The Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins have outlasted the other 14 teams that began the quest for the Stanley Cup in mid-April. Three rounds and six-plus weeks later, they've battled their way to within sight of hockey's most coveted prize, and in the next couple of weeks, one of them will earn the right to sip from Lord Stanley's mug.
The Bruins won the teams' only regular-season meeting, 3-1 at Vancouver on Feb. 26. Boston has dominated the all-time series -- the Canucks have won just 25 of the 108 meetings since Vancouver joined the NHL in 1970. Both teams survived a seven-game scare in the opening round and enter the Final having won 12 of their 18 playoff games.
The Canucks have the home-ice edge -- and the advantage of being well-rested. They finished off the San Jose Sharks in five games in the Western Conference Finals, while the Bruins had to battle through seven life-and-death games before outlasting the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Vancouver has been without center Manny Malhotra since he took a puck in the eye in March, and forward Mikael Samuelsson is out after sports hernia surgery. But the Canucks said Saturday that Malhotra has been cleared to play, though he's listed as day-to-day. Boston is as healthy as a team can get after 100 games and should have all hands on deck.
The team that wins will end one of the longest championship droughts in NHL history. Boston is 0-for-5 in the Final since its last victory in 1972. The Canucks have never won a Cup since entering the League in 1970; they were beaten by the New York Islanders (1982) and Rangers (1994).
Henrik Sedin, who is tops among all playoff scorers with 21 points, joined Ryan Kesler as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate with his MVP-caliber performance in the Western Conference Finals. Sedin had 12 points in five games, tying Pavel Bure's club record for most points in a playoff series. Bure, though, set the record in a seven-game series against St. Louis while Sedin needed only five games against San Jose to tie it. He also set club records with 11 assists in the series and 4 assists in Game 4.
Kesler, who had 11 points in six games against Nashville, was hardly a slouch even though his offensive numbers dipped against the Sharks. He scored goals in each of the last two games, including the dramatic goal with 13.2 seconds left that sent Game 5 into overtime. Kesler has 18 points through three rounds.
Daniel Sedin has 16 points and Alex Burrows has 14 to round out the Canucks' top scorers so far in the playoffs. Chris Higgins and Mason Raymond have played well in two-way roles on the second line with Kesler. The Canucks have an advantage in depth thanks to their third line of Maxim Lapierre, Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen. It's an energy line that can provide some offense. Adding Malhotra would give the Canucks a boost on faceoffs and killing penalties.
The fourth line has been a rotation of Cody Hodgson, Tanner Glass, Victor Oreskovich, Jeff Tambellini and Alex Bolduc. Alain Vigneault uses his fourth line sparingly, but does rely on getting seven or eight solid minutes out of it.
For a team that has a reputation of being a low-scoring, grind-it-out, defense-first team, the Bruins have some forwards who can find the back of the net on a regular basis.
David Krejci, who had a hat trick in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals and the primary assist on the series-winner in Game 7 two nights later, has a playoff-high 10 goals and team-leading 17 points. Linemate Nathan Horton also has 17 points and has been Boston's most clutch players. Horton's 8 goals all have come in Boston victories, including three game-winners. He is the only player in the history of Stanley Cup Playoffs who has two Game 7 winners in the same postseason.
Milan Lucic, the third member of the top line, has struggled more often than not in the postseason. But Lucic is going home to Vancouver for his first Final and that should will certainly help motivate him.
Boston's bottom two lines are loaded with speedy players, including Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly, Danielle Paille and rookie Tyler Seguin, who sat out the first two rounds, had six points in his first two games against Tampa Bay, but didn't score again.
Kevin Bieksa joined Greg Adams and Pavel Bure as Canucks who have scored goals that will never be forgotten in British Columbia. Bieksa's double-overtime goal in Game 5 against the Sharks put the Canucks into their first Stanley Cup Final since 1994, when Adams scored in double overtime in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Maple Leafs to lift Vancouver into the championship round. Bure scored a double-overtime winner in Game 7 of the first round against Calgary. Bieksa finished the Conference Finals with 4 goals and an assist. He leads all defensemen in the playoffs with 5 goals.
But Bieksa is only part of arguably the deepest defense in the NHL this season. The Canucks rely heavily on rolling their top six and remarkably have been able to use nine defensemen in these playoffs without any significant dropoff. Dan Hamhuis is Bieksa's partner and also plays close to 26 minutes per game. Sami Salo and Alex Edler are the Canucks' second pair.
The question, though, is whether the usual third pair of Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome will be healthy for the Final. Both players missed the last two games against San Jose with injuries, though Ehrhoff (likely a shoulder) appeared much closer to a return prior to Game 5 than Rome (undisclosed). Ehrhoff leads the Vancouver D-men with 11 points.
Keith Ballard and rookie Chris Tanev stepped in and played well for Ehrhoff and Rome in Games 4 and 5 against the Sharks. Andrew Alberts is healthy and ready should Vigneault turn to him in the Final.
Seidenberg has blossomed since joining Chara. Not only do his 8 points tie him with Tomas Kaberle for the scoring lead among Boston defenseman, but he has been a best in the defensive zone. Seidenberg is playing 28 minutes a game and is still a plus-8, the second-best mark among Boston defenders. He also a team-high 55 blocked shots and 39 hits.
His partner, Chara, has been the same steadying influence that he has been throughout his Norris Trophy-caliber career. He is a team-best plus-11 while also playing more than 28 minutes a game. Chara is so valuable to the Bruins that he has even been deployed as a front-of-the-net presence on the team's struggling power play.
Boston's second pair has had its ups and downs, but has been strong when most necessary. Andrew Ference has been a steadying influence on the back end, while chipping in 7 points, including the brilliant seam pass that started the game-winning goal sequence in Game 7. Johnny Boychuk struggled at times in the Tampa Bay series, but has been solid at other times and is the biggest hitter on the blue line.
Tomas Kaberle has taken a lot of heat for his inability to produce on the power play, which is the reason he was acquired in February. But he has been better than the critics have given him credit. Adam McQuaid is a solid sixth defenseman.
All things considered, Roberto Luongo played probably his best game as a Canuck and maybe the best game of his career in Game 5 against San Jose. He shut the door on the Sharks by stopping 54 of 56 shots, including all 20 he faced in the 30 minutes and 18 seconds of overtime. Luongo made 16 saves in the first overtime when the Sharks were coming at him in waves. He was at his best when the Canucks needed him most.
Luongo has taken his share of criticism in these playoffs, especially for the way he plays the puck (there is an audible gasp in Rogers Arena every time he goes behind the net), but he has been remarkably solid. Luongo has a 2.29 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. More important: His confidence is high and he's playing his best heading into the Final.
Luongo has been so good that backup Cory Schneider hasn't played since Vigneault shockingly started him in Game 6 against Chicago.
Tim Thomas had his ups and downs in the Eastern Conference Finals, but he was at his best when his team needed him most.
After the team split the opening two games of the series, Thomas registered a shutout in Game 3 to give Boston temporary control of the series. After blowing a three-goal lead in a Game 4 loss, Thomas responded with a one-goal effort in Game 5. In Game 7, just 48 hours after given up five goals in Game 6, he refused to blink and won a 1-0 decision in Game 7 against Dwayne Roloson, who had been 7-0 in elimination games.
Thomas, more than any other goalie, is capable of making the game-changing save. The first-round save against Montreal's Brian Gionta on a 2-on-1 and the Game 5 save against Steve Downie in the last round immediately jump to mind.
Thomas has played every minute of the Bruins' 18 games in this postseason, going 12-6 with a 2.29 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. He has two shutouts, both in the past five games.
Vigneault is pushing all the right buttons and his team is responding. The Canucks were by far the better team in the Western Conference Finals, even if the Sharks at times were able to control the play (first overtime of Game 5). Vigneault stuck by the Sedins despite their obvious struggles against Nashville (combined 7 points and minus-10 rating), and they rewarded the coach with a magical performance against the Sharks. He has shown the guts to play rookies like Tanev, Hodgson and Bolduc in these playoffs and hasn't been disappointed. He's been remarkably consistent with his lines and defensive pairings.
Claude Julien has been the steadying influence that the Bruins have needed. He has made very few changes this postseason, but when he has pushed the button, it has been the right one. Pairing Chara and Seidenberg is a prime example, as is the insertion of Seguin into the lineup in the third round. He has also remained loyal to his players -- especially Kaberle and Boychuk -- which has helped with their confidence.
The Canucks won the special teams battle against the Sharks. They were 9-for-24 on the power play and killed off 15 of 22 penalties, but that number is skewed by the fact that San Jose scored on its first five power plays of the series. The Sharks then fell into a 1-for-15 drought before Patrick Marleau's goal in the second period of Game 5. Vancouver had a 5-on-3 kill for 84 seconds in Game 5. For the playoffs, the Canucks are 17-for-60 (28.3 percent) on the power play and 58-for-72 (80.6 percent) on the PK. Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler have combined for 27 points on the power play. Getting Malhotra back would be a major lift for the penalty-killing unit.
Somehow, the Bruins have reached the Stanley Cup Final with an anemic power play and a mediocre penalty kill.
Boston's power play has generated just five goals in 61 attempts and only one power-play goal in eight road games. It's become so desperate that Chara, who usually bombs away from the point with the man advantage, is now being deployed down low to try to screen the goalie and inject some life into the dormant power play.
The Bruins have been more effective on the PK, but have shown weakness at times. In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston allowed Tampa Bay to score on three consecutive power plays to a 2-1 lead into a 4-2 deficit. For the playoffs, Boston's PK has allowed 13 goals in 63 disadvantages. The Bruins will have to be better than that against the high-powered Canucks.
Henrik Sedin, Vancouver -- A lot of times picking the unheralded guy that is going to make a big difference makes sense, but in this case the Canucks' captain is playing too good and can be too big of a factor not to choose him in this spot. He's passing the puck as good as he ever has right now and he's centering a line with brother Daniel and Burrows that is dangerous every time they get on the ice.
Tyler Seguin, Boston -- The No. 2 pick in last June's Entry Draft has the speed to shine in this series, but he has not had much of an impact since his dynamic debut in Games 1 and 2 against Tampa Bay. Three goals and three assists in his first two games – as an injury replacement for Patrice Bergeron – allowed him to stay in the lineup. But he has no points in the past five games. Seguin will need to be better for a Boston team that will be desperate for depth scoring in this series.
Canucks will win if... The power play continues to be a weapon, the Sedins keep finding room in the offensive zone to work their magic and Luongo is as good as everyone knows he can be. If all three of these things happen it's hard to envision how NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hands the Stanley Cup to anyone but Henrik Sedin. When the power play clicks, the Sedins are dangerous and Luongo is in a zone, the Canucks are the best team in the NHL.
Bruins will win if... They improve their special-teams play. The Bruins are the best 5-on-5 team in these playoffs and have the best goalie. Their defensive structure will allow them to stay in most games, but they can't survive the special-teams meltdowns they've experienced this postseason. The Bruins will need at least a few power-play goals to upset the Canucks and a strong run on the PK won't hurt against a team that can dominate with the man advantage.
"To go to the Stanley Cup Final is a dream come true, and to do it with this group of guys -- our core has been here for seven or eight years working toward something special and we have a huge opportunity in front of us." -- Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa
"We haven't (gone to the Final) for a long time as an organization. But this is all that matters. We got a great group of guys and I've said it all year, but guys do get along and we enjoy each other and we trust each other and that's a been thing going around the locker room." -- Bruins forward Nathan Horton.