2011 Stanley Cup Finals: Vancouver Canucks Defense Key for Game 6
It's been a tale of two series for the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals.
At home, the Canucks are undefeated in three games by way of 1-0, 3-2 and 1-0 decisions in Games 1, 2 and 5, respectively.
Across the continent on the East Coast, however, it's been a different story; two brutal 8-1 and 4-0 routs were the results of Vancouver's efforts in Games 3 and 4.
As they head into Game 6 one win away from the Cup victory they've been dreaming of, they are also preparing for yet another showdown in Boston's TD Garden. There are mixed emotions and opinions for the 'Nucks on their hopes for taking the Cup on Monday night.
Clearly, the biggest key for Vancouver will be the the combination of a responsible defense and an on-top-of-his-game Roberto Luongo. While their offense is still yet to become a powerful force in the series—they've scored zero or one goal in four of five games—it has been the fluctuation of Boston's scoring that has been the major game-breaker.
It may seem to be the simple and obvious home-ice difference that's completely changing Luongo and Co.'s effort—they have certainly been fantastic at home and dumbfounded on the road—but the true factor that's changing how Vancouver's defense performs may not be as black and white.
The Canucks defense has proven they need to be aggressive and puck-pressuring in all areas of their own zone to be effective against the plethora of accurate shooters and well-coached playmakers that make up Boston's group of power forwards.
In fact, the stats even prove it. In the Canucks three victories, in which they have surrendered a total of three goals, Vancouver has averaged 39 hits and 11.7 takeaways per game. As it has been evident throughout all three games, they've been attacking and abusing the puck carrier to no end, eventually knocking him off or stripping him of the puck through aggressive play.
On the other hand, in Vancouver's two losses, where they gave up 12 goals in six periods, the team shows a completely different style of defense and as it turned out, a much less effective one. For Games 3 and 4, the Canucks averaged just 29 hits and 5 takeaways per game; just 75 percent as many hits and less than half as many forced turnovers than in their wins.
Furthermore, in their two losses at the Garden, the Canucks' lack of puck pressure additionally translated into a chance for their opposing unit, the Bruins "D," to play with an aggressive strategy themselves. Boston saw their total average hits rise from 29.7 to 33.5 and their average number of takeaways increase from 6.3 to 9.0 when comparing Games 3 and 4 to Games 1, 2, and 5.
Despite the statistics proving a change in strategy—not a mere change in familiarity with the arena—was probably the principal reason for the seeming appearance of two completely different Vancouver defenses within this one series, the home-ice advantage likely did play a role.
Who will win Game Six?
With the added energy from 18,860 fans pouring all of their enthusiasm into the game, the team receiving all that support doubtlessly gets a boost from it. When that team happens to be in the Stanley Cup Finals, no less, it creates an even bigger adrenaline rush. So, with the extra energy available, we can easily understand why it suddenly was much easier for the Vancouver defensemen to play their aggressive, yet taxing style when playing in Rogers Arena.
Energy also played a big role in the 180-degree reverses in Luongo's play between the two cross-continent road trips. Evidently, he just doesn't want to fall behind in the series—staying ahead is no big deal.
Well, perhaps we may be jumping to conclusions a bit, but it certainly appears Luongo relaxes a little too much when his team is holding an edge in the series.
In Games 1 and 5, the two games to date where the series has been all square at puck drop, the netminding veteran has a flawless 67 saves on 67 shots; a 37-save shutout in the first meeting and a 31-save clean sheet in his most recent appearance. Needless to say, those two games combine for a 1.00 save percentage and 0.00 goals-against average (GAA) for Luongo.
In the three games Luongo has entered the game with the knowledge of a lead in the series—Games 2, 3 and 4—it's been a different story. The former No. 4-overall pick has a severely underwhelming .840 save percentage and and 5.15 GAA for those three combined matches.
Those numbers don't point towards a second consecutive successful outing for Luongo in Game 6, as the Canucks enter the game with a 3-2 series lead.
Now, with all the number crunching complete, it remains clear being able to put the Boston-favoring crowd and unfamiliar rink out of thought and mind is going to be absolutely vital for Vancouver to continue the trend of Cup victories coming on the road in Monday evening's affair.
Indeed, there's a lot of psychological trends so far in this series, but the 'Nucks need to put them aside in Game 6. There's a Stanley Cup out there to win, and they have to put all the effort they possibly can towards executing the style of game they want—and need—to play in order to take the Cup back to British Columbia, whether the in-house crowd is cheering for them or not.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his two years so far with the site, he has written over 275 articles and received over 285,000 total reads.
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