Why couldn’t the Vancouver Canucks claim the Stanley Cup when it was within tasting distance of their dressing room?
And how did the Boston Bruins manage to delete 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits in the championship series, let alone against a team that topped nearly every statistical chart in the regular season?
Amidst the multitude of theories floating in the aftermath of Boston’s Game 7 victory on Wednesday, it is curious that strength of schedule is not discussed as much as other factors.
Paradoxically, while the Western Conference is a decidedly more grueling conference to come out of, Boston was clearly left more battle-tested by its division than Vancouver.
The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks were the lone playoff team to represent the Northwest Division, whose other inhabitants consist of the 10th-place Calgary Flames, 12th-seeded Minnesota Wild, 14th-place Colorado Avalanche and cellar-dwelling Edmonton Oilers.
Finishing the regular season with a 54-19-9 transcript, Vancouver went 19-3-2 against its fellow Northwesterners for a whopping .854 winning percentage. Divisional rivals accounted for 35 percent of the Canucks' wins.
Not much to flatter themselves about considering the adversaries in question amassed 94, 86, 68 and 61 points, respectively.
When a team bulks up that heavily on cupcakes, it’s no wonder if some fans fear the other skate will eventually drop in the postseason. And admittedly, when asked to submit Stanley Cup picks to his college newspaper in April, this author foresaw the Canucks finally surmounting the second round, only to fall short of the conference crown against San Jose.
As it happened, the Sharks, whose Pacific Division sent a league-leading four teams to the playoffs, proved far too undisciplined to be taken seriously against Vancouver. But consider this: Of the four teams the Canucks faced in this tournament, San Jose was the only one that failed to beat them in a single game when facing elimination.
Conversely, in the opening round, the Chicago Blackhawks filled a three-games-to-none pothole and pushed the ensuing seventh game to overtime.
The Nashville Predators, who had next to nothing to build around goaltender Pekka Rinne, could have snuffed out in Game 5 of Round 2 at Rogers Arena. Instead, they went down swinging in Game 6 at their mansion.
And in the finals, the Bruins disobeyed the pundits and didn’t roll over even after dropping the first two games. Rather, at least in four of the next five, they rolled in and out in tidal waves to run up a cumulative scoring differential of 21-4.
In hindsight, outside of the lopsided results, the element of surprise here is not so hard-hitting. After all, during its regular season, Boston got repeated fits from two of its fellow playoff-goers, the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres.
The Bruins finished first in the Northeast Division in spite of a 2-3-1 season series with the Habs and a 2-2-2 record against Buffalo. They similarly failed to take more than half of their wishbone from the likes of Pittsburgh and the stingy New York Rangers.
Heck, even the Toronto Maple Leafs stole eight points from Boston and ultimately finished nine wins and 18 points behind for fourth place of the Northeast Division. Conversely, the Flames took second place in the Northwest, a good 13 wins and 23 points behind Vancouver.
But while scraping out as many Ws and points as they could―including an 8-7-3 record against the Western Conference―the Bruins continuously learned from the nicks they took from their peskiest regional rivals. That trend continued all the way through the first round of the playoffs, when they shook off two vinegary losses to the Canadiens and proceeded to win the series in seven.
Granted, both Cup finalists had their share of trouble dropping the curtain on a series. Boston needed a Game 7 mulligan after spilling Game 6 against the Canadiens and the Lightning. But that pales in comparison to the Canucks, who finished this run with an abysmal 3-6 record when trying to eliminate an opponent.
Incidentally, Boston coach Claude Julien can relate to Vancouver counterpart Alain Vigneault, having entered this spring at 2-6 when trying to end a series.
The difference this year, though, is perfectly explicable. The 2010-11 Bruins repeatedly learned how to rebound from unfavorable outings. The Canucks learned little more than how to pull ahead and at least try to stay ahead.
Aerosmith said, “You’ve got to lose to know how to win.” Boston has now lived the sour and sweet phases of that process. The Canucks have at least taken Step One.