By Trevor Paul
If the dear reader doesn’t mind, I’m going to spend the start of this article “pumping my tires.” I mean, the readership hasn’t had anything nice to say about me during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’ve said plenty of nice things about the readers…
Okay, that last part is a stretch. Still, this has been a ridiculously good run for me in terms of analysis and predictions. At one point, I nailed the exact score of games six and seven in the Montreal series. I don’t think I have ever managed to do that before. More than my own prowess, I would credit this to a season that has had more coverage, more storylines, and clearer signs of eventual outcomes than the past ten. Too bad 95% of hockey analysts completely dropped the ball, including almost every major contributor to ESPN.
That however, is a discussion (or rant, as the case may be) for another time. This was one of the best hockey playoffs ever and definitely the best since 2001 when Ray Bourque finally got his cup. There were storylines, a flood of new stars, and plenty of teams and individuals to hate. This was never clearer than in the finals, when even impartial hockey fans like myself could clearly identify which team was the good guys and who were the villains.
But before we get there we should look at the run that took us to the finals. As always, the hockey in the Eastern Conference and the western conference took on a slightly different tone. By and large, the Western Conference produces the best teams, a feat made less remarkable when you consider Detroit, San Jose, Colorado, and Dallas (all traditional powerhouses) belong to that conference. Yet the fall of Colorado and Dallas (coupled with the rise of Chicago, Vancouver, and eventually Los Angeles) has thrown things into a flux. We knew before the playoffs started Vancouver was by far the best team in the West and, if we are being honest, the league. I don’t equate that just to their dominating the standings for the regular season, but more on them later.
Boston’s tear through the Eastern Conference was far more trying. While Vancouver faced adversity against Chicago in round one, they dispatched Nashville and San Jose with little difficulty. The arrival of the Canucks in the finals was never really in doubt. The only team that might have taken Vancouver down was Detroit, and San Jose was kind enough to expend all their energy eliminating the Red Wings for Vancouver.
Meanwhile, Boston got the worst possible draw they could for rounds one, three, and the Finals. Only the match up with Philadelphia, despite all of the lingering fear surrounding the series from last season, was one that Boston clearly had a significant edge in. Montreal was a horrible draw. At no point do you ever want to see your rival in the first round, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs where the difference between the regular season and playoffs is astronomical (just ask San Jose of the past five years).
Yet the Bruins were able to persevere. They were the better overall team, with the better goaltender, and often that is enough to power through a series. Still, Montreal was faster, and speed against the slow-footed Boston defense is the one thing that countered the rough and tough persona of the Bruin team. Fortunately, Tim Thomas was beyond adequate in the first round and after the first two games the Bruins had the flow of the playoffs down.
Philadelphia had no chance. They weren’t big enough or tough enough to hang with the Bruins and they had no goalie, just a carousel of guys in bigger than average pads. Sergei Bobrovsky may be the future in Philly (though acquiring Ilya Bryzgalov suggests the Flyer’s organization doesn’t think so) but none of those keepers were going to get the job done. No surprise the Bruins rolled.
The second series I got wrong this postseason turned out to be the Tampa Bay-Boston Conference Finals. From round two I had been emphasizing that Tampa was the absolute worst opponent for the Bruins. Fast, talented, and with a very good goalie in Dwayne Roloson, the Lightning had all the pieces to beat Boston. I figured Tampa took the series in six and then got rolled by Vancouver (which I am still convinced would have happened in that particular Finals matchup).
Boston did the one thing they could do to counter Tampa’s speed: they got rough. They hit the Lightning all over the ice, at every opportunity, and they started to get that supernatural level of goaltending out of Thomas. That was really the bigger key. Zdeno Chara and company could not handle the speedy Tampa forwards, not even Dennis Seidenberg (who will be one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history, but more on that later). Thomas won Boston that series, along with some timely intervention from Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton. And so we were on to the Finals.
The Finals bears a much more detailed breakdown. It was one of the greatest Finals ever, regardless of whom you were rooting for. Well, okay, that might not be true. If you were a Vancouver fan you ought to be ashamed, doubly so now that the city is apparently a burnt cinder on the Western Coast. It was a fantastic series of games, but it was also grossly misunderstood.
Games one and two belong in the same category, not because they had the same outcomes or similar arcs of events, but because the personalities of the teams remained unchanged. Boston was, and still is, the lesser team in terms of talent. Ryan Kesler is the best hockey player on either squad, a fantastically fast and talented forward that might have lifted his team in a few games but for a groin pull he suffered early in the series. Boston was outmatched in that capacity, and games one and two emphasized it.
The talk among pundits when Vancouver took the two game lead was all about how they were just “too much” for Boston to handle. This shifted dramatically when the Bruins crushed Vancouver in games three and four.
The Bruins should not have.
The Bruins were overmatched in the first two games and they looked very uncomfortable. It wasn’t unlike the first two Montreal games where Boston was still finding their legs and the Habs, with nothing to lose, were ripping up and down the ice. The reason Boston didn’t drop those two games by more was Tim Thomas, who may have actually ascended to heaven and come back as the Messiah, albeit in a hockey uniform.
But his virtuoso performance does not take away from the reality of what we were watching. Boston was the weaker team. They were outmatched at forward and defense. Only goaltending gave them a slight edge (which became far more pronounced as the series progressed). Yeah, sorry Boston, but Vancouver had a better defensive unit. Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk, while developing into solid defensemen, were not better than Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, Christian Ehrhoff, or even Sami Salo. Chara brings length, but any honest hockey analyst who hasn’t sipped the “Boston savior” Kool-Aid will point out his major flaws. He’s slow, awkward with the puck, and beatable if you go inside out on him (mostly because his size makes any hit he lays on an opponent a potential penalty). Seidenberg was good enough to handle Vancouver’s best forwards, but he was one man.
The forward situation was lopsided before Horton went down. Boston had no power play, lacked a go-to scorer (not a necessity in the playoffs, but a definite boon), and was missing a leader (double that for when Horton was taken out). I hate to repeat myself, but it was the reality: Vancouver was the better team.
However, I keep using the past tense for a reason. Before the series I predicted Vancouver would win it in six games (though I was far less confident in that number than any other point in the playoffs). I figured Boston, while overmatched, would not go down easily and Thomas would steal at least one game, but I didn’t see them surviving the series. Then Aaron Rome made the stupidest play of his entire career.
No, the bite by Alexandre Burrows on Patrice Bergeron was not enough to spark the Bruins, not long term anyways. After two games the Canucks had toughed out two wins and the Bruins had not brought any level of hard-hitting punishment in response. Roberto Luongo was sharp, Thomas was better, but he couldn’t score goals for his team. Things looked like they would remain tight, but fall in Vancouver’s favor.
Then Aaron Rome happened. It was, without a doubt, a dirty hit. Not because he did anything illegal on contact, but because it came about three seconds late and was clearly done because Rome knew Horton hadn’t seen him (or was convinced he was out of harm’s way, which he should have been). That moment was beyond stupid. If the Canucks had watched any previous Stanley Cup Finals they might have seen the Ducks-Devils series of 2003. An outmatched Anaheim team was riding Paul Kariya and J.S. Giguere (no, seriously) against a much, much better opponent. Things went mostly according to plan until New Jersey’s Scott Stevens blindsided Kariya in game six, forcing one of those “anything can happen” game sevens when Kariya (who literally STOPPED BREATHING) came back and scored in game six to force another game. Vancouver should have known you don’t poke a sleeping bear.
The Bruins were lost, confused, and not able to find their game. They had rallied for two series already, dominated a very emotional crushing of Philadelphia; they had run out of bulletin board material. The hit on Horton, while horrible for him and truly upsetting to watch, was that one thing they needed. The Canucks awakened a beast and for the first time in the playoffs I changed my mind about the outcome of a series. Boston was going to take this thing over. It was happening. Things had changed.
Then the hockey gods blessed me with more smack-talk and animosity than I could have ever hoped for. Vancouver, in getting absolutely destroyed in games three and four, turned into a whiney, diving, hateful team almost overnight. The Burrows bite wasn’t enough because it made a dirt bag out of him, but not the team. The fact that Vancouver had 1) allowed Rome to assert his hit was clean, 2) allowed Luongo to actually suggest Tim Thomas ought to be shouting him out pre, post, and during games AND to assert the fact that he wasn’t was an insult (this is known in teaching circles as sixth grade girl syndrome) and 3) really, truly tried to argue Burrows’ bite was justified; all of this added up to one of the most easy to hate teams ever. The fact the Miami Heat outdid them only highlights how much of an enormous tool LeBron James made himself out to be.
Boston turned into the Bruins team they were always capable of being. They got nasty, hit hard, and everyone who had to elevated
their game. Zdeno Chara had no right playing to the level he did in the second half of the series. Tim Thomas reached a level that was nigh unattainable, stopping more shots than any other goalie in Stanley Cup Finals history. By the way, that statistic right there proves exactly how beatable the Bruins defensemen were, Tim Thomas literally saved the season over twenty times.
But as mentioned before, Thomas could not do it himself. Brad Marchand became the motor of the Bruins. He did everything they needed him to do. He drove their offense and created their chances. He was the willpower of an entire team. Patrice Bergeron does not score the two goals he had in game seven without Brad Marchand. No one moment epitomized the Bruins’ performance in this series more than Bergeron’s shorthanded goal, from his back, flailing away because this Boston team does not give up, ever.
Dennis Seidenberg ran the defensive unit that turned the high-flying Canucks offense into terrified, timid souls. Watching Seidenberg play defense was enlightening, but his nastiness around the net after whistles, his defense of Thomas, his finishing every (and I mean EVERY) hit drove the machine that was the Bruins. He is going to be one of the best defensemen ever. He has all the skills. He can handle the puck, shut down the opposing team’s stars, and he has the mentality to do it all with an edge. He reminded me very much of a more skilled Adam Foote or a grittier Rob Blake. I won’t put him in Ray Bourque or Nicklas Lidstrom’s class yet, but it certainly is not out of the realm of possibility.
Ultimately the Bruins won because they were better as a team. Not more talented, not more skilled, but more complete. When Luongo gave the most ill advised press conference in hockey history it perfectly encapsulated how self-centered he and his teammates were. They didn’t back each other up. They spent time taking pot shots at Bruins players, who were going to fight literally anyone who touched someone in a black and gold jersey. As a side note, Luongo wasn’t wrong when implying Thomas’ aggressive style made the game five goal against Thomas difficult to prevent, but for Luongo to suggest he himself would have saved it easily was asinine. In fact, I’m pretty certain several of his teammates would have disagreed.
You don’t win the Stanley Cup because you have the best team, though it certainly helps. Ray Bourque explained it best when recounting how the 2001 Colorado Avalanche were able to emerge victorious. They were the deepest team in the league but Bourque said, “We come in one day and Pete (Forsberg) is down. Then a few games later we found out we don’t have Joe (Sakic) for a while. Then Footey (Adam Foote). You find a way to win despite all of that.”
That’s what the Bruins did. They were outmatched, outgunned, and tentative at the start. Tim Thomas turned into the greatest goalie of all time for seven games (sorry, Vladislav Tretiak still holds the title of greatest of all time, period). Zdeno Chara realized his potential for just long enough. Brad Marchand delivered one of the most inspirational efforts of any athlete ever. It all came together, because they came together, and they got exactly what they deserved.
As a high school teacher and a hockey coach of adolescents it was beyond refreshing. My biggest fear going into the seventh game (even though I assured Andy Lindberg Boston would absolutely win) was that the Canucks would somehow rediscover their backbones. I didn’t want that. As a teacher, as a coach, you want the determined, focused, and above all selfless team to win because those are the values we want every generation to grow up with. We want teams like the Bruins to win championships, because it confirms what we believe most firmly: eventually the right team gets what they deserve. Make the sacrifices, and you will be rewarded.
And if you don’t, you might want to find a gas station with a cheap air station, because you’re the only one who will be “pumping your tires.”