay Lightning were using. The Bolts ended up with eight different forwards reaching the double-digit plateau. However, Tampa Bay's depth scoring was still shutdown very well by the Bruins in their series. Other than St. Louis, Lecavalier and Stamkos's seven points each, no one else on the roster (except for Teddy Purcell, that is) was able to get much going.
So now imagine what this Boston defense that shut down the Lightning's depth lines so well can do against the Canucks unreliable bottom nine. It's definitely an edge towards the Bruins, in any case, and we're not going to see that change.
Nathan Horton, with his three game-winning goals (second in the NHL), two series-winning goals (first in the league) and team-leading eight goals and 17 points, will be shredded in the Cup Finals.
For one, this is Horton's first-ever playoff run, since he certainly never got there in his six seasons with the Florida Panthers. That won't help his confidence as the pressure grows. Furthermore, all of those 17 points haven't been spread out across the entire postseason, either. In fact, Horton only had points in four of the seven games in the Tampa Bay series.
This pick might not have as much statistical basis as our others, but we're just getting the feeling in our guts; it won't be the best series for Horton.
As crazy at this may sound with Vancouver's stacked defense, Dan Hamhuis might already have been one of the Canucks' best defenseman through the first three series.
His performance has certainly been underrated; the 28-year-old has a goal and five assists with a plus-five rating—second-best among team 'D'-men—and 38 blocked shots, first on the team by a long shot. We anticipate these solid outings to continue and probably even attract some attention in the Stanley Cup Finals as Hamhuis finally earns some deserved respect.
Indeed, we're talking about Tyler Seguin here.
The Tyler Seguin who was last June's second overall pick in the NHL Draft.
The Tyler Seguin who burst onto the stage in his first career playoff game with a goal and an assist in Game 1 against Tampa Bay and then followed it up with two goals and two assists in his second career playoff game.
And also the Tyler Seguin who failed to register a point from that moment forward in the final five games of the series.
While the media may still be buzzing about his sudden emergence, Seguin, who scored only 11 goals and 22 points during the regular season, is back down to Earth. In fact, he's in a major slump. It's not just that he hasn't gotten a point in five games in a row, it's also that he's only registered a point in two of his last 18 appearances going back to March 19.
As the pressure steps up another level and Seguin continues to deal with unreasonably high expectations continuing on despite his ongoing scoring drought, we can't see the 19-year-old being much of a difference maker in the Cup Finals.
The Bruins' power play unit has taken a lot of criticism during the playoffs. Their 8.2 percent conversion rate—only five goals on 61 opportunities through the first three rounds—is third-to-last among the 16 original postseason teams and last among the eight teams that made it past Round 1.
That conversion percentage is half of what it was for the same players during the regular season, 16.2 percent, and even then they finished the season ranked 20th in the league.
However, Boston may need to be cut some slack on this issue. Montreal, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, their three opponents up to this point, ended their postseason runs with the first-, seventh- and second-ranked penalty kills, respectively, among the 16 playoff teams. During the regular season, they were also quite good, ranking 7th, 15th and 8th, respectively, out of the 30 franchises in the league.
The Canucks, on the other hand, could be a bit more porous than the PK units the Bruins have faced so far. Vancouver is ranked eighth in that regard during the playoffs, lower than any of Boston's first three opponents.
While even the 'Nucks penalty kill will be no pushover, we could see the Bruins finally scoring some goals on their man advantage opportunities when it really matters during the Finals.
During the playoffs, Boston has scored 19 first period goals. Vancouver has only scored 15. Boston has scored 18 second period goals. Vancouver has just 13. But Boston has pounded home only 17 third period goals, while Vancouver has 19.
If those numbers sound like a few Canucks comebacks could arise, then you're seeing what we're seeing, too. Even more interesting is the fact that the Bruins has already lost two games this postseason despite leading at the first intermission, tied for the most among all 16 teams. On the other hand, the Canucks lead the NHL during the playoffs with a 60 percent winning percentage when trailing after 20 minutes of play.
While projecting a three-goal comeback to happen is a bold remark, we can truly see Vancouver pulling one of them off during this series and perhaps winning the Cup itself because of the momentum swing it'll cause. So stay vigilant, Bruins defenders, stay vigilant.
We say that turnovers will be Boston's biggest problem during this series, but who's to say they haven't already been during their first three series? In all truth, they just might've been.
Boston's 154 giveaways (8.55 per game) ranks second during the playoffs for a team, trailing only San Jose's 194. Additionally, a large reason why the Sharks have so many more is Vancouver's aggressive, turnover-causing defense; the Canucks have an NHL-leading 169 takeaways during the postseason (9.38 per game).
Unless they can fix this issue very quickly, we expect costly turnovers in all areas of the ice to continually hurt the Bruins. Giveaways might not be the most glaring shortfall, but they can often be the most costly.
The Tampa Bay-Boston series gave us an idea of how much Tim Thomas's play can fluctuate, and, at times, how much it can effect the outcome of the game.
In the Bruins' three losses in Games 1, 4 and 6, Thomas allowed four or five goals every time and never had a save percentage above .900 in any of the three games.
In three of Boston's four wins—Games 3, 5 and 7—Thomas held the Bolts to a total of one goal for the combined 180 minutes (a GAA of 0.33). While we're disregarding his five goals-allowed victory in Game 2 for that data, it's certainly obvious that Thomas's play pretty much determines the fate of the Bruins.
With another very dangerous offense soon to be headed up the ice towards Thomas, he'll need to be very steady every game to keep Boston at the pace and score they'd like, as well. And, when the veteran goaltender can't hold the fort, it's going to get pretty ugly up on the scoreboard. Indeed, a lot of responsibility and control over how the series will go is sitting on Tim Thomas's shoulders right now.
It's hard to find a more reliable starting goaltender than who the 'Nucks have in Roberto Luongo, but, when the aging star goalie needs a rest or is just having one of those off nights, they also have a top-class backup in Cory Schneider.
Schneider, 25, was an impressive 16-4-2 during the regular season with a .929 save percentage and 2.23 GAA and also saw his first-ever playoff action during three appearances (one of which was a start) in Vancouver's wild series against Chicago.
Schneider's name is already being tossed around a big trade target this summer, but before then comes the Cup Finals ... where we think his stock might rise even more. We figure that Luongo is not going to play every minute of this series—perhaps he will get pulled after allowing three goals in that anticipated Canucks comeback game—but Schneider has the talent to come in and not only do the job but also perhaps earn a win or two for his team.
On the opposite side of the Cup Finals is another team with a very viable backup netminder; for the Boston Bruins, it's Tuukka Rask.
The 24-year-old Rask was actually supposed to be this season's starter after his startlingly fantastic 22-12-5 2009-10 campaign while Thomas struggled to even remain a part-time player. Rask's 1.97 GAA during that breakout season didn't carry over to this year, where it dropped to 2.67, but the former first round selection still managed a respectable .918 save percentage, even with an 11-14-2 record.
Though he hasn't seen any action yet this postseason, Rask does have a bit of experience, going 7-6 with a .912 save percentage during the 2010 playoffs before the Bruins' collapse ended his run.
With Thomas's play flipping from hot to cold quite often in the Conference Finals, Rask may have to come off the bench at least once in this upcoming series. Nonetheless, we expect to see a great deal of capability to handle the pressure and lead the comeback charge for Boston from the Finn. Could Rask and Schneider both pull out a 'W' during this series? We think they just might.
On Wednesday night, Game 1 will end with a Canucks victory.
Using their advantage of 18,860 screaming blue-and-green fans thrilled to see their team in the Cup Finals for the first time in 17 years, Vancouver will take a 1-0 lead in their final series just as they did in their first three. It's true; the 'Nucks won Game 1 of the Chicago series 2-0, of the Nashville series 1-0 and of the San Jose series 3-2, and all of those victories came at home.
As for the Bruins, Game 1 success hasn't come so easily. Boston has won only one of their three series openers so far, and the only victory came in their only sweep (vs. Philadelphia). The Canadiens shut out the Bruins at home 1-0 in their first game and Tampa Bay cruised easily 5-2 in TD Garden at the start of that series.
With all of the numbers favoring a Vancouver win, we don't see history changing as the Canucks get another series-opening shutout and pull within three victories of hoisting the Cup.
Patrice Bergeron celebrates a Feb. 26 goal in Vancouver.
However, the Canucks won't get to dwell on their lead for too long. By the time the weekend is wrapped up, Boston will have taken Game 2, and it'll be all square headed to the East Coast.
Just as the statistics favored a victory for Vancouver in Game 1, they call for a Boston win in Game 2. The Bruins are 2-1 in second meetings, with their only Game 2 loss—a 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Habs—tainting two consecutive Game 2 wins, 3-2 over the Flyers and 6-5 over the Lightning.
The Bruins ability to win on the road, where they're 5-3 during the playoffs, will also come into play in Game 2 as they hope to make sure they don't lose both games in Rogers Arena.
With all of these nonsensical projections, insane statements and completely out-of-the-blue predictions now firmly cemented in your mind, we're going to finally agree with the general public opinion; the Vancouver Canucks are going to be the 2011 Stanley Cup Champions.
After splitting Games 1 and 2 in British Columbia and Games 3 and 4 in Massachusetts, the Canucks will return home as the playoffs hang in the balance and pull within one victory of the Cup ... one that they'll eventually earn just a few days later back in Boston.
The Sedins will finally have their treasured Stanley Cup to complete the legacy. After years of waiting, Roberto Luongo will also have his Cup to finish his Hall of Fame resume. And the trend of teams winning the Cup while on the road will continue for the fourth straight year.
Oh, and one more thing; our in-depth mathematical formula also predicts that the Cup-winning goal will be scored by Christopher Tanev.
...Or maybe not.