NHL Stanley Cup Finals: Why the Bruins Are Rolling After Loss of Nathan Horton
The 2011 Stanley Cup Finals are tied 2-2 after four games. The series that saw a heavily favored Vancouver Canucks team jump out to a 2-0 lead in Vancouver saw a significant shift 5:06 into Game 3 in Boston.
At that moment, Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome stepped up and hit Boston's Nathan Horton with a blindside check rendering Horton with a concussion. The hit forced Horton to the sidelines for the remainder of the series.
The two teams finished that first period in a 0-0 tie after the Horton incident. When the teams returned to the ice for the second period, the Boston Bruins, who had appeared to be the definition of the phrase, "We're just happy to be here..." were suddenly on a mission. The mission being that they will do whatever it takes to win the Stanley Cup for their injured teammate.
The Bruins played with a vengeance and, more importantly, a passion that all winning teams need to have if they intend to emerge as champions. Boston would go on to score eight goals on Vancouver goaltender and 2011 Vezina Trophy candidate Roberto Luongo while Boston's own 2011 Vezina Trophy candidate, Tim Thomas, saw only one puck slip past him.
The 8-1 score was the second-largest margin of defeat suffered by a team in Stanley Cup Finals history.
People throughout the hockey world wondered if the 8-1 pasting of the Canucks was a fluke. Boston fans hoped there were more goals left in the Bruins' sticks.
The Bruins answered those questions in Game 4 at TD Garden. They continued to play with passion and the mission continued as the Eastern Conference champions continued their domination over their Western Conference foes. The Bruins scored four goals and in the process saw Luongo pulled from the game by Canucks coach Alain Vigneault.
At the other end of the ice, Thomas stopped all Vancouver attempts to dent his armor. When the final horn sounded, the Bruins had tied the series with a 4-0 victory.
After scoring one total goal in the two games in Vancouver, Boston scored a total of 12 goals in the two games at home while allowing one.
The series shifts back to Vancouver for Game 5. The Boston Bruins are on a roll. Here are 10 reasons why that roll will continue.
"Win It for Horty"
Boston's TD Garden fell silent as Bruin forward Nathan Horton lay motionless just inside the Vancouver Canucks defensive zone. Just seconds earlier, he fed a pass to linemate Milan Lucic. Horton took two strides toward the Vancouver goal and was watching Lucic when the Canucks Aaron Rome came at Horton and checked the Bruin from the blind side.
Horton was upended and landed hard onto the ice. His head hitting the ice before the rest of his body. As Horton lay on the ice, his eyes were open but he appeared to have briefly lost his faculties. He was removed from the ice on a stretcher and immediately taken to Massachusetts General Hospital where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion. He will not return for the remainder of the series.
Aaron Rome was subsequently suspended for four games by the National Hockey League, which will include the remainder of the Stanley Cup Finals should the series last the full seven games. If the series does not take seven games to complete, the suspension will carry over to the start of the 2011-2012 season.
For the Boston Bruins, the series took on a new objective. The new objective being, "Win it for Horty!"
This Bruins team is now focused on not only winning the Stanley Cup but doing it for an injured teammate. A teammate who joined the team this season and quickly became an integral part of the club. At the time of the injury, Horton had 17 points in 21 playoff games. He won two series by scoring the winning goals in Game 7 against Montreal and again in the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay.
The Bruins are now playing, not only to win the Stanley Cup, but also to win it for a very important teammate and friend.
Shawn Thornton Brings a Physical Presence
Boston Bruins veteran winger Shawn Thornton has been used throughout the season and most of the playoffs as a fourth-line grinder. He plays the role perfectly as he uses his tough, physical nature to create scoring chances for his linemates. Thornton does not get the same amount of playing time as other teammates but he makes every second count.
After being a healthy scratch in Games 1 and 2 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, Thornton was inserted back into the lineup and looked like a player who had been chomping at the bit. He played a total of 5:50 and in that short period of time, he made his presence felt by dishing out heavy hits along the boards which resulted in scoring chances for Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell. Thornton also had two shots on goal and amassed 12 penalty minutes.
In Game 4, Thornton had one shot on goal and continued his heavy hitting ways in 9:29 of ice time. He did not pick up any penalties, however he did sit in the sin bin while serving teammate Tim Thomas' slashing penalty in the third period.
Shawn Thornton has not figured on the score sheet when it comes to scoring goals but he has assisted in the Bruins turnaround by letting the Canucks know that when he's on the ice, he will be using his body to create turnovers and scoring chances and that has Vancouver defenders thinking twice about handling pucks in their own end of the ice.
Tim Thomas Has Saved His Best Hockey for the Finals
When discussing Boston goaltender Tim Thomas one can use a plethora of adjectives to describe his superb play in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Thomas has played every second of every Bruins playoff game. The 37-year-old puckstopper ranks first in the NHL in games played with 22, wins with 14, saves with 701, save percentage .936 and in goals against average at 2.11.
When called upon to be Boston's best penalty killer, Thomas has responded with several big saves on Vancouver scoring chances in each game.
The Flint, Michigan native appears to gain confidence with each save he makes. In the four games of the Stanley Cup Finals, Thomas has faced 146 shots and has seen only five get past him for Vancouver goals. His Game 4 shutout was the third of the playoffs for the man the Bruins call "TT."
And, oh by the way, he leads the NHL in playoff shutouts too.
Tim Thomas is, arguably, the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs whether the Bruins win the Stanley Cup or not.
Defense Corp Is Getting It Done
After winning their respective conference finals, talk quickly turned to how the speedy Vancouver forwards would give the Boston defensemen all they could handle and more.
The Bruins had other plans.
At the outset of the series, the talk centered around the speed and skill of such Canuck forwards as Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Chris Higgins and Manny Malhotra. It was generally agreed that Bruin defensemen such as Dennis Seidenberg, Zdeno Chara, Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid were bigger and stronger than the Vancouver forwards but could not match their speed. The speed that would see breakaway upon breakaway on Boston netminder Tim Thomas.
The above-named Boston defensemen joined by fellow blueliners Johnny Boychuk and Tomas Kaberle knew they would have their work cut out for themselves but they were also confident they could not only slow down the Canuck puck carriers but also stop them from getting to the net.
By using body positioning and their sticks to control their opponents, Boston's defensemen have consistently forced the Vancouver forwards to the outside of the ice, along the boards, giving the Canucks poor shooting angles. They have used their sticks to seal off passing and shooting lanes and have intercepted numerous Vancouver passes which have resulted in quick transitions from defense to offense for Boston.
Offensively, while none of Boston's defensemen will be confused with Bobby Orr, the scoring has been distributed evenly among the six rear guards as Chara, Kaberle and Ference have nine points each. Seidenberg and Boychuk have eight points each while McQuaid has four.
One of hockey's adages is "Good defense comes from hard work." This group of hockey players has worked exceptionally hard and along with their goaltender, Tim Thomas, has given the Canucks just five goals in four games. Proof that this group is getting the job done.
Improved Power Play Looks a Little Different
Throughout the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, one word could sum up the Boston Bruins power play: anemic. The team was mired in a slump of momentous proportions.
The Bruins had scored five power-play goals entering the Stanley Cup Finals against a Vancouver team that, statistically, had the best team defense in the NHL. The worst was expected in Boston in this category.
Boston had been placing 6'9" captain, Zdeno Chara in front of the net on the power play. This created more scoring chances against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals. This was expected to continue into the Finals but that has not been the case. Chara is, once again, at his customary point position on the second unit. Andrew Ference has been his defense partner on that unit.
The first unit has seen Tomas Kaberle and Dennis Seidenberg on the points with David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Michael Ryder or Mark Recchi at forward.
The Boston coaching staff has made changes from game to game and sometimes power play to power play. The Canucks have seen some Bruins power plays feed the point men and set up screens while waiting for the shot. They have also seen the Bruins set up along the "half wall" which is that area along the boards halfway between the goal line and the blue line.
The puck carrier then has the options of passing to the points, to a teammate down low behind the goal line or to a breaking point man for the "back door" play.
In this series, Boston has not been prolific. They have scored three goals on 17 power plays but their power play has shown improvement. Continued improvement will result in more power-play goals for the Bruins.
Penalty Killers Are Confusing Canucks
Entering the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, the Vancouver Canucks knew the Boston Bruins employed a passive penalty-killing system. The Bruins played the patient, waiting game. They would try to force the puck to Tim Thomas' strong side of the ice where he can make a save comfortably.
Once the Finals began, the Canucks received a new look from the Bruins. Boston penalty killers such as Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly, Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference used their speed and quickness to try to win races to any pucks that may become free. If they do not win the race, they will quickly get in the puck carrier's path in order to force a turnover or at the very least, force their shot attempt to go wide of the net or to be blocked.
The Bruins have killed 83.5 percent of their penalties throughout the playoffs which places them sixth overall in the NHL, however, the teams that are in front of them are no longer in the playoffs. Vancouver is in eighth place.
Boston has dominated the Finals in the penalty-killing aspect of special teams against Vancouver. They have killed 21 out of 22 Canuck power plays. That type of production cannot change if the Bruins are to win the Stanley Cup.
Secondary Scoring Has Been Second to None
An NHL team relies heavily on its first two lines to do most of the scoring. The third line is usually the "energy line." The group of forwards that uses its speed to win races to pucks, bring a physical aspect to the game, create turnovers, play a responsible defensive game and score the odd goal.
The Boston Bruins have been getting great energy and commitment to detail from their third-line players throughout the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This attention to detail makes the third-liners very valuable to the club as coach Claude Julien has not hesitated to insert them onto the first or second lines when needed.
Perhaps this was never more appreciated by the club and its fans than in Game 3 of the Finals. The team received goals from Chris Kelly and Michael Ryder in an 8-1 victory. Rich Peverley assisted on the Kelly goal. Ryder not only scored a goal, he also assisted on two others in the game. As one can see, this group accounted for four of the eight goals on the evening.
In Game 4, a 4-0 shutout of the Canucks, it was Peverley who got things started for Boston by scoring the game's first goal. He would also go on to score the fourth and final goal for his club. That goal forced Canucks coach Alain Vigneault to pull starting goaltender Roberto Luongo from the game and insert backup Cory Schneider into the game for his first Stanley Cup Finals experience. Ryder scored the game's second goal which was assisted by Kelly.
Overall, in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Ryder is fourth in team scoring with 15 points. Kelly is sixth with 13 points and Peverley is seventh with 11 points.
Boston goes into Game 5 knowing it does not necessarily need to depend on its top six forwards for scoring when the energy players are amping up the intensity and giving Vancouver someone else to think about.
Where Are the Sedins?
Over the course of the 2010-2011 season, Henrik and Daniel Sedin combined for 198 points.
Daniel led the NHL in scoring with 41 goals and 63 assists for 104 points. He is one of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy which is awarded to the National Hockey League's most valuable player. He led the league with 18 power-play goals. Daniel finished fifth in the league in the plus/minus category with a plus-30.
At the commencement of the Stanley Cup Finals, Daniel had scored 16 points on eight goals and eight assists in 18 playoff games. He led all playoff power-play performers with five goals.
In the four games against Boston, Daniel has scored one even-strength goal and one assist. He scored those two points in Game 2 of Vancouver's 3-2 overtime win. He has gone scoreless in three of the four games and has a minus-three rating.
Daniel's twin brother, Henrik, the 2009-2010 recipient of the Hart Trophy amassed 94 points during the 2010-2011 season on 19 goals and 75 assists. He led the NHL in the assist category. Henrik scored eight power-play goals on the season and finished with plus-26.
Until the meetings with Boston, Henrik had played in 18 playoff games and had scored 21 points. The 30-year-old center had just two goals but assisted on 19 Canucks goals along the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. In the Finals, Henrik has put up zero goals and zero assists.
Defensively, he is not helping as much as is needed to win a Stanley Cup. His plus/minus stands at minus-two for the series.
Henrik did not have a shot on goal until Game 4, in which he put two pucks at Boston netminder Tim Thomas.
Throughout their careers, Daniel and Henrik Sedin have been offensive dynamos but they appear to have lost some confidence. Much of that can be attributed to Boston's defensive play against the brothers. The Bruins are paying attention to them in all three zones and that has created difficulties for the Sedins and has led to the twins contributing just two points to the Canucks cause.
Roberto Luongo: Not the Man He Used to Be
For much of the 2010-2011 season, Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo had been the model of consistency. The 32-year-old native of Montreal led the National Hockey League in wins with 38. His .928 save percentage placed him fourth among NHL puckstoppers. He finished second to Boston's Tim Thomas with a 2.11 goals against average.
Those numbers helped him become one of the three finalists for the 2011 Vezina Trophy.
Luongo was enjoying a strong 2011 Stanley Cup Playoff run. After winning the Western Conference championship with the Canucks, Luongo was being mentioned as a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That talk continued after Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Vancouver.
Luongo shutout Boston in Game 1 by stopping all 36 Bruins shots.
Game 2 saw Luongo make several key saves as he held the fort in a 3-2 overtime win. The 1997 first-round pick stopped 28 of Boston's 30 shots.
The scene shifted to Boston's TD Garden and, figuratively speaking, the roof caved in on Roberto Luongo.
Game 3 was an unmitigated disaster of record proportions for Luongo and the Canucks. Boston scored eight goals. Those eight Boston goals were the second-most scored by one team in a Stanley Cup Finals game.
Game 4 was not much better for Vancouver nor their No. 1 puckstopper. Boston came out firing on all cylinders and put four pucks past the beleaguered goaltender. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault pulled Luongo out of the game after the fourth Bruins goal. Luongo was disheartened and it showed in his body language.
The series shifts back to Vancouver for Game 5 and what looked like a certain Canucks Stanley Cup win has become a struggle for the club and its man between the pipes.
Luongo's numbers look very ordinary. He has allowed 14 goals in the last three games. His goals against average stands at 2.54 while his save percentage is .916. Those are pretty good statistics for most goaltenders but not if you intend on winning the Stanley Cup.
Can Roberto Luongo bounce back and win the series? Yes.
In the first round of the playoffs, against the Chicago Blackhawks, he was pulled out of one game then benched for the next before returning to the nets and backing his team to a series victory over the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
The Vancouver Canucks need him to return to the form that has made him a Vezina Trophy candidate and he must do it in Game 5. If he does not and Boston wins the game, Luongo could be in for a very long summer.
Claude Julien: Making the Right Moves
The 2010-2011 season has not been an easy one for Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien. He has had to endure overwhelming criticism from fans and sports talk radio hosts for almost each and every decision he made concerning his club.
The criticism continued during the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs against arch-rival Montreal. The Canadiens took a 2-0 series lead and a majority of Bruins fans called for Julien to be fired on the spot. Of course, the Bruins went on to win the series but fans were not convinced. They maintained the belief that Julien was not the man to coach their team.
Boston sports fans are a passionate lot and if their favorite teams do not go undefeated throughout a season and/or a playoff run, they usually place blame at the coach's feet. It is just their nature.
The Bruins are in the Stanley Cup Finals and there are still some who want to see a new man behind the team's bench next season. Chances of that are most likely slim and none. Rightfully so.
Julien has made the decisions he has felt would benefit his players. When veteran Mark Recchi went through a scoring slump, his ice time was reduced and he was removed from the No. 1 power-play unit. When Vancouver took a physical approach in Games 1 and 2, he inserted tough winger Shawn Thornton back into the lineup. Thornton responded with several big hits in Games 3 and 4, helping to set the tone for each Boston win.
Julien has made adjustments to the Bruins power-play and the penalty-kill systems which have brought about improved results. Perhaps his best decision was to pair captain Zdeno Chara with Dennis Seidenberg. The defense duo has shut down Vancouver's best forwards and are moving the puck deftly to forwards for breakouts and scoring opportunities.
Whether the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup or not, coach Claude Julien has earned the respect of his players and the entire Boston organization. He has won over many fans with his coaching in the Stanley Cup Finals and would, no doubt, win over the rest of Bruins nation should his club win the Stanley Cup.