Someone here on this happiest of websites asked if Boston's season would be a failure if the Bruins lost game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. I said that it would not, and that there was no shame in making it to game 7 of the Finals and losing. Apparently there are some who disagree with me, particularly the thousands of people who took to the streets and reacted, ah, negatively, to the Canucks' defeat.
While I stand by my statement, this Stanley Cup Final was as much about Vancouver's failure as Boston's triumph. In a series where both puck prognosticators on this happiest of websites predicted a Vancouver win (in my defense, I at least called a 7 game series), the Canucks held, if not all, at least most of the cards coming in.
So what happened? Why are the Bruins the toast of the sports world and the Canucks threatening to enter Maple Leaf territory on the "cursed NHL franchise" list?
1. Special Teams Play
This was Vancouver's biggest advantage coming into the series. What happened? Not only did Boston's popgun power play outscore Vancouver's, but the Bruins penalty killers did so as well! Forget the Bruins power play; it was only a matter of time before that turned around. Vancouver's ineptitude on the power play was so complete that Boston scored more goals 4 on 5 (3) than they did 5 on 4 (2). Thus, Vancouver's biggest advantage was turned into a huge net loss for them.
Boston's special teams improved steadily as the playoffs marched on. They nearly sunk the ship in round 1 against Montreal. They looked good against Philadelphia in round 2, but then, the Flyers were a dysfunctional mess. In round 3 against Tampa Bay, they looked good save for the game 6 disaster where Tampa Bay went 3 for 3 on the power play. Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, the six Bruin forwards who did essentially all the penalty killing in this series, did a great job of staying aggressive on the penalty kill and not letting Vancouver get comfortable and pass the puck around. If a skilled team has enough time to pass the puck around, they will eventually find an open shot. Their performance was even more impressive considering that Zdeno Chara didn't do a great job of staying out of the penalty box in this series (20 PIM)
This has been talked to death, so there's not much to add here. Tim Thomas was superlative, and Roberto Luongo was not. (How awkward would it be if Luongo wins the Vezina after that?) Exactly how much blame Luongo should get is a matter of debate (he played very well in games 1, 2 and 5, and was hardly the only Canuck to quit on the other four games), but reasonable people can agree that he was, at best, a disappointment. As Bruin fans have learned the hard way over the years (Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent, Steve Penney, Patrick Roy, Bill Ranford, Jose Theodore, Cam Ward...etc.), great goaltending can go a long way to neutralizing a better team. Luongo, poor performance in the Finals aside, remains an excellent goaltender, and has the ability to do that, but did not in this series. Thomas did that, and then some.
3. Tempo and Coaching
In round 1, Boston played the series at Montreal's pace, and it nearly derailed their run, and surely would have cost Claude Julien his job. Fortunately, while Montreal had the game plan to beat Boston; they didn't have the personnel. Julien and the Bruins learned from that experience, doing a better job of avoiding unnecessary penalties, forcing the game to be played their way, and finding gaps in the 1-3-1 (see Andrew Ference's beautiful breakout pass to set up the game-winner in game 7 of the Tampa Bay series).
Vancouver wasn't able to make this the open ice skills competition that best suited them, and they didn't want to make it the style that worst suited Boston. Here, blame must be laid at Alain Vigneault's feet. The Bruins matched the Chara/Dennis Seidenberg pair against the Sedin line at every opportunity, and Vigneault couldn't get away from it, as Chara and Seidenberg absolutely erased the vaunted twins from this series. Montreal did a great job of forcing mistakes from Boston's defensemen in round 1, and then sat on the lead. Vigneault, a graduate of the Montreal organization, surely should have seen that. So why wasn't Vancouver attacking Boston's mistake-prone defensemen at every opportunity? More importantly, why did they succumb to the urge to answer brutality with brutality? I don't say that to sound like a left-wing protester; Boston's best chance to win this series was to turn it into a streetfight and Vancouver played right into it. What the Bruins sometimes lack in skill, they make up for in brawn several times over. The boxscore may show Vancouver had the edge in hits, but it's clear that the Bruins were getting the better end of the physical play.
The Canucks had enough by game 6. It wasn't their style, and they didn't like it. They were physically beaten. In retrospect, the moment we should have known the series was over was when Brad Marchand was slapping Daniel Sedin around and nothing happened. Was it a dick move by Marchand? Of course it was. It was surprising enough that Sedin stood there and took it, but what was truly amazing was that no one on Vancouver did anything about it. Imagine the roles were reversed, imagine Maxim Lapierre was slapping David Krejci around. How long would it take before Lapierre was thrown on his ass by someone in a black and gold jersey? If it was more than 2 seconds, I'd be stunned.
I am a stat nerd. I like what I can see and process and understand. I like the tangible, and I disdain the intangible. That said, it's impossible to discount the intangible in this series. Boston played hard in games 1 and 2, but came up just short. Then, the Aaron Rome hit happened, and the Bruins rallied around Nathan Horton. Though Boston was without one of their best scorers, the team got a huge emotional boost from the play and played significantly better through the rest of the series. Simply put, the Bruins got pissed and played angry. They were mad as hell, and they weren't going to take it anymore, and so every slight, every frustration, every borderline hit and every dive was repaid with brute force.
Roberto Luongo's comment that he would have stopped Lapierre's winner in game 5, which was more a comment on the advantages and disadvantages of an unorthodox goaltending style, became a new rallying cry. In the abstract, it seems absurd; Luongo was 100% right. Thomas was out of position. When your goaltender moves all over the crease, you have to accept that you're going to give up some goals like that. Didn't matter, it was just yet another chip on their shoulder as a team and they responded to it. On the eve of game 7, Daniel Sedin guaranteed victory, then abruptly backed off. He had his Mark Messier moment...and he passed it up, apparently afraid that might add yet more fuel to Boston's raging inferno. I've never understood why it takes an insult to push athletes to a higher plane; you're playing for the Stanley Cup, guys! But, right, wrong or indifferent, it does.
Boston's four wins were absolute beatdowns. Vancouver's three wins were toss-ups; each of those games could have easily gone the other way, and the law of averages would say that at least one probably should have. The Canucks, in effect, won three straight coin flips, but nothing short of pre-game intervention by Seal Team Six would have swung any of their four losses.
I said above that there's no shame in getting to game 7 and losing, but the reality is that the series probably shouldn't have gone that far in the first place.