VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) – The Canucks finally have an opponent for next week’s Stanley Cup final, though the Boston Bruins are hardly a familiar foe.
When the teams drop the puck for Game 1 on Wednesday, it will be just the sixth meeting between the teams in six seasons. That includes a game in Vancouver just over three months ago, even though few of the Canucks recalled much from that 3-1 loss.
What all of them remembered after the Bruins beat Tampa Bay 1-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final on Friday night were goalie Tim Thomas and defenseman Zdeno Chara.
Several singled out Chara, Boston’s 6-foot-9 Norris Trophy nominee as the best defenseman, and Thomas, their acrobatic Vezina Trophy finalist as the league’s best goaltender, as keys to beating one of the league’s stingiest teams.
“Solid D led by the big guy and one of the best goalies in the league,” said Vancouver’s top-line forward Alex Burrows. “They play a great defensive system.”
Boston surrendered the second-fewest goals in the regular season, behind only Vancouver.
The Canucks found out how stingy they can be Feb. 26, when Thomas made 27 saves for his third win in as many meetings with the Canucks, including two shutouts. Thomas also posted his second shutout of the playoffs Friday, but has also had his share of hiccups, with questionable goals early in the first round and Eastern Conference final — both after long layoffs.
“He makes saves you don’t think he’s going to make and lets in goals sometimes that maybe he should have,” said captain Henrik Sedin, who leads the playoffs with 21 points.
“If we do our job and get traffic and move the puck, he likes to challenge the shooter,” Sedin said, “so if you can maybe sometimes make the extra pass or make him move side to side that’s going to help us.”
The admittedly aggressive Thomas certainly has the respect of Canucks’ counterpart Roberto Luongo, a fellow finalist for the Vezina Trophy, even if they play very different styles.
“Similar styles, textbook butterfly goalies,” Luongo quipped of the unorthodox Thomas, who once proudly said his style is like a “street hockey” goalie.
“Obviously he’s had an unbelievable year and I’m happy we’re gong to have a chance to go head to head,” Luongo said. “He just battles. Anytime we have a chance to get him in a vulnerable position, it is going to be important to bear down. We can’t take it for granted that just because he’s not in position we’re going to score. We’ve got to make sure we bear down.”
Getting those chances won’t be easy against a tight defensive structure led by the shutdown pairing of Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, who are third and fourth in the NHL playoffs in ice time, and figure to spend a lot of their 28-plus minutes against Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Not that it’s new to the Sedin twins after facing Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in the first round against Chicago, and Nashville’s Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, perhaps the league’s top shutdown defensive duo, in the conference semifinals.
The Sedins were limited to seven points and a minus-10 rating against Nashville before 18 points — 12 by Henrik to tie a franchise record — while eliminating San Jose in just five games of the Western Conference final.
“We see those kind of D’s every night,” Daniel Sedin said. “Obviously Chara is a big man and a physical guy, so it’s going to be tough, but all you can do is go out and play your game.”
Not much happened for the Sedins against Chara in the late February loss. But while few players put much stock in that game, all expected a big emotional boost from the potential return of the only Canuck to beat Thomas that night, Manny Malhotra.
Knocked out by a career- and vision-threatening left eye injury from a deflected puck a couple weeks later, Malhotra was cleared to play Saturday and, in his first public statements, said he might be ready for Game 1.
Considering Malhotra, an immensely popular locker room leader and one of the league’s best face-off centers and penalty killers, announced his season was over just five days after the March 16 injury, it should provide a big lift for the team.
“Where I was two months ago and making the statement the season was over, to potentially having a possibility to play the Stanley Cup final is obviously incredibly exciting,” Malhotra said. “The high point of this ride.”
It’s a ride that starts for real on Wednesday. And between two teams with little history, it shouldn’t take long for the animosity to build.
“Not in the Stanley Cup finals,” said Maxim Lapierre, who once battled the Bruins as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. “Probably only a period.”
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(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)