Judging by the tenor of Twitter toward the tail end of Game Four on Wednesday night, many fans have already written off the Vancouver Canucks. Given that a lot of Canadian fans are actively cheering against the team, this may be as much hope as it is belief, but even so it is difficult to escape the notion that the Bruins hold the edge in the series after a pair of decisive wins in Boston.
There are, however, a few things worth recognizing about Vancouver.
Roberto Luongo rebounded against Chicago. I know that this deep into the playoffs, we forget the lessons of the first round, so I will repeat one of them now. Roberto Luongo allowed 10 goals on just 40 shots in games four and five versus the Chicago Blackhawks. He was pulled in Game Six, returned to the net late in the game after an injury felled Cory Schneider, and looked shaky. This resulted in an overtime goal against and finished off three straight wins for the Blackhawks, the team that had eliminated Vancouver in the previous two playoff years and humiliated Luongo in the process. In Game Seven, Luongo responded by making 31 saves on 32 shots – including a pivotal power play shot from Patrick Sharp in overtime – to allow the Canucks to move on.
Roberto Luongo has a history of recovering from bad games. Back when the Canucks were dealing with Luongo’s implosion against Chicago, I researched his performance after consecutive bad games. From that article:
There are six instances (including twice in the playoffs) where Luongo had consecutively awful games, and in five of the six (including both playoff instances) his game following those two was tremendous. On one occasion, Luongo laid three stinkers in a row before playing brilliantly in a win.
The power play has gone 1-for-22 against Boston. Plus, if we add in shorthanded goals, Vancouver has actually gone minus-1 over 22 opportunities against the Bruins. This is not only expected, but it is wildly out of sync with what we knew about these teams entering the finals. In the playoffs prior to this series, Vancouver had gone 17-for-60 (28.3%); at that pace we would have expected them to score six power play goals against the Bruins. They were moderately worse during the season, scoring 72 goals in 296 attempts (24.3%); at that pace we would expect them to have five goals.
The other way to look at this is that the Bruins’ penalty kill has gone 21-for-22 (95.5%) against Vancouver. This is not in keeping with what we know about them – during the regular season they were decidedly mediocre, with an 82.6% kill rate (16th in the NHL).. Prior to this series, their penalty kill in the playoffs was humming along at an 82.5% kill rate.
We can draw one of two conclusions from this data: either a) Boston matches up well against Vancouver in this area and/or has seen a miracle of coaching prowess or b) this is an aberration that is unlikely to continue. I’m betting on the long run of regular season/playoff data being more indicative of power play performance going forward.
Tim Thomas has been phenomenal, win or lose. Tim Thomas was the best goaltender in the NHL this season, so this is not a surprise. He is capable of incredible performances and undoubtedly won’t make things easy for Vancouver. It is worth noting, however, that it is possible to expose him – leaving aside the (hilariously foolish) questions about his style following Alex Burrows’ overtime goal, he allowed 4+ goals in four of seven games against Tampa Bay. He’s a superb goaltender, but he isn’t unbeatable.
Winning games three and four after losing the first two simply means that the series is tied. The team to ask about momentum is the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers. Like the Bruins, they lost the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals on the road. They followed that up with two “statement” wins at home. They followed those up with two more losses. The 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins also lost the first two games on the road, then followed those losses up with two wins at home. Detroit beat Pittsburgh 5-0 in Game Five, but it didn’t matter – the Penguins won a pair of squeakers to take the Cup in seven games.
This is my problem with many of the narratives spun out of the series to date: Luongo’s miserable play, the power play’s impotence, the excellence of Thomas, and Boston’s dramatic comeback – they all matter, but recent history has shown us that each is either fickle or unlikely to continue. Certainly, none of those individual factors tell us which team will win two of the next three games.