It was great watching Boston battle back to win these Stanley Cup Finals after losing close games in Vancouver and enduring a lot of provocation from a Cancuks’ team prone to cheap-shotting and embellishing. But I have to admit, I’m stunned at the result. Watching the first two games, and having seen the Hawks – Canucks series in the first round, it seemed clear as crystal that the Canucks were a better, fitter team. Boston was very good, and goalie Tim Thomas could produce miracles in net, but it was telling to me that when the Canucks got control of the puck, there was almost no stopping them. The Canucks lost this series by abandoning the game that made them the best team in hockey.
Vancouver is a team with a ton offensive weapons, good skaters, and a pair of stingy goalies (although Luongo is prone to astonishing collapses). They racked up 3rd period and overtime wins against Boston because they had more staying power and could continue to play a fast, dynamic game long after Boston had worn themselves out by trying to keep up and pressure Roberto Luongo. When their top-scorers were out of the game, Vancouver’s fourth-line players could frustrated the Bruins by playing keep-away, and disrupting Boston’s attempts at getting an offensive attack set-up. Boston’s top lines would have to rest just as the Canucks sent their best players back out. That was a winning formula.
Unfortunately, there was another side to the Canucks, what Trib columnist Steve Rosenbloom calls the “cheap and gutless Canucks.” The Canucks could skate around their opposition, but they repeatedly chose to mix it up. Raffi Torres would finish hard checks on near-defenseless players. Alex Burrows taunted and bit Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, and the officials didn’t see it and the league didn’t do anything about it. Aaron Rome crushed Nate Horton with a blind-side, open-ice hit well away from the play.
These were bad, needless provocations. They were opportunistic and retaliation was slow to come, but Vancouver was letting the series descend into a slugging match, and that is the last place they should have wanted to go against the Bruins. And they should have realized that officials tend to let hockey teams play the game of their choosing.
This is one of the things I find truly fascinating about hockey. It is a sport of negotiated violence, perhaps because there are so many gray areas, so much that can be left to interpretation. Some hits are obviously clean or illegal, but a lot of them could go either way. In general, the officials seem to exist to keep the game at a level both teams are comfortably playing at. Some teams get into fistfights and the officials will let them go at it, but other teams avoid brawling and officials generally respect their wishes, penalizing opponents who attempt to start something. Hitting seems to fit this mold as well. Officials seem to give hitting teams less leeway with their checks when they are going after a skating team that’s more interested in playing the puck than the body. Players know that rules enforcement does not exist in a vacuum, and that’s why they put so much effort into persuading officials to make calls. It’s all part of a continuing effort to define the boundaries of the acceptable for a given game. The process is even more elaborate within a series, where each game carries baggage from its predecessors.
So back to the Canucks, then. Torres, Burrows, and finally Rome gave away all the protection and sympathy the officials might have extended them and their teammates. Burrows never got any calls to go his way after biting Bergeron, and he made it worse by blatantly embellishing in an attempt to draw penalties. Rome’s hit basically cemented Vancouver’s reputation as series villains. Together, they had successfully painted a target on the backs of every one of their teammates. Officials, who had missed some important calls early in the series, decided to let Boston balance the accounts. By the start of Game Six, it was open season on the ice.
The Canucks were in a street-fight along the boards when what they really needed was room to skate and the confidence to take passes and play the puck. The Sedins had never had the impact on these playoffs that they were supposed to, but they completely checked-out of the series once it got too brutal. You could see, in game seven, Canucks turning as they approached the puck, expecting to get hit, rather than playing it. Quarter-second hesitations, players stopping short or slowing down… they were not the same team they’d been in Games One and Two. They were not playing their game, the one that left opponents winded and demoralized late in the game.
A few Canucks players changed the tone of the series, but despite Boston’s victory, I’m not sure I’m entirely happy. Game Six was a melee that saw one Canuck, Mason Raymond, taken out of the game fractured vertebrae. I don’t think the hit was dirty, and I certainly don’t think Boychuck added anything extra to his hit in an attempt to hurt Mason. It was an awkward play. But in hockey as in football, the sport will only get safer when players themselves start passing on opportunities to drop the hammer on one another. Officials play a part in that process by demonstrating they will protect players and punish excesses. In this series, the officials seemed to back away slowly and let the enforcers go to work. That’s how escalation happens, and that’s when people start getting carted off the ice. By not taking a firmer hand early in the series, NHL officials left every player more exposed to injury.