Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2011 Stanley Cup Finals preview

By Rick Morris

For all the alleged unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there haven’t really been any many surprise teams in the Finals since 2007. OK, Philly made it as a #7 seed in the East last year, but year in and year out, they generally have a pretty good shot (having made it to the conference finals two years before) – and they were only six points out of the #5 slot anyway.

[SIDE NOTE: These Finals also follow another recent trend: it’s the fourth consecutive year with an Original Six team representing. That may not seem like much, but it’s indicative of a weird historical pendulum. O6 teams made it 10 times in 13 years between 1986 and 1998, but only once (2002) since the current streak started. Additionally, there were no Original Six teams in the Finals between 1980 and 1985 after an absence of only one year (1975) since the league expanded beyond those six in 1967.]

The 2011 Finals follow in that recent tradition. I picked Boston to come out of the East before the season, as did many pundits. And while I reconsidered on my Vancouver prediction at the last minute, picking them to fall to Detroit in the West finals (not an example of me being a homer, merely a nod to the powerful motivation to win for legendary captain Nick Lidstrom in what might be his last season), I had them going deep, as did many pundits. And I did pick Vancouver and Boston to make the Finals just prior to the start of this year’s playoffs. There are few who really follow the game of pro hockey who are shocked that either team made it this far, aside from the reputation for postseason hiccups that each squad has accrued.

Now, neither franchise ranks up there with Ottawa, San Jose and Washington among the top chokers of the past decade, but they’ve certainly been slotted on that next level. Vancouver had to slay a demon in Chicago this year and gagged away a 3-0 series lead before finally accomplishing that task. Boston had to confront last year’s 3-0 collapse against Philadelphia in this year’s playoffs before getting past a Tampa team with great firepower. So for one of these two teams, sweet vindication awaits along with the Stanley Cup.

Playing in the deeper Western Conference (albeit the weakest division in hockey according to our final FDH power rankings), the Canucks put together a dream season en route to their first-ever Presidents’ Trophy – and although there have only been seven teams to hoist both the Prez Trophy and the Stanley Cup since the former was instituted in 1986, there have only been two to win the former and lose the latter in the Finals. Vancouver is better and deeper than they were a year ago, when they were already among the elite. In the Sedin twins and possible Conn Smythe favorite Ryan Kesler (you think Ohio State could use the boost right about now of having a Buckeye raising this trophy?), Vancouver has the three most explosive forwards in this series since Boston’s Marc Savard remains out with his head injury. The superiority in firepower is demonstrated by Vancouver’s edge in two key categories: points (708-657) and shot percentage (9.8 to 9.1).

Interestingly, both teams are reprising the dynamics of the conference finals. Vancouver was more top-heavy than San Jose, but the Sharks were deeper in terms of forward scoring. Likewise, Tampa Bay was more top-heavy than Boston, but the Bruins were deeper in terms of forward scoring. Obviously, each squad hopes for a repeat of the outcome in their particular conference finals.

Vancouver is a significant favorite in this series because, frankly, it’s clear that they are one of the two best teams in the league by dint of having made it through the superior West. Boston has to either win or force the series seven games to prove that they are a better team than Detroit or San Jose.

And firepower plays a part in the perception of the Canucks as the better team coming into the Finals. Vancouver has the league’s best power play, while Boston’s is absolutely execrable. Having said that, the Bruins have reason to hope that they can hang with the Canucks at even strength – since the Sedins have been up-and-down in the playoffs and Boston will put one of the top defensemen of the last generation, Zdeno Chara, on him. Chara is certainly very hungry, having tasted the Finals just once with the ill-fated Ottawa team in ’07.

On the blue line, Vancouver is deeper than Boston overall, although if the gifted Tomas Kaberle would stop playing in a manner that has made his name a Bay State curse word, that would go a long way towards evening the two units.

The goalies are both among the best of their generation, but each given to spurts that separate them from the all-time greats – although a Stanley Cup, combined with the 2010 Olympic gold medal, would go a long way towards taking Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo to that vaunted next level of respect. He is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy this year, as is his counterpart, Tim Thomas – the 2009 winner who somehow lost his job altogether in the donut-hole season sandwiching his two best ones. But Thomas has been slightly better this year and the scenario by which he absolutely stands on his head provides Boston the best chance of winning. Their conservative style of play feeds into that possibility, by the way.

In the final analysis, one team is guaranteed to end a historic drought – well, two of them if the Canucks prevail. Boston won the most recent of their five Stanley Cups way back in 1972, with subsequent Finals appearances in 1988 and 1990 running squarely into the last years of the Edmonton juggernaut. Vancouver has never hoisted the Cup since coming into the league in 1970, although they tallied two Finals appearances in 1982 and 1994. The last appearance speaks to the larger dry spell, the one that now consumes all of Canada. You see, Montreal won the Stanley Cup the year before the Canucks’ most recent Finals appearance in 1993. 1994’s Game Seven 3-2 epic is most famed for ending the New York Rangers’ run without championships dating back to 1940. But that same game started the longest stretch without a Stanley Cup for the entire country of Canada. Since then, only Calgary in 2004, Edmonton in 2006 and Ottawa in 2007 have gone as far as the Finals and each came up empty. All six Canadian teams have raised the hopes of the nation during this time by making it at least as far as the conference finals. This year, Canada, Oh Canada, you’ll end your national misery, one day shy of the 17-year anniversary when it began. Unlike the 2010 Olympic gold medal game, it won’t come on Canadian ice, but methinks the good folks to the north won’t let it bother them too much. Vancouver in six.

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