Stanley Cup Finals 2011: Tim Thomas and Game 7's Most Important Players
Growing up, every hockey player dreams of being the hero of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, and tonight, that dream will become a reality for a select few individuals.
The 2011 Stanley Cup Finals has truly been a seesaw battle between two teams who have grown to hate one another, and Wednesday night's Game 7 has all the makings of a classic that will be remembered for years.
Going into Game 7, each team has a handful of players whose performances will likely determine the outcome of the game, and ultimately the series.
Thus far, the player who has had the most obvious impact on the series has either been Tim Thomas or Roberto Luongo, depending on your perspective.
On one hand, Tim Thomas has played like a man on a mission through each of the series' first six games and has been the key behind the Bruins' success. On the other hand, Roberto Luongo has been a major factor in his team's three wins, but also a poster boy for the team's struggles on the road.
Either way, the performances of Luongo and Thomas will undoubtedly be deciding factors on Wednesday night. Beyond the netminders, each team has a couple of skaters who will be leaned upon to come up big, and the outcome of the series will likely hinge on their ability to do so.
With that in mind, here are the six most important players going into Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals.
6. Kevin Bieksa
With the Vancouver blue line depleted due to the suspension of Aaron Rome and Dan Hamhuis' injury, the Canucks' expectations of Kevin Bieksa have grown over the course of the series.
Like the rest of his team, Bieksa has been inconsistent through the first six games of the Finals, as he's been a hero on some nights and a liability on others.
After being solid through the first two games of the series, Bieksa (along with the rest of the Canucks defense) played terribly in Games 3 and 4. In Game 4, in particular, Bieksa got turned inside-out by Milan Lucic and fell down as Lucic fed Rich Peverley to stake the Bruins to a 4-0 lead, putting the game out of reach.
However, Bieksa set up Game 5's only goal by banking the puck off the end boards to Maxim Lapierre, who beat Thomas for the game-winning goal.
Going into the Stanley Cup Finals, Bieksa had been an offensive dynamo for the Canucks, tallying four goals in five games against the Sharks in the conference finals. More importantly, he tallied the series-winning overtime goal to lift the Canucks to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1994.
In addition to his contributions in the offensive zone, Bieksa has been a one-man wrecking crew at times during the postseason. Entering Game 7, Bieksa leads the entire league in hits with 81 in 24 games, and he'll need to add to that total in order to keep the relentless Bruins at bay.
Ultimately, Bieksa has been the Canucks' best defenseman in the 2011 Playoffs, and he needs to have his best game of the series in Game 7 if his team is going to hoist the Cup for the first time.
5. Milan Lucic
Though Milan Lucic has not been the Bruins' best forward in terms of goals and assists through the first six games of the finals, he has the ability to become a game-changer on Wednesday night.
A Vancouver native, Lucic has been terrorizing the Canucks' defense all series long, delivering crushing hits and using his massive frame to intimidate the opposition. Lucic has led the charge physically, registering 65 hits through 24 games, by far the most of any forward on the Bruins.
Lucic embodies the attitude of the Bruins perfectly and he'll be counted on to set the tone for his team in Game 7 just as he did in Game 6.
With the Bruins facing elimination on home ice on Monday night, Lucic scored to put the Bruins up by two early in the opening frame and followed that up be dishing out some devastating checks in the second and third periods.
Boston has a lot of forwards capable of putting the puck in the net, but none who possess his rare blend of power and finesse, which is why he's one of Boston's most important players entering Wednesday's Game 7.
4. Zdeno Chara
Through the first six games of the finals, Zdeno Chara has been the force on the blue line that the Bruins had hoped he'd be.
He's managed to contain the Canucks' superstar forwards, limiting the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler to two combined goals entering Game 7. Thus far, Chara's long reach and physical presence have disrupted the Canucks' puck-possession style of play, forcing them to make quicker decisions in the offensive zone.
Chara is without a doubt the Bruins' most valuable skater because his ability to limit the opposition's scoring chances gives his team a chance to win every night. The Bruins don't have any other standouts on the back end, so his team's chances of winning depend on his performance tomorrow night.
He also plays a key role on the power play, as he lays claim to the hardest shot in the game, something Vancouver has to respect when defending him.
While he hasn't put up the offensive numbers we've grown accustomed to, Chara is the Bruins' captain, and he'll be counted on to be at his best in Game 7.
3. Daniel and Henrik Sedin
Yes, I know that I've listed the Sedin twins as one player, but that's because the success of either twin normally hinges on the play of the other. Daniel Sedin typically isn't scoring if Henrik isn't able to feed him the puck and Henrik isn't piling up assists if Daniel isn't getting open in prime scoring areas.
This would explain why neither twin has been a major factor in the series thus far.
While Daniel scored a key goal in Game 2, that's his only tally of the series, which simply isn't good enough for a guy who led the league in regular season scoring with 41 goals and 104 points.
Henrik, on the other hand, has just one point in the series, a goal which came late in the Canucks' 5-2 loss in Game 6.
Part of the problem with the Sedins thus far has been that they've been unable to adapt to the Bruins' tenacious style of play. They continue to try and make one too many passes in the offensive zone and have yet to assert themselves like they did on a nightly basis during the regular season.
Surprisingly, they've even been outplayed by linemate Alexandre Burrows, who at least made a significant impact on the series by tallying two goals and an assist in Game 2. These two have each won an Art Ross Trophy, which means they should be among the best forwards in the game, no matter what time of year.
If the Sedins truly want to make a case for themselves to be included in the discussion regarding who the best player in the world is, they need to play with more passion on Wednesday night.
They clearly possess the skill to deliver the performance that's expected of them, but they've yet to prove that they have the grit and heart to outwork this scrappy Boston defense.
If Vancouver's going to win and Henrik is to become the second European captain in history to hoist the Stanley Cup, they both need to play like the superstars they are on Wednesday night.
2. Tim Thomas
If the Bruins win the Stanley Cup, Tim Thomas will almost certainly be the unanimous selection for the Conn Smythe Winner as playoff MVP.
If the Canucks win the Stanley Cup, Tim Thomas should still win the Conn Smythe Trophy.
That's how good the 37-year-old has been, especially during the Stanley Cup Finals.
Through six games, Thomas has allowed just seven goals while playing against the vaunted Vancouver Canucks offense. He's been exceptional in each game and has thoroughly outplayed his counterpart, Roberto Luongo.
On paper, the Bruins don't hold an advantage at any position except between the pipes. They don't have a single star player up front, and beyond Zdeno Chara at the blue line, there aren't any standouts there, either.
Instead, they rely on a collection of hard-working players to wear the opposition down while Thomas frustrates the other team. That strategy has worked perfectly in each of Boston's home games, but even on the road Thomas has turned in remarkable performances.
He'll almost assuredly have the record for most saves in a single postseason and has been by far the most valuable player for either team in this series.
Thomas has been unflappable in net up to this point, so there's no reason to believe that will change now. If he continues to play the way he has for the last six games, there's a very good chance that Thomas will be leading a Stanley Cup parade in Boston in the very near future.
1. Roberto Luongo
Roberto Luongo's name isn't at the top of this list because he's been the best or most valuable player in this series.
Instead, it's here because he is the player whose performance will probably have the largest impact on the outcome of Game 7, which makes him the most important player for either team entering the contest.
Luongo has been magnificent at times and almost unwatchable at others, which is why nobody really knows which goaltender will show up for Wednesday's deciding game.
On the road in this series, Luongo has looked shaky at best. His confidence was clearly rattled and he gave up goals that starting goalies in the National Hockey League simply don't let in. In the three games played in Boston, Luongo allowed a whopping 15 goals on just 66 shots. That comes out to a save percentage of .773, which is simply unacceptable.
With that being said, Luongo has played well at home throughout the playoffs and carried that through to the finals. He's given up just two goals in three games at home, notching two shutouts along the way. If this trend continues, Luongo will give the Canucks a very good chance of winning on Wednesday night, but it's unclear whether he'll be able to bounce back from another dreadful outing on the road.
After Game 6, Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault expressed confidence in the 32-year-old goaltender's ability to forget about that night's result and perform at the level that's expected of him, but that's up to Luongo.
Less than 16 months ago, Luongo electrified the city of Vancouver and the entire nation by backstopping Team Canada to Olympic gold in his home arena. He made 34 saves on 36 American shots, outlasting tournament MVP Ryan Miller in the process, forever etching his name in Canadian hockey history.
Luongo should consider himself lucky to even have a shot at redemption after the way he played in Games 2, 3 and 6, but those losses will be forgotten if he can find a way to win on Wednesday night.
While the play of Tim Thomas, the Sedin twins and everyone else on this list will have an impact on the outcome of the game, Luongo's performance will likely determine which team is hoisting Lord Stanley's coveted chalice at the end of the night.