Saturday, May 01, 2010

How the Canucks and Canadiens can square off in the Stanley Cup Final

MONTREAL- FEBRUARY 2: Sami Salo #6 of the Vancouver Canucks defends against Scott Gomez #91 of the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL game on February 2, 2010 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Canadiens defeated the Canucks 3-2. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Seeing the Vancouver Canucks defeat the Los Angeles Kings was expected. The No. 3 seed in the West was a team with playoff success, were among the favourites for the Stanley Cup, and were facing off against a Kings team that, while promising, figured to be too green to be much of a challenge.

The Montreal Canadiens in Round 2? Who could have seen that? After all, they only finished 33 points behind the Washington Capitals during the regular season and scored 101 less goals than the Capitals did. However, Montreal’s clear advantages in net and on defence as well as a one-dimensional Capital attack was what propelled the Canadiens through. It wasn’t easy, though- Montreal had to come back from 3-1 down in games to win in seven, and in doing so became the first 8th seed to do so against 1st seed since the NHL adopted the 1-8 seeding in 1994.

The Canadiens’ victory raised the possibility of an all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1989, when those very Canadiens lost to the Calgary Flames in six games. It’ll be quite the challenge for both teams but, in a NHL world where no one is terribly overmatched, it’s not a challenge that can’t be overcome. While I’m not going to go out of my way and predict it, I will state how it can happen, with an analysis of the challenges for both teams.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

How they got here

Defeated #1 Washington Capitals 4-3

Game 1: Montreal 3, Washington 2 (OT)

Game 2: Washington 6, Montreal 5 (OT)

Game 3: Washington 5, Montreal 1

Game 4: Washington 6, Montreal 3

Game 5: Montreal 2, Washington 1

Game 6: Montreal 4, Washington 1

Game 7: Montreal 2, Washington 1

Key Performers: Goaltender Jaroslav Halak stole the series in stopping 131 of the last 134 Capital shots in Games 5 though 7, including 53 in Game 6. Part of Halak’s performance is the fact that Halak did not concede the lead in any of those contests.

Forward Michael Cammalleri paced all Canadiens with 10 points off five goals in the seven game set, tying him for the lead in the series with Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin.

The Immediate Challenge: The Pittsburgh Penguins advanced to the second round after defeating the Ottawa Senators in six games, going to overtime in Games 5 and 6. It was a wobbly series for Pittsburgh, as they also went up 3-1 in games against the Senators only to see Ottawa extend it to six winning in triple overtime in Game 5 and nearly force a Game 7 after going up 3-0 in Game 6. Sidney Crosby paced all scorers with 14 points in those six games, though he was effectively a one-man show- Evgeni Malkin relatively underperformed with eight points in those six games, and he was second on the team. No player on the Penguins scored more than twice other than Crosby, Malkin and Matt Cooke, and Cooke only got to three because he scored twice in Game 6 against Ottawa. Still, this is a very hard working team that finds a way to win, and their offence does have a lot of weapons that are waiting to wake up.

In terms of the straight matchups, the Canadiens don’t have the top end talent the Penguins have (who does, really?) but down the line Montreal’s lineup is deeper. At forward, Montreal can boast two quality scoring lines with a clear No. 1 line (Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Cammalleri), with two decent checking lines. After Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal (if he can go for the rest of the series) and Chris Kunitz, the Penguins become an army of checkers. It’s a great army of checkers but it’s still an army of checkers. On defence, the pickings for the Penguins are slim after Sergei Gonchar (who underperformed against Ottawa), Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski whereas the Canadiens can boast a very competent bunch, with or without Andrei Markov (though if Markov can go it’d be a big boast). Montreal can lean on Hal Gill’s shot blocking prowess, Jaroslav Spacek’s offence (and new ability at being a shutdown defender), Josh Gorges and Roman Hamrlik, as well as youngster PK Subbhan who looks like he could be an elite defender one day. In goal, the edge goes to Montreal by a wide margin, because Halak has been brilliant and Marc-Andre Fleury has been okay in these playoffs, but even if you take out the playoffs, Halak has still done better than Fleury- the only difference is that Fleury had playoff success whereas Halak now has that too.

Photo credit: Matthieu Stréliski (@strem)

The Strategy For Round 2: The Penguins present a different challenge than the Capitals do in Round 1. Whereas Washington is perimeter happy and scores primarily off the rush, Pittsburgh will get traffic in front of the net and attack the defenders, meaning it will be difficult to predict where the shot will be coming from. Halak will again have to be sharp in net, and the Canadien defenders will have to stand their ground and prevent the Penguin attackers from getting lanes to the net. They will also need to win the battle in front of the net, making sure the Pittsburgh screen can’t get set up. This is where a player like Gill needs to be a factor, because his size will be effective in clearing the traffic in front of the net. Montreal will also need to cover the points and remove the shooting lanes, because then the screens become ineffective; and their team speed can go a long way in doing that. The shot blocking will again have to be top notch, because if it isn’t, that also helps create inadvertent screens. They’ll also have to study the Penguin tapes with precision because the Penguins love to run set plays, especially on the power play, and anticipating those plays will go a long way in thwarting the powerful Pittsburgh attack.

One area the Canadiens do have an advantage in is team speed, as well as their defensive structure. The Senators showed in their series that the Penguins will give up a lot of chances if you keep them in front of you and, against Washington, the Canadiens were effective at creating offence off of counter attack situations. Pittsburgh has a lot of big bodies that aren’t necessarily great at quickness, so if Montreal can play responsibly in their own end, they can generate a lot of chances in transition with their speed. One thing the Canadiens cannot do is allow themselves to get involved in battles along the board, because the size of the Penguins will wear them down. They’ll also have to attack the Pittsburgh defenders, not just because their speed would allow them to drive past them but because it’ll also create penalties, which is key considering the Canadien power play is red hot and the Penguin penalty kill is abysmal (68% against Ottawa) so that is an opportunity that Montreal cannot waste.

After Round 2: The task changes depending on who Montreal faces in Round 3. The Philadelphia Flyers present a better match up because, like the Canadiens, they’re mobile but the Canadiens aren’t as physical as the Flyers, which presents some problems. The key to beating Philadelphia is avoiding physical play and using their speed to create chances. They can afford to get into an uptempo game with the Flyers because their offences feature the same level of skill and Montreal can expect to win the goaltender battle, though Boucher will be good. The Boston Bruins will be tougher, because they’re bigger, they’re physical and they’re much better defensively than the Canadiens are, plus they have Tuuka Rask in net, who only posted the league’s top save percentage this season (93.1%!). Montreal’s only hope is to turn this into a track meet because then Boston won’t be able to keep up. Fortunately, the Canadiens’ speed should figure to give the Bruins’ defence some challenges, and, unlike the Buffalo Sabres in Round 1, the Canadiens actually have finishers to bury the chances their speed will generate. In any case, Montreal has to avoid physical play because they’re not built for that and instead use their speed- if they control the tempo they’ll control the Bruins and eventually beat them.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

How they got here

Defeated #6 Los Angeles Kings 4-2

Game 1: Vancouver 3, Los Angeles 2 (OT)

Game 2: Los Angeles 3, Vancouver 2 (OT)

Game 3: Los Angeles 5, Vancouver 3

Game 4: Vancouver 6, Los Angeles 4

Game 5: Vancouver 7, Los Angeles 2

Game 6: Vancouver 4, Los Angeles 2

Key Performers: Forward Mikael Samuelsson was a force against the Los Angeles Kings, racking up 11 points (tops on the team) off of seven goals in the six game set, finding chemistry alongside Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The Sedins were also impact players during the series, with Daniel behind Samuelsson with 10 points and Henrik not far behind with eight. Forward Steve Bernier also figured in the attack with four goals in the series, as did Pavol Demitra with a brace and Ryan Kesler with four assists.

The Immediate Challenge: This is the second consecutive season the Vancouver Canucks have to deal with the Chicago Blackhawks after only meeting with the ‘Hawks twice in their entire previous history (1994 and 1981). Last season, the Blackhawks used their speed to continually get behind the Canucks’ largely immobile blueline, drowning Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo in chances and eventually goals, while having Nikolai Khabibulin stop whatever the Canucks threw at them. This year the forward and defence corps return basically as constituted, but Khabibulin does not- Chicago will have to rely on Antti Niemi in net, and Niemi was anything but spectacular against the Nashville Predators. So Vancouver can expect to win the goaltender battle, and by a wide margin, as even though Roberto Luongo’s numbers weren’t stellar, he got better as the Kings series went on and made many clutch saves when the Canucks needed it most, suggesting that he is now back in top form.

The other key difference is that Vancouver finally has the horses to score with the Blackhawks. Vancouver scored 25 times against Los Angeles, an average of over four per game, and while most of the offence was concentrated on the Sedins and Samuelsson, many of the Canucks’ other forwards showed signs of waking up as the series ended. Alex Burrows- the Canucks’ regular season leader with 36 goals- scored in the final game, Bernier had a pair in the Game 5 rout, Demitra recorded three points in the game and Alexander Edler joined Christian Erhoff, Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo as Canucks defencemen with goals. At the other end Chicago doesn’t enter this series on the same kind of tear they did a year ago, with several of their players- most notably Duncan Keith (two points), Kris Versteeg (no goals), Brian Campbell (no points in three games) and Dustin Byfuglien (no points) underperforming, though Jonathan Toews (eight points), Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp all have seven or more points against the Predators.

Chicago Blackhawks v Vancouver Canucks

The Strategy For Round 2: Score. It doesn’t get simpler than that. On top of this being looking like it’ll be an offensive series, Vancouver has capitalize on its goaltending superiority and bury the chances Chicago will give them. This is why I think Vancouver has a real good chance at winning this series and moving on to Round 3, because in a game where you’re trading chances, it’s the goaltender who is better that wins the game and that’s Luongo by a mile. Vancouver also knows that they were two minutes away from going up 3-1 in the series last season before Martin Havlat scored to turn the series around, so the Canucks have to use that experience to motivate them to close the series better.

They will likely have to make an adjustment to counteract Chicago’s speed and that’s making sure one of their forwards is always high in case the Blackhawks force a turnover in their zone. The Canucks’ defence doesn’t have the footspeed to keep up with the Blackhawks’ mostly fast forwards, so getting two-way play out of their forwards- which that have gotten so far in the playoffs- will be the key in making sure the defending isn’t caught too far up ice. They’ll also need Luongo to come up big when it matters most- Luongo doesn’t have to make fifty saves because he knows that if Chicago scores five Vancouver can score six- he just has to make sure he doesn’t allow that sixth goal.

They’ll also need a big performance from these guys if the Canucks will have any chance at winning:

Buckle up- this series will be fun, and this time Vancouver’s got the tools to win it.

After Round 2: If Vancouver thought Chicago would be tough, wait until they meet the San Jose Sharks or Detroit Red Wings. That’ll be no treat. While it’s tempting to root for the Sharks because of their playoff failures, if they get past the Red Wings, there will be no questioning their legitimacy as Stanley Cup contenders, since this will be the furthest they have gone since 2004 and the first time this group- long hailed as Stanley Cup favourites will have achieved playoff success. So don’t think a Vancouver-San Jose series would be a slam dunk. The Sharks play a similar game to the Canucks with the cycle down low, only that San Jose is the physically stronger team. Beating the Sharks would mean creating opportunities off the rush, and that comes by playing superior defence. It’s in the cards for the Canucks but it’ll be difficult. The Red Wings, and their star power, will be even more daunting. Detroit may be showing signs of slowing down but this is still a team that never quits and finds a way to win, plus the puck possession game they play is run so perfectly that there isn’t a team that can match it. Vancouver’s only hope is to use its speed at forward, which has given Detroit tons of problems in these playoffs. They’ll need to use that speed to keep the Red Wings in front of them and deny Detroit the time and space they need to execute the plays they want, but it’ll be tough to keep them at bay all the time. No matter who Vancouver faces in Round 3, expect it to be a long series, perhaps even going to overtime in Game 7.

What’s the likelihood of all of this happening? Vancouver, as I stated before, has a great shot at defeating Chicago in Round 2, so much so that I favour them in that series. It’s only after that where I get iffy, because San Jose and Detroit are better teams than Vancouver and would likely get the nod in those series. Having said that, the Canucks do have all the tools to make a legitimate run at the Cup and they’re not so far behind Detroit and San Jose that they couldn’t beat them. Vancouver is still missing some pieces (such as a mobile defenceman) that could really put them over the top, but a run this year wouldn’t necessarily be out of the question.

Montreal has more of an uphill battle against Pittsburgh, one that I think they’re not likely to win. The Habs benefitted from the fact they played a perimeter team whose stars weren’t willing to “pay the price”, whereas the Penguins’ stars- Crosby and Malkin- do pay the price, so duplicating their play against Washington is not likely. Still, if you had to think of a team that has the “Edmonton Oilers feel” to it (referring to the Oilers’ 2006 Cup run), the Habs would be it. Montreal has very few stars like Edmonton did, but, like Edmonton, won with hard work and structure to overcome their talent deficiencies. A run to the Final wouldn’t be out of the question because the matchups are somewhat favourable to the Canadiens, but that run is only possible if they can get past Pittsburgh; and that’s a mighty big if. Still, Montreal defied the odds in beating Washington so there’s a chance they can do so against Pittsburgh as well- but it’ll take a mighty effort to do it.

So, Vancouver and Montreal...who ya got? Well, that’s beyond the scope of this post...you’re on your own there. My job was just to get the Canucks and the Canadiens to the Final so Canada can be assured of their first Stanley Cup victory since 1993...once the teams are there it’ll be up to them to figure out how to win. There’s a good case for either side to win- both have strong goaltenders, both have strong two-way play and both are pretty mobile teams, so it’ll be a fun series to watch. At the very least it’ll be a satisfying series- Canada has waited too long to celebrate the Stanley Cup and this will finally be their chance...unless, of course, Taylor Hall decides to stay in Edmonton.

-DG


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-DG

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