Stanley Cup Finals Preview: Boston Bruins vs. Vancouver Canucks

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Stanley Cup Finals Preview: Boston Bruins vs. Vancouver Canucks
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We've now arrived to the NHL Stanley Cup finals, pitting the consensus "it" team in the Vancouver Canucks against the Boston Bruins, an Original Six team. 

In scoring my predictions to date, I've predicted that the Canucks would defeat the Blackhawks in seven games, the Canucks would best the Predators in six games, the Sharks would win their series against the Red Wings in six games and the Canucks would survive their series against the Sharks in seven games. And while I was off as to the number of games it would take the Canucks to win, my accuracy is nearly flawless so far.

And seeing that the Canucks have been "money in the bank" for me, why quit while I'm ahead?

On to to the finals preview.

The anticipated dogfight between the Canucks and the Sharks never came to pass. Some like to point to the fluky goal that decided the series in Game 5, the result of a puck quirkily caroming off the glass on the sideboards and out to Bieksa just inside the blue line. Bieksa's blast from the point beat Sharks goalie Antti Niemi just inside the right post before the goalie—or mostly everyone else on the ice—could find the puck. 

The goal had an eerie resemblance to the Stanley Cup-winning goal by Patrick Kane in Game 6 of last year's Stanley Cup finals, when Kane skated down the ice to celebrate without any of his teammates realizing what he had just done.

Were the goal the capper in Game 7, that would have been one thing; however, this iced the series in Game 5, so the result was attributable to a lot more than dumb luck. Stellar goaltending from Roberto Luongo, timely goal-scoring from a host of Canucks and a stout Canucks defense proved to be too much for the Sharks to handle. Thus, Vancouver has earned their first trip to the finals since 1994.

As for the Bruins, their ride has been quite a bit more harrowing, including recovering from a 2-0 deficit against the Montreal Canadiens to win the series in seven games and a heart-stopping seven-game series victory against the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning. The only playoff series that Boston swept, surprisingly, was their four-game series sweep against the defending Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

But as they say in sports as well as in life, no one asks you how you got there, it's whether you got there that matters.

No matter the path taken, the Vancouver Canucks have been the "freight train from hell" of the National Hockey League (NHL), both in the playoffs and in the regular season, easily winning the President's Trophy for the most accumulated points.

In the Bruins, however, they face a team with Stanley Cup pedigree and a team that overcame a damaged psyche that was their 3-0 collapse against the Montreal Canadiens during last season's Stanley Cup playoffs. 

They also face a team with a former Vezina Trophy recipient in Tim Thomas, one who may capture the crown for this season's heroic netminding efforts. And they face a team with one of the premier defensemen in the NHL in Zdeno Chara, the massive 6'9", 255 lb. blueliner with the devastating howitzer from the point. 

And while the Western Conference has trumped the Eastern Conference in most of the recent Stanley Cup finals as well as during their inter-conference regular season games, the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup takes on an entirely different aura. In short, all bets are off.

I offer my predictions by assessing each team's offense, defense, special teams, goaltending and finally each squad's "X-Factor," the intangibles that could decide the outcome of this series. I will then conclude with my prediction as to how I see the finals playing out—who wins the series and in how many games they will do it.

Here's the Rundown:


Offense

The Canucks possess no shortage of offensive firepower as they led the NHL in scoring with 3.11 goals/game. They are led of course, by the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik. While Henrik captured the NHL's Hart Trophy as the league MVP, last season, Daniel is making a case for himself this season by registering 104 points. Don't feel bad for Henrik, though as he registered 94 total points and led the NHL with 75 assists. 

But this team is more than the twins as it's loaded with a bevy of complimentary and secondary scoring resources, Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows to name a few. And it is Kesler who has been the reason that the Canucks have distinguished themselves as the NHL's elite team. It is Kesler who has rounded his game into being oft times the best player on the ice and for a team as immensely talented as the Canucks, that is quite impressive.

The Bruins are no slouch in the conversation of the NHL's more offensively-gifted teams, having finished fifth in the league's regular season scoring statistics, registering 2.94 goals/game. They possess a balanced scoring arsenal with as many as four players notching over 20 goals during the regular season and as many as a dozen players with at least 10 goals scored. 

Milan Lucic and David Krejci led the Sharks with 62 points, apiece, with Lucic pacing the goal-scoring with 30 tallies.

In the playoffs, however, Nathan Horton has joined Krejci as the Bruins offensive catalyst, with Horton notching 8 goals and 17 total points in 18 playoff games, with an equally impressive plus-10 plus/minus rating.  

The key to each team's success on the offensive end could rest on one, perhaps two players from each respective squad: For the Bruins, they will need Krejci and Horton to continue their offensive assault as well as the playmaking abilities of Patrice Bergeron; for the Canucks, Ryan Kessler should prove to be the difference maker for the Canucks along with the consistent and equally lethal Sedin twins.

So, in assessing which team gets the advantage, offensively, the edge goes to...

Advantage: Canucks (slight)


Defense

Harry How/Getty Images

Much like their offense, the Canucks possess a very stingy, very gritty defense and also lead the NHL with the fewest goals allowed/game, only allowing 2.17 goals/game.

But beyond their ability to control the pace and tempo of a game with their tight-checking and shot-blocking prowess, the Canucks also do possess a lethal arsenal of offensive defensemen, lead by Christian Ehrhoff who registered 50 points, along with Alexander Edler with 33 points and Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa who also contributed offensively. 

As for the playoffs, the Canucks have continued their stingy defensive ways, allowing only 2.35 goals/game. The Canucks recovered from their disastrous Games 4 and 5 in their playoff series against the Blackhawks by once again asserting their defensive toughness and shutdown capabilities. Since that time, the Canucks have allowed just over two goals per game.

The Bruins finished second the NHL in goals allowed/game, allowing a respectable 2.28 goals/game. The Bruins demonstrated a consistent ability to control the pace and tempo of a game with tight-checking and solid shot-blocking.

The Bruins' defensive scoring is led by elite defenseman Zdeno Chara, who registered 30 assists to go along with his 44 points during the regular season, along with a stellar plus-33 plus/minus rating. Beyond Chara, Dennis Seidenberg registered 32 points during the regular season.

And the Bruins were right behind the Canucks in playoff GAA, allowing 2.39 goals/game, although their defensive prowess was ultimately challenged by the prolific firepower that the Tampa Bay Lightning possess.

While it's tough to split hairs with two such talented defensive units, in assessing to which team the advantage goes...

Advantage: Canucks (very slight)


Special Teams

To assess each team's overall special teams play, there are distinct differences in each respective team's special teams. The Canucks led the NHL in PP conversion percentage, with a stealth 24.3 PP conversion rate.

Vancouver was also very effective on the penalty kill (PK) as the Canucks ranked 3rd in the NHL in that category during the regular season, killing off 85.6% of the situations in which they were a player short.

The Bruins were mediocre in both special teams categories, ranking 20th in the NHL on the Power Play (PP) with a 16.2 percent PP conversion rate and ranking 16th in the penalty kill (PK) with a 82.6 percent kill rate.

When assessing each team during the playoffs, the difference in PP proclivity is stark, with the Canucks scoring PP goals at a conversion rate of 28.3 percent, while the Bruins have struggled on the man advantage with a putrid 8.2 conversion rate. On the penalty kill, both teams sport similar kill rates, with the Canucks killing off penalties at a rate of 80.6 percent and the Bruins right behind them with a 79.4 percent kill rate.  

So, when assessing the overall advantage in special teams...

Advantage:  Canucks (huge)


Goaltending

While all of the matchups assessed may be vital and perhaps too close to call, the key to this playoff series will rest on the team with the more effective goaltending.

The Canucks are led in net by Roberto Luongo, who posted a stellar goals against average (GAA) of 2.11 and an equally impressive save percentage of .930 during the regular season and who redeemed himself from a first-round disaster, particularly in Games 4 and 5 against the Blackhawks, to the point of being benched in favor of backup netminder Cory Schneider.

Fortunately for the Canucks, Luongo has rebounded with solid performances in each succeeding playoff series.

However, for a goalie with a somewhat spotty playoff history, Luongo has the opportunity to dispel the demons of playoffs past.  

The Sharks are manned in net by Tim Thomas, the Vezina Trophy winner during the 2008-2009 season and a strong candidate to receive the honor for this season's stellar efforts. Thomas paced the NHL during the regular season with a 2.00 GAA. 

In the playoffs, Thomas has struggled at times, particularly against the offensively-gifted Tampa Bay Lightning. However, as the playoffs are a different animal, and the usually steady Thomas should prove up to the challenge that the prolific Canucks present. 

So, when assessing each team's goaltending units, the edge goes to...

Advantage: Push


X-Factor

When assessing the variables not quantified via statistics, there appears to be no distinct advantage for either team. Both teams have had their share of playoff heartbreaks and disappointments with the Canucks trying to nab their elusive first Stanley Cup title after two previous appearances. Both teams play well at home and on the road and both teams have a sizeable home rink advantage as it relates to the arena atmosphere and crowd noise.

While the burden for delivering in the playoffs is larger for the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks, particularly being Canada's lone remaining playoff participant, the Bruins carry the burden of being the lone Original Six representative and not having won the title since 1972, a drought of 39 years.  

Advantage: Push


Prediction

While the Canucks have steamrolled past opponents at an accelerated rate since their opening-round escape of the eighth-seeded Blackhawks, the Bruins have scratched and clawed their way to hockey's ultimate title, with the exception of their second-round sweep of the Flyers. 

But the Canucks appear to be a team of destiny, one equipped with both offensive weapons, skilled defense and an elite goalie, one ready to assume his mantle of a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender.

Given all those variables, here's the prediction:

Canucks in six games.

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