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Bruins must keep Canucks looking over their shoulders

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 8, 2011 07:04 AM

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So what was that, exactly, on Monday night? Was it a reprieve, a temporary stay of execution? Was it an outburst of emotion after days of teeth-clenching anger? Was it nothing more than a relative fluke, a reminder that any team can throttle any other on any given night?

Or was it, perhaps, the axis on which the Stanley Cup Final turned, the Bruins revealing cracks in a Vancouver Canucks team that now has been punctured?

We get our answer tonight, in Game 4, when the Bruins and Canucks resume their icy play for Lord Stanley’s cherished cup at the TD Garden. Nathan Horton is out. Aaron Rome is out. And a Bruins victory tonight would put Boston right back in the thick of this series, placing the pressure squarely on Vancouver to win a championship it is supposed to win.

“I think a lot of our success has been to eliminate carryover, positively or negatively, to turn the page - in a big picture, game to game, [in a] small picture, period to period,” Bruins defenseman Andrew Ferrence told reporters yesterday. “It's a clean slate. But they have a 2-1 lead. We know we have to do our job at home to stay in the series. It's important for us to just go at it.”

Actually, it’s vital.

Remember: the Celtics won Game 3 against the Miami Heat going away, posting an 97-81 victory at the Garden that many regarded as some sort of statement or indication that the team had awoken. The Celtics then lost Games 4 and 5, the former at home and the latter on the road, leaving their Game 3 victory to serve as nothing more than an aberration, a mere example of Celtic Pride in a series otherwise dominated by the opposing team.

Yes, it’s a different sport. Yes, no two circumstances are entirely alike. But like those Celtics, one of the biggest potential weapons for the Bruins in this series is the self-doubt buried in their opponent’s psyche, the kind of thing that can lead teams to, well, choke.

As inspiring as the Bruins’ Game 3 victory was, it will ultimately mean nothing without Game 4. The Bruins made that so by dropping Games 1 and 2 in Vancouver last week. The moment Alexandre Burrows scored his wraparound 11 seconds into overtime of Game 2, the Bruins needed to win both Games 3 and 4 because their best chance in this series, from the very beginning, was to batter Vancouver and get inside the Canucks’ heads.

A win in Game 4 accomplishes that because the questions would then shift to Vancouver, where the best team in hockey this year would be peppered with doubt.

Do you feel like you’ve let a golden opportunity slip away by losing Games 3 and 4? Mustn’t you win Game 5? Are the Bruins tougher than you and do they simply want it more?

Give the Bruins credit for this much: for the first time in the series on Monday, Boston outhit Vancouver, no matter what the official statistics indicated in Games 1 and 2. From the second period on, the Bruins initiated the contact and play. The Canucks entered Game 3 looking like a supremely confident and even cocky team, and they exited looking a little battered, humbled, beaten. The final score of 8-1 had as much to do with the Canucks quitting in the final minutes of play more as it did with the Bruins pouring it on in wholesale quantities.

The Canucks dominated the third period in Game 1 of this series. They controlled the third period and overtime of Game 2.

But in Game 3, Vancouver got positively spanked in the final 40 minutes, the Bruins finding their legs while the Canucks lost theirs.

“Obviously, they kept putting the pressure on. The game was pretty much out of reach for us,” Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo told the media yesterday. “I don't know. I mean, they obviously were not satisfied with 5-1 and kept pressing. We started maybe taking our attention away from our game plan, started worrying about physical aspects of the game, which we shouldn't be doing at this point.”

Indeed, the Canucks were looking over their shoulders. The trick now for the Bruins is to ensure that the Canucks keep doing so, at least until Vancouver begins to look within.

Admittedly, the loss of Horton is a rather sizable blow to the Bruins, who possessed very few matchup advantages to begin with. The Canucks are faster. The Canucks are more skilled. The Canucks are every bit as deep, if not deeper, and they are better on special teams. Aside from goal scoring, Horton has played the majority of these playoffs with an intensity, physicality and edge that the Bruins need in these finals, especially, and that is something Tyler Seguin simply cannot replicate, at least at the moment.

Still, against these Canucks, ask yourselves this: are the Bruins better off playing stylistically as they did in Games 1 and 2, with Horton? Or are they better off playing stylistically as they did in Game 3, without him? In this series as much as any other, the physical play is absolutely essential for them. The effect on Vancouver’s defense corps is now noticeable. From a purely physical standpoint, the longer this series goes the better it is for the Bruins, who must remain relentless in pounding away at Vancouver’s air of invincibility.

All of that brings us to Game 4 with the Canucks still holding a 2-1 edge in the series. As Luongo himself pointed out yesterday, the final score of Game 3 now means nothing. Total goals count for zero. In that way, playoff series are like match play in golf, where the scoreboard resets and the participants trade shots, one attempting to put pressure on the other.

And so by late tonight, if the Bruins can build upon the momentum of Game 3, there will be no doubt about the direction in which this Stanley Cup Final is headed.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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