Thomas, Chara must play their best tonight
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Six games into the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, we have no idea which team will walk out of Rogers Arena a champion tonight. We cannot say with any authority or confidence that the Bruins are better than the Canucks, or that the Canucks are better than the Bruins, or that officiating, Zamboni, luck, or plain old hockey mojo have favored one over the other.
What we can say with certainty is that the Bruins’ best players — goalie Tim Thomas and 6-foot-9-inch captain/defenseman/shutdown cyborg Zdeno Chara — have been the Bruins’ best players. If tonight it comes down to best players doing best things, then the Bruins will be champs for the first time since 1972, because Tank and Big Z have put a chokehold on the game’s top offensive collaborators.
Best players doing best things has not been true of the Canucks, who have yet to see their twin headliners, linemates/birthmates Daniel and Henrik Sedin, step forward with much purpose at the most intense time of the season. Their game has been shallow, without bite, lacking in flair or pushback. Most troubling off all, Vancouver’s No. 1 netminder, Roberto Luongo, has alternated between being showstopper and circus clown.
Bobby Lou made it all the harder for himself with his verbal meanderings following Game 5, remarking that Thomas hadn’t “pumped his tires’’ — offered him praise — at any point during the series. Luongo’s own tires blew out in Game 6 at the Garden Monday night, when he was hooked by coach Alain Vigneault after three quick goals in the first period.
Now all of Nucks Nation must look to their oversized/underperforming stopper to bring it all together tonight in hopes of the franchise winning its first Cup. Luongo’s forlorn, despondent look at the end of the bench Monday wasn’t exactly a portrait of hope.
But it is Game 7 of the Final, a place even the five-time Cup champion Bruins have never visited, going all the way back to their first playoffs in 1927. The Canucks, in two previous appearances in the Final, were swept by the Islanders in 1983 and lost a Game 7 to the Rangers in 1994 at Madison Square Garden, a 3-2 defeat that set off a riot in downtown Vancouver.
Unlike that series with the Blueshirts, the Canucks have never trailed in this Final, which could bring an even angrier reaction from Vancouver’s vox populi if No. 7 turns up unlucky again.
“One game,’’ said Chara, stoic in the moments following Monday’s 5-2 win. “One game and it’s the most important game of the season. It has been a battle, and there is one more to go.’’
Which brings us to another significant difference between these clubs. The Bruins say next to nothing, no matter what the game outcome or the situation within it. Coach Claude Julien has them spouting the same clichés, focusing on their own performance, offering the Canucks nothing to turn into bulletin-board material or other motivational means.
When top Bruins right winger Nathan Horton was knocked out of the series in Game 3, hammered to the ice by defenseman Aaron Rome, their only reaction was that those hits had to be taken out of the game. The next day, Rome was taken out of the series via suspension.
Earlier, when the league declined to take action against Vancouver’s Alex Burrows for his bite to Patrice Bergeron’s right index finger in a Game 1 scrum, there was little reaction from the Bruins room, other than to say they would let the league handle it. The league opted not to slap Burrows on the wrist for that bite on the finger.
Thomas, now the runaway Conn Smythe favorite as the postseason MVP (six games/8 goals against in the Final), has been the only Bruin to respond publicly to some of the Canucks’ nonsense, noting in a press conference that he didn’t know it was his job to pump up Luongo’s tires.
Not that any pumping is ever going to happen, especially after Luongo went out of his way following Game 5 to note that Thomas could have stopped Max Lapierre’s winning shot if the Boston netminder had been in his crease. The next day, in trying to defend his analysis, was when Luongo offered up that he has felt slighted by Thomas’s lack of praise throughout the series. It all had a certain middle-school, jealous teenager feel to it.
Luongo, of course, is perfectly capable of turning in a Cup-winning performance in Game 7. In Vancouver’s three wins at home, he has allowed only two goals, both in Game 2, earning shutouts in Games 1 and 5. In all three games, however, the Bruins didn’t test him nearly to the degree they did in the three games at the Garden (total: 17 goals). But he was good enough to win. Not stellar, but adequate, which was all that was asked of him.
The No. 1 concern for the Canucks tonight, though, is that Luongo, when asked for more, has been unable to provide it. Nothing kills a team’s will, morale, and hope more than a goalie who can’t elevate his game at the most critical hour. If the Boston version of Luongo shows up tonight, the Canucks are cooked, because while the Bruins scored only two goals in the three games at Rogers Arena, the Canucks scored only five.
Adding to Vancouver’s woes has been its loss of personnel on the back line. Power-play quarterback Dan Hamhuis exited in Game 1, finishing on the damaged end of a big smack he put on Milan Lucic along the sidewall. Rome was ejected five minutes into Game 3 for the brutal hit on Horton. In Game 6, blue liners Alex Edler and ex-Bruin Andrew Alberts barely contributed in the third period.
The Vancouver end of the ice has been an easier place for the Bruins to work as the series has evolved. If Edler and Alberts are now compromised by injury, it should make passage to Luongo all the easier.
There is nothing better in hockey, arguably in all of sport, than a Game 7 for the Stanley Cup. Tonight’s the night, a first in Bruins history. And though it has been true thus far that home ice has meant everything and that momentum has meant nothing, Boston is the team with it best players playing the best hockey.
If, in the end, that means something, the Bruins leave here champions tonight.