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First look at the 2011 Stanley Cup finals: Are the Bruins the junior varsity Canucks?

May 28, 2011, 1:22 AM EDT

Boston Bruins v Vancouver Canucks Getty Images

While the Vancouver Canucks took advantage of a lucky bounce or two to neatly beat the San Jose Sharks in just five games, the Boston Bruins faced a much bumpier road to the Stanley Cup finals. They managed a nail-biting 1-0 win against Tampa Bay in Game 7 Friday night thanks to a Nathan Horton goal and Tim Thomas shutout to get to this point.

With a bountiful amount of time between last night’s Game 7 and Wednesday’s Cup finals opener, PHT will cover all the angles for the upcoming Bruins-Canucks series. Yet as anticipation builds for each fan base (Vancouver hasn’t been to the final round since 1994, and Boston has been waiting since ’90), we thought it might be fun to take a quick look at how these teams match up.

If there’s an ultimate takeaway from this matchup, it’s that the Bruins almost seem like a poor man’s version of the Canucks. Both teams lead their respective conferences in goal-differential (one of my favorite simple “bottom line” stats), with Boston finishing +51 and Vancouver earning a league-leading +77. Each team has a Vezina-caliber goalie, multiple scoring options and coaches with similar backgrounds and styles. OK, let’s get to the matchup breakdowns:

Team offense
Canucks Goals For (regular): 262; Canucks Goals For (playoffs): 50
Bruins Goals For (regular): 246; Bruins Goals For (playoffs): 58

Both teams have strong first lines, second-line centers beloved by hardcore fans and solid depth surrounding them. Vancouver boasts possibly the best first line in the NHL in the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows, the possible 2010-11 Selke Trophy winner in Ryan Kesler and plenty of snarl and speed in their lower ranks.

The Bruins are a more offensively gifted squad than many realize, especially with the Milan LucicDavid Krejci-Nathan Horton line on fire in the last two rounds of the playoffs. Patrice Bergeron isn’t as explosive or agitating as Kesler, but he’s a fantastically versatile two-way center in his own right.

Team defense
Canucks Goals Allowed (regular): 185; Canucks Goals Allowed (playoffs): 46
Bruins Goals Allowed (regular): 195; Bruins Goals Allowed (playoffs): 45

The Canucks allowed the least amount of goals in the NHL while Boston was next on the list. The two teams accomplished the task in different ways, as the Canucks excel thanks to their strong depth while the Bruins lean heavily on their top pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. Vancouver’s defense managed to contain the dangerous San Jose Sharks attack while the Bruins’ corps was frequently exposed against the speedy and talented Tampa Bay Lightning.

Defense seems to be a significant advantage for the Canucks, but Chara could make things interesting if he successfully smothers the Sedin twins.

Special teams
Vancouver PP %: 24.32 (reg); 28.3 (playoffs); Vancouver PK %:85.58 (reg); 80.6 (playoffs)
Boston PP %: 16.17(reg); 8.2 (playoffs); Boston PK %:82.64 (reg); 79.4 (playoffs)

The Bruins won Game 7 against the Lightning in a penalty-free game. Boston might want to bargain for more of those, because they face a serious disadvantage in special teams. Their penalty kill has been solid-to-strong, but an already bad regular-season power play has taken a well-documented tumble in the postseason. The Canucks’ power play has been outright scary at times, with Henrik Sedin‘s surgical passing leading the way.

Goaltending
Roberto Luongo‘s regular season: 38 wins, 92.8 save pct.; postseason:12 wins, 92.2 save pct.
Tim Thomas’ regular season: 35 wins, 93.8 save pct.; postseason:12 wins, 92.9 save pct.

This is a matchup of two Vezina Trophy candidates. You might assume Thomas is more likely to steal games until you realize Luongo did just that in Game 5 against the Sharks, making 54 saves in Vancouver’s double overtime win. It seems like a match between the unorthodox (Thomas) and the butterfly prototype (Luongo), but both are aggressive and emotional goalies.

Coaches
Alain Vigneault vs. Claude Julien

Both coaches have a tendency to slip into “turtle mode” with leads. Each experienced some heartbreaking losses in previous playoff years. They also share ties to the Montreal Canadiens organization and have spent quite a bit of time behind their current benches (Vigneault’s been the Canucks coach for five seasons, Julien has been with Boston for four).

Overall, these are two very similar coaches who might not get the respect they deserve in many circles.

***

Vancouver looks like a heavy favorite going into this series, arguably holding advantages in all areas except (maybe?) goaltending. That said, the Canucks carry a lot of pressure on their shoulders while the Bruins’ talent and all-world goalie should not be underestimated. If Thomas, Julien and the Bruins can make this a series that comes down to bounces rather than special-teams efficiency, the junior varsity might just make the varsity sweat on hockey’s grandest stage.

(Want to cast your vote for the winner of this series? Vote in the poll.)

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