Home or away, a series like no other
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — There has never been a Stanley Cup series, let alone a Stanley Cup Final, that has followed such a bizarre path en route to reaching a deciding seventh game.
In one sense, it has been by the book: The home team has won each game. But beyond the what, there has been the how. The three Vancouver Canucks victories in Rogers Arena have been by one goal. One deciding goal came with 18.5 seconds remaining in regulation. A second came 11 seconds into overtime. The third came 4 1/2 minutes into the final period. The winning Vancouver scores have been 1-0, 3-2, and 1-0.
But one must wonder whether an evil spell has been cast on the Canucks while playing in TD Garden. The three games there had been amusingly noncompetitive, the Bruins winning by scores of 8-1, 4-0, and 5-2, with all three Vancouver goals being inconsequential and ceremonial, coming after the Canucks have trailed, 5-0 and 4-0. It was more than dominance: It was utter subjugation, and it all began with the Vancouver goaltender, a man with a notoriously fragile psyche.
Roberto Luongo has had a rather odd playoffs. With his top-seeded team leading the eighth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, three games to none, in an opening-round series, he imploded, being pulled from Game 4 after yielding six goals and being pulled again in the second period of Game 5 after being beaten on four of the first 12 shots. He began Game 6 on the bench before being summoned when backup Cory Schneider was injured. Back as a starter in Game 7, he made 31 saves in a 2-1 overtime triumph.
He has been similarly uneven in this series, playing well enough in Games 1 and 2 before again becoming a human sieve when the series went to Boston. He was in the net for all 12 goals in Games 3 and 4 (although he was pulled in Game 4 in the third period), and was yanked in the first period of Game 6 by coach Alain Vigneault after giving up three goals, all certifiably “soft.’’ In between the Boston debacles, he was quite satisfactory in a 1-0 Game 5 triumph in the comfort of his home arena.
Contrast his struggles to the ongoing brilliance of his counterpart. Tim Thomas has been so relentlessly outstanding for Boston throughout the past two months — yes, this whole thing began on April 14 — that he is a heavy favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Outstanding Player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, win or lose Game 7 tonight.
So if you’re a Vancouver fan, which goalie would you entrust your heart to?
The Bruins have already won two Game 7s in these playoffs, and if they prevail tonight, they will become the first team in NHL history to win three such series in one postseason. The first was a 4-3 overtime win over Montreal April 27, the winning goal provided by Nathan Horton. The Canadiens created immense drama when P.K. Subban scored at 18:03 of the third period to force the OT.
The second was a 1-0 triumph over Tampa Bay May 27, and it will go down as one of the great games in Bruins history. It was that NHL rarity of rarities, a game played without a penalty, or, at least, without one being called. It was a perfect storm of player discipline and referee indulgence, decided on another Horton goal with 7:33 remaining. The crowd of 17,565 was on its feet as it watched those final 453 seconds tick with agonizing slowness toward the game’s conclusion. There are Game 7s and there are Game 7s, and this was one of the latter.
Could such a thing happen to conclude a series that is entirely without precedent in the annals of this sport? Home ice, as a rule, creates some degree of discrepancy. But no one has a viable explanation for the Canucks winning three games in Rogers Arena by a combined score of 5-2 and the Bruins winning three games in TD Garden by a combined score of 17-3. There is no precedent in hockey or basketball. The only such parallel is the 1960 World Series, in which the Yankees lost to the Pirates despite winning games by scores of 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0 and outscoring the Pirates, 55-27.
That Game 7 was a classic, the Pirates winning, 10-9, on Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning homer. A parallel would be the Canucks winning tonight by a score of, say, 5-4, but we need not go there.
Anyway, it’s Game 7, which stands for the best sports has to offer. Lucky us, and that means all our fine Canadian friends, whose official 2011 Stanley Cup slogan is “This is what we live for.’’