Monday, May 30, 2011

The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Recap, Assessment, and History; It's Finals Time

It feels like forever ago that the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs commenced, and little did we know that there would be such a vast difference between each of the three preliminary levels to compete for Lord Stanley’s mug. The feeling that lingered upon the conclusion of the Conference Quarter-Finals was a bit overwhelming in that if the energy of that opening round carried into the second and third, it would be difficult to sleep after games concluded and near impossible to wait for the next affair. In some marriage of sigh-of-relief and disappointment, the Conference Semi-Finals did not quite deliver in a manner equivalent to its immediate predecessor, but there were some exciting battles, nonetheless.

Now the Conference Finals have come and gone, the height of mixed emotions peaking like a mind on a really clean dose of LSD. Or, for the PG version, a child’s excitement on Christmas Eve. It’s been said, written, and tweeted this post-season, by both fans and non: There’s nothing that compares with playoff hockey. That’s why the wait for the Stanley Cup Finals to get here is drenched with anticipation, and when the moment arrives, it kind of feels like December 26 before the first Finals puck drop.

The last round, nevertheless, is here, and it’s possible that we’re looking at one of the best Finals matchups in a long time. It’s been a combined 31 years –- the Boston Bruins last qualified in 1990; the Vancouver Canucks were conference champions in 1994 -- since these clubs have played for all the marbles. But the schedule is set, and the competition gets underway Wednesday evening in British Columbia. We’ll chew the series fat in a moment, but first some numbers.

The Round That Just Was

Predictions from yours truly have been all over the map this post-season. A wild hair led to a first-round hope that the Phoenix Coyotes would knock off the Detroit Redwings, which was foolish. The go-to move then, in round two, was to pick against the Sharks, the thinking being that the ‘Wings had chiseled out a small slab of momentum. As we saw, San Jose established the stranglehold, but quickly found themselves in a mercy situation before sending Detroit home in game seven. The tell-tale sign for how the Sharks would fare against Vancouver was in game six of the Conference Semi-Finals. Everybody knows that the Redwings have a seasoned roster, but watching the San Jose forwards cross the blue line in that game bordered on pathetic. I mean, the Geico ad executives responsible for the caveman series were sending Pony Express messages to Todd McLellan that said, Dude you’re taking forever to gain the zone.

The irony in that is that a lot of clubs can’t even gain the offensive zone against the Redwings, which suggested that the Sharks might come out of game seven victorious, but there is no way that that wasn’t going to be the end of the road for them. To make matters worse, the heroes for the Canucks through two rounds had not been their stars, which made for massive foreshadowing that they’d begin to click in the Conference Finals. And click they did.

What We Didn’t Know Yet About These Two Teams: Whether or not their marquis scorers would show up and do more than log significant ice time and qualify for being called tough and gritty by the media. To some degree, they did. And by that I mean, if you’re name’s Patrick Marleau, you’re off the hook, courtesy of four goals and three assists in the series, and one could make the argument that he has Jeremy Roenick in the Versus booth to thank for lighting an on-air fire under his ass the previous round.

If your name is Joe Thornton, a goal and five assists is nice, but you’re gonna have to put rubber to twine more often than once in five games. As for Joe Pavelski, three assists is nice if you’re part of the second platoon of defenseman on your squad, but as a fourth-line center, you gotta produce more than that. As far as Vancouver is concerned, the only two questions were whether or not the Sedin twins would regain the point-tallying displayed early in round one but not seen since, and whether or not Roberto Luongo would stand strong in the crease if significantly tested. The simple answer to that is that he did, but he wasn’t. Facing 37.8 shots per night (with the help of two overtime periods in game five) shouldn’t be too difficult for an Olympic gold medalist and a Vezina finalist, but to his credit, he looked solid on the high-quality scoring chances.

What We Already Knew About These Guys Already: San Jose simply cannot make it click in the post-season. If you go back to the last time the Canucks were in the Stanley Cup Finals, you’ll see that the Sharks have made efforts at retooling the roster. You’ll see that they continue to bring in young talent. You’ll see that they typically have someone solid in net, and you’ll see that, when things aren’t getting done, they make a coaching change. But above all, you see that they almost always qualify for the playoffs (only five times in their history have they not), and they always fall short. In that span, they’ve been eliminated in four Conference Quarter-Finals, seven Conference Semis, and three Conference Finals, the last two being consecutive. You could argue that this year’s round three was an improvement since last year they were swept by Chicago, but that’s a far cry from bragging rights.

As far as the Canucks are concerned, I’m going to do something completely toolish and block quote what I said about them after the Conference Semi-Finals:

You cannot dump and chase against this Canuck team. You cannot, and will not, outskate them, and you will almost certainly lose the majority of the loose-puck battles, no matter where you are on the ice. What’s more is that you cannot expect to alleviate any particular attack by clearing the puck. Vancouver will find ways to keep it in the zone, which will almost always lead to larger numbers of generated shots.

Todd McLellan and the Sharks were not wise enough to read my post before the start of the Conference Finals. Maybe Claude Julien and the Bruins will be.

We Can Be Heroes, Unsung or Otherwise: Call it cheesy, call it gay, but this entire Vancouver squad has played like heroes, and they deserve credit. The main thing about them is they get production out of key guys when everyone does their job. We’ve all heard football coaches say that a thousand times, but with this club, it’s true. Alexandre Burrows scored five times and had two helpers last round. Kevin Bieksa had four goals and an assist. Ryan Kesler continued to stake his claim as leader of Camp Conn Smythe with six more points for his post-season total. Alexander Edler joined the big boys with three assists. Daniel Sedin caught fire with 12 points of his own, while his brother lost his damn mind against San Jose, tallying a goal and 11 assists. If this momentum carries into the Finals, Boston could find themselves stunned and down two games before they even blink.

In the Eastern Conference, things were a bit more interesting. If the San Jose Sharks find themselves looking for some direction on how to make off-season improvements, and they should, they should look all the way across the country at Guy Boucher and the Tampa Bay Lightning. This club has all the right cogs in place, all systems tuned up, and all of the energy sources tapped. Too bad for them they live in a market that doesn’t seem to care too much. As for the Bruins, I must give that hungry fan base some serious credit, as they’ve ranked up there all post-season with the Detroits and the Vancouvers as one of the rockinest buildings around. And the club deserves a lot of credit, too.

In the last round they gelled, and the only next correct step is to find ways to win when all ways appear to have vanished. This Bruins club took one-game leads in this series on three occasions, and nearly needed overtime to put the dagger in the Lightning, but they did it, and I don’t usually give a lot of props to teams with multiple trophies on their mantle, but Boston has overcome a post-season wrestling match with themselves. They have figured out how to get to the big stage.

What We Didn’t Know Yet About These Two Teams: You look at a club like Vancouver, and you know that the big names will get the points because the lesser-known names do the little things that make things like lamp-lighting happen. You look at two squads like Tampa Bay and Boston, and you have a few stars that will be expected to do nothing less than be big-time performers in the biggest of situations. Your St. Louises, your Lecaveliers, your David Krejcis and your Nathan Hortons.

Seldom do you look at rosters of clubs like this and take note of all of the lesser-known names that wind up making a huge difference, like Dennis Seidenberg of Boston, who has logged 511 minutes of ice time this post-season. Five hundred eleven. Good for 28-plus minutes per game. That’s exhausting. He’s also a plus-eight through three rounds. Or left-winger Ryan Malone for Tampa Bay. He shifts in after Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne and has managed to generate six points, 24 PIMS, two even-strength tallies, a power-play goal, and a game winner in these playoffs. You look up and down the roster of these two clubs, you’re seeing production of some sort or another.

What We Already Knew About These Guys Already: Take your well-assembled lines, give them good coaches, and then hope for good goaltending? Not so fast. You go out, and you pick through the rubble piles, find the best of the discards and you give them a shot at winning your starting job. That’s what Julien and Boucher did, and they were not incorrect by going that route, as Dwayne Roloson and Tim Thomas just put together the most impressive goaltender dual of the post-season, and if I may borrow a little Vincenzo Coccotti, “that’s as good as it’s gonna get. And it won’t ever get that good again.” Not this post-season, anyway.

But Roloson, at 41 years of age, discarded by five other pro teams, two of which he took to Conference Finals, one of which he took to the Stanley Cup Finals, just pitched a .924 save percentage and a 2.51 goals-against average, along with a shutout. Unfortunately for him, that game-winning goal scored by Boston’s Nathan Horton in game seven was a number all-too-familiar to him: 41. That’s how many times Roloson was beat in 17 starts. Just over two goals per game, on average. Not bad a’tall.

One of the best tweets (courtesy of Hockey Trend) I’ve seen in months came across the wire this round: “Tim Thomas. ..A goalie drafted by a team that no longer exists in a round that no longer exists.” Yup. Taken in the ninth round by the Quebec Nordiques was the ol’ Thomanator, and since then he’s been just about everywhere an unwanted hockey player could be: the International Hockey League, the American Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League, Finland, Sweden, on the bench. These are, of course, none of the places an NHL goalie wants to be. But Thomas has been lights out this post-season, and I don’t see any possible way he doesn’t win his second Vezina Trophy this year. The point to all of this madness, though, is that we knew these two netminders were gonna come out and be solid in the Conference Finals. Did we know they’d be this solid, though? That’s tough to predict.

We Can Be Heroes, Unsung or Otherwise: There are a lot of players that deserve notoriety from both of these teams. They went at it hard and went at it often from game one through the final horn of game seven, and fans everywhere were delighted. My two heroes for Boston, though, would have to be Mark Recchi and the fan base. Recchi, at 42, with two rings already, has scored twice in the post-season, and added five helpers to his point total. He’s also managed to log an average of just under 17 minutes of ice time a game, which is no small feat at that age. And the fans. They’ve had plenty of professional-sports love in the last decade, and this may sound a bit redundant, but it’s great to see that city buzzing for Bruins hockey and rocking the (TD) Garden, especially since they’ll be celebrating the 10th anniversary of something called The Tradition next month.

Tampa Bay has its heroes as well, and they are none other than the 20-year-old Steven Stamkos, who generated 13 points this post-season, and almost had his dome smashed in in game seven. Also, Blair Jones, who, according to Corey Masisak of, had no problem hangin’ with Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. Also, credit to his parents for making his name as awesome as it could be.

The Round That’s to Be

All the numbers meant to be crunched have been crunched, and if I have to calculate one more series-shot total or tally one more dude’s ice time, I’m’a shoot somebody. Not really. I hate guns. But, this is the time of the year where the stats do you no good. It’s all about winning battles along the boards, beating your man to the loose pucks, forechecking, backchecking, protecting the zone, and not fanning on quality scoring chances. Well, some good strategery, lights-out goaltending, and some unprecedented stamina all help, too. It’s about biscuits in baskets, primarily, though, and we’re going to see two squads work real hard to get that feat accomplished.

The brand of hockey that the Vancouver Canucks have displayed in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs is one I’ve not seen any club even attempt to execute in a number of years. Again, cue the redundancy wheel, but they have speed, skill, smarts, drive, and chemistry that make them an impressive, systems-based club that has meant two things for them. On the one end, they dominate. They bring this mix of talent and ability that gives opponents fits, and when all the tabs are clicking, they can’t be outmatched. On the other end of the pantry shelf, they’ve seen themselves challenged to the brink of elimination when one piston isn't firing, such as was the case versus Chicago in round one.

My opinion is that the fact that that Conference Quarter-Finals series took seven games was a mental battle Vancouver had with themselves, namely one Roberto Luongo. It didn’t help that the Sedins weren’t generating points in the second half of that series, so, as mentioned, the Canucks can find themselves in trouble if one aspect to their game is lacking. That’s the case with any team in any sport though, and in Vancouver’s case, in that situation, they overcame. This team will face a giant of defensive bodies and determination, and making sure they can get all the gears to turn at all the right times will be their big challenge.

The Vancouver defense is one of the best in hockey, and the interesting aspect about that is that so is Boston’s. An important factor in this Stanley Cup Finals will be confidence, and it’s possible that facing the San Jose Sharks in the third round will have been a problem for the Canucks in that they may have a bit too much of it as they prepare to host the Bruins in the series. The one thing that might help them balance that out is their franchise’s lack of championships; in 40 years, they’ve been to the dance twice and experienced both ends of failure: a sweep, and seven-game defeat. They know how much this appearance means to the city and the fan base, and it should provide for an extra tablespoon of motivation for them as they prepare to challenge for Lord Stanley for a third time.

The existence of momentum is something that I believe in. I think it matters within the swing of the game, between series, and on occasion, heading into subsequent seasons. If that’s accurate, Boston has the edge in that department, having just gone the distance with Tampa Bay. What’s more is that they earned a sweep over Philly in round two, but had to go all seven with Montreal in the Conference Quarter-Finals. Add to that that their city and fan base have comparable hunger. They have five cups in their history, but they’ve been playing in the league for more than double the time Vancouver has.

The reality, though, is that it will come down to individual and team drive, and this is something the Bruins do not lack. After a two-year absence from post-season play, they lost in the first round, then twice in the second, a clear indicator of progress within the current regime. They also continue to make key personnel additions, and said additions are no slouches. Boston’s biggest obstacle won’t be the Vancouver home-ice advantage, or a better coach in Alaine Vigneault. The hurdle that stands in their way will be any questioning they have of their own style of play, more specifically, the potential desire to try and play the game the way the Canucks do.

What Boston must do is disrupt the flow of the Vancouver attack. They must prevent that system from ever establishing the ability to click. Failure to do so early could be detrimental to their chances, especially if that happens in game one, and they find themselves desperate to even the series in game two before going back to Beantown. The Bruins have the physical ability, the smarts, and the experience to exert force on the Vancouver forwards, and throw their efforts to synch out of whack before they’re even humming. If they can do that, and continue to get the offensive production they’ve gotten, they’ll be in good running for one reason: They have the goaltending edge.

Tim Thomas is playing a more solid, consistent, head-strong game than Roberto Luongo right now, and there aren’t enough games left in the season for that to change. Thomas is poised to put on a netminding display equal to the greats of this era. His mind is in the right place, his ability has been proven time and again in the last three years, and he wants it worse than maybe any athlete left in contention. Nothing will faze him. Roberto Luongo, on the other hand, could go in a shell with one bad game.

The pick: This series has the makings to be the best since the lockout, and it’s possible that it could reach a bit further. Trouble is, it won’t. The talent, the ability, the defense, and the goaltending possessed by the Boston Bruins are all impressive and remarkable, but it’s also something else: not enough. Vancouver is ready to take this trophy home, and do just that they will. I’d love to be wrong and see it go to seven, but they’ll handle their business in six.

The Rounds That’ve Come Before

Just like the previous two rounds, we’ll have a look at the last 10 (in this case) Conference Finals, and afterwards, we’ll do an average so’s to determine how this post-season stacks up. In case you’re new to this party: Shots on goal are registered shots that would’ve been goals had they not been saved; we’re only looking at major penalties; overtimes refers to total number of overtime periods, not games in which there was an overtime.

1999-2000 Conference Finals (eventual champion: NJ Devils)
Goals: 76
Shots: 711
Penalties in Minutes: 105
Overtime Periods: 1
Home vs. Visitor: 1/1 tie
Average Number of Games per Series: 6

2000-2001 Conference Finals (eventual champion: CO Avalanche)
G: 60
S: 728
PIMs: 30
OTs: 1
H vs. V: 1/1 tie
GpS: 7

2001-2002 Conference Finals (eventual champ: Detroit Redwings)
G: 52
S: 564
PIMs: 10
OTs: 4
H vs V: 2/0, home
GpS: 5

2002-2003 Conference Finals (eventual champion: NJ Devils)
G: 51
S: 712
PIMs: 30
OTs: 6
H vs. V: 2/0, home
GpS: 6.5

2003-2004 Conference Finals (eventual champion: Tampa Bay Lightning)
G: 39
S: 601
PIMs: 0
OTs: 4
H vs. V: 2/0, visitor
GpS: 5.5

2005-2006 Conference Finals (eventual champion: Carolina Hurricanes)
G: 68
S: 687
PIMs: 30
OTs: 2
H vs. V: 1/1 tie
GpS: 6

2006-2007 Conference Finals (eventual champion: Anaheim Ducks)
G: 63
S: 623
PIMs: 25
OTs: 5
H vs. V: 2/0, visitor
GpS: 5.5

2007-2008 Conference Finals (eventual champion: Detroit Redwings)
G: 56
S: 594
PIMs: 60
OTs: 0
H vs. V: 2/0, home
GpS: 5.5

2008-2009 Conference Finals (eventual champion: Pittsburgh Penguins)
G: 58
S: 593
PIMs: 95
OTs: 3
H vs. V: 2/0, home
GpS: 4.5

2009-2010 Conference Finals (eventual champion: Chicago Blackhawks)
G: 44
S: 525
PIMs: 20
OTs: 1
H vs. V: 1/1 tie
GpS: 4.5

How this year’s Conference Finals stack up against the previous 10:

Previous 10 Conference Finals (by average)
Goals: 56.7
Shots: 633.8
PIMs: 40.5
OTs: 2.7
H vs. V: 12/8, home; 60 percent
GpS: 5.6

2010-2011 Conference Finals
G: 73
S: 759
PIMs: 140
OTs: 2
H vs. V: 2/0, home
GpS: 6

An interesting comparison. Increases in shots taken and goals scored, nearly triple the PIMs, a microscopic dip in overtime periods, a massive slant in favor of home-ice advantage, and an increase in the number of games played per series. In sum, you’re getting more offense, which everyone loves. You’re getting more buffoonery, which continues to be a split issue among fans, but in reality, most everybody gets fired up about (Editor’s Note: We’ve gone round and round about this topic here inside the House of Georges, and I hate to rule in absolutes –- as Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” –- but I don’t care what anybody says, it’s part of the game and you cannot remove it. That is, you can, but it wouldn’t be the same game. Also, irony, via the use of the word “only,” noted, Obi-Wan.) it. Said buffoonery, however, also leads to more special-teams play, which means more open ice, which means more action/easier for the casual eye to follow the puck.

Fewer overtime periods historically in this particular round, but it’s only two series out of the whole post-season, so for this round, you take a dip. The increase in home ice for this season could be a fluke, but if it’s not, does that suggest a flaw in the league’s parity effort, or is that true across the pro-sports board? What do home-field numbers look like in the NBA Conference Finals, the NFL Conference Championship Games, and MLB’s League Championship Series? Are those next-to-final rounds a larger advantage for the home squads than in others? And a higher games-per-series ratio is great because it, duh, means more hockey.

Moving on.

How this year’s playoffs stack up against the previous 10 through three rounds:

Previous 10 Post-Seasons (by average)
Goals: 411
Shots: 4637
PIMs: 386
OTs: 22
H vs. V: 80/60 (57 percent), home
GpS: 5.69

This Post-Season (through three rounds):
G: 474
S: 5175
PIMs: 555
OTs: 27
H vs. V: 10/4 (71 percent), home
GpS: 5.79

I like this set of numbers even better. Huge increase in shots taken, goals scored, so again, you’re getting more offense. Astronomical spike in major-penalty minutes. More overtime periods is like free steak with your mashed potatoes and gravy. Another giant inflation for the home team, and an elevation in the average number of games per series.

We’ll check back again after the playoffs have concluded, but, to me, these numbers mean good things for the game, and if there’s any truth to the knuckleheads that think the league lost its fan base after the lockout and is still struggling to get it back (Editor’s Note: There’s not.), then there’re a whole lotta people out there not watching a game that appears to be getting better every year. Oh, and by the way, I nailed the Conference Finals picks.