The Bruins – Canucks Series

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.

    • Dan
    • June 16th, 2011 5:24pm

    As I was telling Mariel last night, this is exactly how I felt about the series also. The Canucks GM threw gas on the fire when he complained so much about the hit on his player (which I agree is a scary and serious injury resulting from an awkward fall and not a cheap shot) but claimed that the blatant hit Rome administered to the Bruin’s head was actually a legal check to the shoulder (my ass it was).

    But one more point: this grey area and trying to let teams play a mix of styles does result in a certain amount of inconsistency which would be infuriating to deal with if you were a player. This is why fighting in hockey doesn’t bother me as much as it would in other sports. Fights are almost always mutually agreed upon (with the rare exception such as McCarty on LeMieux, but that little bitch deserved it) which allows the entire team to get rid of the pent up violence in a matter which usually results in less serious injuries than a cheap blind side hit in retribution for previous missed calls. All in all, not a bad way of getting around the way a particular game is being called in many situations. Of course that is cold comfort to the Canucks as they lost game 7 and now have a destroyed downtown district, but as you say the loss could be more attributed to their decision to move away from the style of hockey with which they had been successful.

    Plus rioting Canadians crack me up.

      • Flitcraft
      • June 16th, 2011 11:54pm

      I am totally pro-fighting. I didn’t get it, but now I see the roll it plays in this sport. Again, part of the way violence is managed. I do think the NHL needs to tell officials to watch out for when the hitting is getting too hard, though. Even if legal, sometimes you have to find a way of lowering the temperature down there. Call a couple double-minors and have a word with the captains. Because once the hits start coming, they’re not going to stop. The crowd loves it, teammates love it, and that feeds the aggression. Not a big deal if you’re Raffi Torres or Zdeno Chara, but most guys aren’t enforcers. I feel bad for those guys. Suddenly they’re extras in “Gladiator.”

      Problem is the NHL tries to eliminate fighting from the playoffs (an unwise move, I think), which is a questionable policy given the purpose it serves. I do like the sport’s low-tolerance for embellishment. Another reason the Canucks ran into such trouble is they came across as whiners. Burrows kept trying to play victim, and it was clearly pissing everyone off. The Canucks GM should have confined himself to expressing concerns about how hard-hitting the series was getting, not whether the league was letting Boston get away with the same stuff that Canucks were getting suspended for. Valid worries turned into an attempt to play the officials.

      Basically, Vancouver did everything wrong when it comes to playing a physical series like this, and against a more physical team, too. But I won’t lie: it was kind of awesome.

    • GaryKearney
    • June 23rd, 2011 10:59pm

    Great article, Rob. It’s strange to have to come to a gaming blog to get an insightful analysis of the Stanley Cup finals.

    I had a rather strange experience watching the playoffs this year. When my team(the Hawks) went out in the first round, I experienced the usual reaction of the disappointed fan. I wanted to support any team that was in a position to beat the Canucks. That feeling was exacebated by some ungracious comments from one of the Sedin twins to the effect that Vancouver had clearly been superior to Chicago.

    As a patriotic Canadian, however, and one who has supported the last three attemps by Canadian teams to win the Cup(Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary), I was prepared to reconsider. The last straw however came from an unlikely source. The singer Michael Buble, a diehard Canuck fan, made a comment to the media to the effect that he didn’t care if other Canadian hockey fans got behind the Canucks because the team belongs to Vancouver and nobody else. My reaction to that was f@#$ you buddy and I decided to continue my support for anybody but Vancouver.

    When the final series started I was a solid Bruins fans and I rejoiced in the 8-1 thrashing Vancouver received in game three. Once the end of the series was in sight I started to develop a funny feeling. It wasn`t that I wanted to see Vancouver win, but I didn`t want them to lose. Not another Canadian team leaving the finals empty handed.

    This ambivalence essentially ruined my enjoyment of the series. I couldn`t wholly support one team or the other. As soon as the Bruins got ahead in game seven I started to experience a feeling of sadness, which only deepened as the game went on.

    The moral of the story, I suppose, is that sports and politics are an uneasy mix.

      • Flitcraft
      • June 25th, 2011 10:45pm

      I didn’t know that the Sedins had disparaged the Hawks, which is a pretty ridiculous thing to say considering the Hawks brought it to a game seven after dropping the first three. The Canucks had nowhere near that kind of heart, and if the Hawks had started the series like they finished it, they might still have the Cup. Yet another chapter in the Canucks’ ungracious championship challenge. I’m reminded of Luongo dissing Thomas over his aggressive style, when Luongo had already crashed and burned a few times during the playoffs.

      I wonder, if the Canadian championship drought were not so long, would eastern Canadians have supported Vancouver?

    • GaryKearney
    • June 28th, 2011 7:39pm

    I think Canadian hockey fans generally tend to be pretty regional in their support. If by easern Canada you mean Ontario and Quebec, fans tend to support their own teams(the Leafs, the Senators, the Canadiens) exclusively. If you include the Atlantic provinces, which don’t have their own NHL teams, there’s more likely to be support for a Canadian team going for the Cup. In Atlantic Canada, inerestingly, once you get past the supporters from Toronto and Montreal you would probably find that Boston has the next largest fanbase. This is due to the old trading ties that used to exist between Boston and Atlantic Canada(some people here still refer to New England as the Boston states)

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