Vancouver’s 40-year-old virgins

Stanley Cup finals post-mortem: How the Bruins hit, skated and shot their way past the Canucks

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Deep in the fuggy, aromatic basement of TD Garden, in a corner of the Boston Bruins’ dressing room, Johnny Boychuk’s words to live by loom above his stall: “Move your feet, play physical, shoot the puck!” They are not so much a credo as a command, penned on a strip of yellowed masking tape like a reminder to an errant child. The defenceman reddened last week when a visitor noticed. “Just something I wrote to myself,” he mumbled through his playoff beard. But there was no need to be sheepish, because here was Bruin hockey boiled to its essentials—skate, hit, shoot. Thus did Boston find its way to the 2011 Stanley Cup final. They would forget it at their peril.

They didn’t, of course. The Bruins championship was a masterpiece of blood and sweat, forged from the work of role players and a goaltending performance for the ages. And the Canucks? They might have used that bit of tape.

Only a literary imagination could have conceived a better foil for this team than this year’s Boston Bruins. Where the Canucks oozed talent, the Bruins were defined by the crashing forecheck of Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton and Brad Marchand. In goal, Tim Thomas was a pudgy wanderer known for his mental toughness; Vancouver had the imperious Roberto Luongo, who played the game deep in his net and was—how to put this?—brittle.

This by way of explaining an epic disappointment for Canuck fans, and one of the strangest Cup finals in recent memory. How could the Canucks blow a 2-0 series lead, with the game’s greatest prize on the line? How could the league’s best offensive team get outscored 23-8 in a seven-game series? How could a goalie nominated for the Vezina Trophy allow 19 goals over four games?

And what did Boston’s win say about the state of the sport? You didn’t have to be a dove, after all, to see this series as a contest for hockey’s soul, given how unashamedly the Bruins relied throughout the playoffs on intimidation (Horton and Lucic had made a point in earlier rounds of provoking post-siren scuffles in games they’d lost, and the gorilla sensibility ran through the organization; the pregame scoreboard montage at TD Garden consists almost exclusively of clips of Bruins pounding hapless opponents with checks and fists). Still, chalking up this loss to Bruin iniquity would ignore other, more important dimensions of Boston’s game—perseverance, opportunism, sheer dedication to timeless wisdom, as per Boychuk’s masking tape.

It would also overlook the Canucks’ inexplicable degeneration into schoolyard cheap-shots and verbal sideshows, a telling aspect of their failure. You could draw a straight line, after all, from Alex Burrows chomping down on the finger of Boston centre Patrice Bergeron to Roberto Luongo unfathomably dissing Thomas in advance of Game 6. Each spoke volumes about the Canucks at this all-important moment: bad things, strange things, silly things happen in the playoffs. They’re called turning points, and the party who responds to them with the greatest poise almost invariably wins.

Boston. Game 3. TD Garden. Five minutes into the first period, and Horton, a rugged forward with a knack for scoring crucial goals, crosses centre and throws the puck ahead to his linemate Lucic. Horton then takes two strides while watching the puck to his left before Canucks defenceman Aaron Rome slams into him from the right, hammering the Bruin’s head with his shoulder. Horton, a 26-year-old from Welland, Ont., folds to the ice, eyes rolling, right hand held grotesquely aloft.

Few checks in hockey really turn a series. Those that do typically benefit the hitter’s team, not the victim’s. But as Horton left the ice on a spinal board, a near-palpable mix of shock and rage coursed through the building—one even Rome’s ejection from the game could not dispel. Retribution lay in store, and for once, the Bruins chose to exact it in goals. Eleven seconds into the second, defenceman Andrew Ference lofted a shot through traffic that eluded Luongo; four minutes later, Mark Recchi made it 2-0 when his cross-crease pass bounced in off Kesler’s stick. Brad Marchand, a modern incarnation of Ken “the Rat” Linesman, then wheeled past Edler to the outside and fired in a shorthanded marker. And the rout was on: Recchi got one more, while David Krejci, Daniel Paille, Chris Kelly and Michael Ryder all got goals in an 8-1 victory.

Luongo would later try the predictable argument that a shellacking is worth the same as a one-goal win. “The score doesn’t really matter,” he shrugged. “We’re in the playoffs.” But the Bruins were clearly drawing energy from Horton, who was feeling well enough to make a dressing-room appearance two days later. And Luongo was no better prepared in Game 4, allowing four goals on 20 shots, including a softy between the legs and a bounce off Bruins forward Rich Peverley that seemed to actually go through him. At 4:15 of the third, Vigneault finally yanked his prize goalie in favour of Schneider. Thomas, meanwhile, was brilliant, allowing just five goals in four games as Vancouver hammered him with an average of 36.5 shots a night.

By this point, the Canucks were in a daze—their top line smothered, their vaunted defence gutted (in a rare show of courage, the NHL had suspended Rome for the balance of the series, leaving Vancouver to start Keith Ballard, an overpaid veteran whose defensive gaffes had kept him mostly in the pressbox). The Sedin twins had registered one measly point between them, and a toxic atmosphere was steadily swallowing Luongo. Perhaps the most awkward moment of the playoffs came after Game 4, when a reporter told the Canucks goalie that fans watching the big screen back at Rogers Arena had cheered when he got the hook. After taking a pull from his water bottle, Luongo pressed his lips into a dark line and strode from the room, slamming the drink container into a trash can as he went.

The Canucks 1-0 squeaker in the next game merely delayed the inevitable. In Game 6, the Bruins got goals on seemingly every Vancouver gaffe, not least Luongo misreading first-period shots by Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic. Game 7 was just as bad, with the all-important opening goal coming after Marchand beat Sami Salo to the puck off a face-off Vancouver won. Bergeron got the winner, shorthanded, on a partial breakaway that should not have happened and that Luongo should have steeled himself to stop.

Before we start throwing bodies under the bus, it only fair to to note the Canucks had health issues. Ryan Kesler, far and away the team’s best player against Chicago and Nashville, spent a lot time in practice trying to stretch an injured groin, and he was still the best Canuck on the ice in Game 7. Manny Malholtra’s left eye was half-closed, having taken a direct hit from the puck in mid-March; Christian Erhoff was not his smooth-skating self. We’ll learn more about what ailed them in the coming days.

Also worth remembering: the Canucks got to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, which in most hockey cities is not a firing offence. Players like Henrik Sedin had a point after Game 6 when they urged us media-types to try on a little perspective. “If someone had told me at the beginning of the season we’d get a Game 7 in the finals at home, I would have taken it any day,” Sedin said.

Still, they fell short, and in a way that suggests their problems originated between their ears, not in their groin muscles or hips. In games they lost, they seemed ill-prepared and bereft of will. They lost them in style, by a cumulative score of 19-3, and in the dressing room, you could go from Henrik to Daniel Sedin for twin quotes on what went wrong: “You have to bury the kind of chances we got tonight, and we didn’t do that.” Which invited an obvious question: isn’t that why the Canucks employ the two most recent Art Ross Trophy winners? To bury scoring chances?

No, finish was not the absent ingredient on this team. What the Canucks wanted in the final was the character and mental preparation, the things that keep players performing the simple tasks on Boychuk’s list. Failure in this department typically falls to a team’s coaches (led by Alain Vigneault) and its leadership core—in this case, the Sedins, Luongo, Kesler, Bieksa and others. Which means Mike Gillis has some soul-searching to do in the coming weeks. Do the Sedins possess the will to get back to the finals, and win? Has Luongo reached the end of his tour in Vancouver? If so, can his 12-year, $64-million contract be moved? Would he waive his no-trade clause? The Canucks have three key defencemen headed for free agency—Erhoff, Bieksa and Sami Salo. But it’s a brave GM who would tear up a team that finished the season with 117 points and came within a single win of the Stanley Cup. At this stage, a radical overhaul seems unlikely.

That may not sit well with Vancouver fans (the real ones, that is, not the baboons who flip cop cars and loot copies of Tom Clancy). They’d waited 40 years for the calibre of team they thought they had. Now, in their moment of pain, they should take a deep breath. There’s every reason to believe that with the wisdom of experience and a few new faces, the Canucks could be back at this point again next year. Whether Vigneault will be behind the bench is an open question. If he is, he could do worse than find a ballpoint pen and distribute a brief to-do for his players on strips of masking tape. Evidently, even well-paid professionals can always use a friendly reminder.