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June 1, 2011
NHL Playoffs, Stanley Cup Finals
Vancouver Canucks vs. Boston Bruins

by Timo Seppa

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Who's going to step up to win this thing?

That's the question that I find myself asking as I wring my hands over who to prognosticate as the 2011 Stanley Cup champion. Since I've been making these picks for the last two postseasons for Hockey Prospectus, I've found compelling reasons to like each finalist—Detroit and Pittsburgh, Chicago and Philadelphia—and in addition, none of them seemed to have a major exploitable weakness…well, with the exception of the wearing down of the Red Wings through a physical playoffs, which I rightly called out.

I don't feel the same about the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins. Don't get me wrong—these are strong teams—but they're missing that je ne sais quoi that a championship team usually has. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I'd pick any of those last four finalists over either of them, if that matchup was available—even the seventh-seeded Flyers. Call me crazy.

Someone's got to win, right? Let's work through the analysis and see if we can build a case for who's going to lift Lord Stanley's Cup at the end of the day.

Even Strength

In our playoff preview format, we break apart the components of even strength offense versus defense using our Goals Versus Threshold metric. On the surface, that would seem to give an overall advantage to Vancouver at 5-on-5 on the basis of better goal prevention. But we know that conclusion hasn't been borne out by even strength play either in the regular season or in the playoffs.

These two teams appeared at the top of the NHL standings for the regular season, with the Canucks' 1.32 GF/GA (in a tougher conference) only trailing the Bruins' 1.40. In the playoffs, Boston has put up an unheard of 1.70 while Vancouver has fallen off to a less impressive 1.07, although against stout competition in the Blackhawks (1.15), Predators (1.16) and Sharks (1.16)—all top-seven teams by this measure during the regular season. Just remember though, that for all their goaltending issues, the Flyers were third in the NHL (1.32) and the Bruins ended up outscoring them 18-to-5 at evens.

Vancouver Offense vs. Boston Defense

Vancouver Canucks Offense: +34.0 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Boston Bruins Defense GVT: -2.7 (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Boston Bruins Goaltending GVT: +36.3 (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: Vancouver Canucks, +0.4 GVT

On offense, Vancouver has many elite offensive players, as measured by Offensive GVT: Daniel Sedin (23.4), Henrik Sedin (15.3), Ryan Kesler (14.3), Christian Ehrhoff (9.2), Alexandre Burrows (8.5) and Mikael Samuelsson (7.5). Well, except that Samuelsson is out for the playoffs and that the health of Kesler's groin in the $64,000 question of the Finals (No, it's not Malhotra's availability, which is a bit of a red herring).

The Bruins get labeled as a defensive team, but by GVT it's elite goaltending buttressing barely average defense. Then again, Tom Awad has pointed out that it's highly unlikely that the repeated elite save percentages of Thomas-Rask-Thomas over the past three seasons are a coincidence, lending credence to the fact that the netminders' success is in part due to the effect of their teammates. That said, Tim Thomas (.938) had a season for the ages, breaking Dominik Hasek's all-time mark for save percentage. And for the last time—probably—I'll mention that Thomas has already won a championship with Helsinki's HIFK in 1998. So he's been there.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

Boston Offense vs. Vancouver Defense

Boston Bruins Offense GVT: +20.0 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks Defense: +10.3 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks Goaltending: +29.6 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, -19.9 GVT

The Bruins' offense has been Jekyll and Hyde from season to season: 2nd at 3.29 GF/game in 2008-09, dead-last at 2.39 GF/game in 2009-10 and back to 5th at 2.98 GF/game in 2010-11. Here's what you like about that, from the point of view of this series: Boston seems to continue these runs of luck/high shooting percentage for extended periods of time—donít ask me for any research to back that up!—so it may not be out of the question for them to continue near their seemingly unsustainable 10.1% clip for one more series.

Boston doesn't have the really high end offensive players to match the Canucks, but they do have quality depth and health on their side. By Offensive GVT, they've got Milan Lucic (12.5), David Krejci (8.8), Nathan Horton (8.3), Patrice Bergeron (7.8), Zdeno Chara (7.6), Brad Marchand (7.4) and Tomas Kaberle (6.7) among their top options. In addition, 2010 second overall pick Tyler Seguin—by now, a virtual sophomore—has made his mark on more than one game already in the playoffs, and could be a big key to the Bruins' success. In fact, other than the much-maligned late season pickup Kaberle, each of those players has had a key playoff moment (or more) over the past two postseasons.

Vancouver doesn't give up a ton of goals to anyone (except Chicago, who also beat them 7-1 during the regular season in addition to the Game 4 and Game 5 thumpings), both based on solid defense and the greatly underappreciated goaltending of Roberto Luongo, who easily should have won a Vezina or two earlier in his career (Brodeur…cough, cough). That's not to say that all the playoff demons are completely chased away yet. We'll see, if the series gets long and tight.

Advantage: Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver Power Play vs. Boston Penalty Kill

Vancouver Canucks Power Play: +23.6 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Boston Bruins Penalty Kill GVT: +6.5 (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Total: Vancouver Canucks, +17.1 GVT

The Canucks power play has been nothing short of deadly, both in the regular season (24.3%) and postseason (28.3%). Back in January, Ryan Kesler described some of their secret formula to me: "We're just playing unpredictable. We don't have one or two things that work. We really use all five guys on the ice, and really don't have any set plays. We just read and react off each other and that's the biggest thing". Talent, smarts and the uncanny synergy between the Sedin twins doesn't hurt either.

Boston's fallen from a slightly above average penalty killing team (82.6%) to poor (79.4%) through three rounds of the playoffs, though they have a tendency to score short-handed—they've got one in the postseason, and were one of a half dozen teams to put up double digit tallies (11) in the regular season. As an interesting bit of minutia, Vancouver his given up more short-handed goals in the playoffs (3) than they did through the 82 games of the regular season (2). That's more flukey, but interesting in light of Boston's proclivity to score them.

The Bruins' best defense is simply not taking penalties. It's a huge key to the series. At evens, Boston has the advantage despite the star power of the Canucks.

To emphasize the point: Boston has scored 48 of 54 non-empty net goals at even strength (89%), while Vancouver has scored 31 of 49 such goals at even strength (63%) and 17 of 49 such goals on the power play (35%).

By the way, look for some conspiracy theories if the Bruins do manage to stay out of the penalty box.

Advantage: Vancouver Canucks

Boston Power Play vs. Vancouver Penalty Kill

Boston Bruins Power Play GVT: -3.7 (Rank: 20th in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks Penalty Kill: +9.9 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, -13.6 GVT

Boston's anemic power play is the worst in recent memory for a finalist, possibly ever. It was below average in the regular season (16.2%) and is unspeakably poor in the postseason (8.2%). But…they're…not…quite…this…bad. Though it's not of huge consequence compared to keeping the Canucks off the PP, expect some kind of bounceback. And heck, you never know what numbers will look like in a short series.

A word to Claude Julien, though: stop putting Chara in front of the net to screen the goalie. You've got power forwards—hello, Milan!—that should be able to play that role just fine. You'll remember that Big Z has a 100+ mph slapper that's a bit of a weapon from the point. Strikes me as the type of desperation that the Schneider start in Game 6 of the first round was for the Canucks. You don't go trying to reinvent the wheel late in the playoffs.

Advantage: Vancouver Canucks

Season Series Results

Despite being outshot 28-24, the Bruins earned a 3-1 victory (2-1 with an empty netter) on February 27, as part of an impressive 6-0 road trip for Boston. Hometown boy Milan Lucic (one goal, two assists) was honored before the game for his time with the Vancouver Giants, and ended up as the first star.

Yes, it's one game, but interesting from this point of view: of the 15 teams that played the Canucks multiple times this season, only San Jose, Calgary and Colorado beat Vancouver a single time (and all in a row, during the Canucks' one slump of the year). Anaheim, Chicago, Detroit, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Montreal (2-0), Nashville, Phoenix, St. Louis all beat Vancouver more than once. Columbus and Dallas got swept. It's a bit of a stretch, I know, but teams either seemed to have the right makeup to play the Canucks or they didn't. And it seems to correlate with Chicago and Nashville having better results in the playoffs against Vancouver than San Jose did.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

Faceoffs

Vancouver Canucks: 54.9% (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Boston Bruins: 51.9% (Rank: 5th in NHL)

Though Vancouver was by far the best faceoff team in the NHL after stealing free agent Manny Malhotra (61.7%) from San Jose, they've had to contend with life after Manny since his catastrophic eye injury in March. That's left Ryan Kesler (57.4%) as the go-to center on key draws for the Canucks, while Patrice Bergeron (56.6%) continues to fill that role nicely for the Bruins.

The net effect for the playoffs has been a better rate for Boston (52.3%) than for Vancouver (50.4%). Though Malhotra's rumored to be waiting in the wings for his Willis Reed moment—and hopefully not his Bill Buckner moment—it's questionable what he'll bring to the team if he can return.

Advantage: Even

Injuries and Intangibles

With Patrice Bergeron back for the latter half of the Lightning series after dealing with a minor concussion, the Bruins have a decided advantage on health. With Mikael Samuelsson (8.4 GVT) out, the effectiveness of Malhotra (7.1 GVT) questionable even if he can return and questions about Kesler (19.3 GVT) lurking, that's a whole lot of GVT that's either sidelined or in jeopardy for the Canucks.

The biggest question to me in the series is whether Claude Julien can make the correct tactical decisions and whether his team will follow his lead. Consider that Julien was slow to introduce Seguin despite his success—ever think that Seguin (7.2 PPP/60 in limited time) might be part of the solution on the power play?—and the silly Chara experiment fronting the goaltender on the man advantage. One key task for the Bruins' coach is to properly shelter defensive trainwrecks Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference.

And as far as the team itself and their leadership, you'd like to see some more (controlled) fire. Chicago nearly turned the first round on its head with speed and aggressiveness, beating Vancouver in battles all over the ice and along the boards in Games 4 and 5. Dave Bolland's return made a huge impact, and it's not out of the question for Patrice Bergeron to play a similar role for the B's. It's not quite Boston's personality to play like Chicago did, but they have the depth and versatility at forward to pull it off.

I also think back to the physical punishment and intimidation that the likes of Vladimir Sobotka and Zdeno Chara meted out to a skillful but soft #3-seeded Sabres team last postseason, because it's very possible that these Canucks might not stand up to those kinds of strong-arm Pat Quinn tactics (heck, the 1994 Canucks almost pulled it off against the Rangers). Which makes you wonder if the whole Max Pacioretty situation took a little edge off of Chara. The fact is, he needs to find that edge again for the Bruins to raise the Cup. It's in the Bruins power to make the Canucks uncomfortable.

Maybe a little team hypnosis could convince the team that they're really facing the Habs.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

Prediction

Vancouver Canucks: +77.0 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Boston Bruins: +51.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total GVT Difference: Vancouver Canucks, +26.0 GVT

Vancouver's the better team, and they're the chalk pick. Without giving this some long meditation, Canucks in five or six games would have been the safe way to go.

But to me, they're the known quantity. Sure, if Boston takes too many penalties, doesn't play physical enough, or if Julien limits Seguin's ice time, forgets who their best shot from the point is or sends Johnny Boychuk out against Vancouver's top lines too often, the Canucks are going to clinically take the Bruins apart—unlikely blowouts, but just a quiet five games like with the Sharks. Yes, a lot of ifs. There's not a lot of room for error with Boston.

On the other hand, if Boston play things right tactically and emotionally—well within their control—this series becomes "a damn close run thing". If that's the case, look for some additional factor to tilt the series in the Bruins' favor: the Canucks and Luongo playing tight, a Kesler injury, an otherworldly performance from Thomas.

Bruins in seven games

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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