June 15, 2011
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The past two weeks are likely to be a vivid blur in the memories of Tim Thomas, Roberto Luongo and the players who staggered off their final cross-continent flights Tuesday to put a merciful end to the Stanley Cup finals.
The Vancouver Canucks have traded home victories of increasing intensity with the Boston Bruins for six games, with their veteran goalies dueling before a backdrop of bites, taunts, dangerous injuries and gut-wrenching road losses. The Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks and the profoundly resilient Bruins will play their 107th and final game when their draining seasons finally end in Game 7 on Wednesday night.
Both teams are ready to enjoy their drastically shortened summers, but nobody can bear the thought of coming this far without drinking from the Stanley Cup.
"Everything in the past is in the past," Vancouver center Ryan Kesler said. "If we win tomorrow, we become legends."
Although they've lost three of their last four to the surging Bruins, the Canucks are ready to reap their reward for grinding out the NHL's best regular-season record. They get to play Game 7 at home - and home-ice advantage means more than anybody expected in a series that's otherwise been utterly unpredictable.
The home team has won every game to date, but Boston has done it better than the favored Canucks. While the Bruins blew out Vancouver by a combined 17-3, the Canucks eked out three one-goal victories.
The Canucks still can win their first NHL title after flopping in their first attempt Monday in Boston, while the Bruins are closing strong in their attempt to end a 39-year Stanley Cup drought.
"When we're in the garage or driveway playing as a kid and you're fantasizing ... you're saying to yourself, 'Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals,'" said Thomas, the likely Conn Smythe Trophy winner after allowing just eight Vancouver goals in six games. "You're not saying Game 6, you know? So this is really what every kid dreams about."
Thomas and the Bruins will attempt to become the first team in NHL history to win a Game 7 three times in the same postseason after beating Montreal and Tampa Bay earlier. The Original Six franchise has never played a Game 7 in the finals, not even while losing its last five trips to the championship round since 1972.
Vancouver was stretched to the limit by defending champion Chicago in the first round. The Canucks were here in 1994, when Mark Messier's New York Rangers beat them 3-2 in Game 7 - and Vancouver hadn't been back to the finals since.
Both teams have played under playoff stress this spring, but no pressure in hockey can match the intensity of a close third period in Game 7 of the finals, when one superb play or a single mistake can change a player's reputation forever. Anybody who fears that scenario didn't show it after Tuesday's workouts at Rogers Arena.
"This is playoff hockey at its finest," Vancouver center Manny Malhotra said. "No one wants to budge on home ice. This entire series has been a full playoff experience, filled with a lot of different types of games."
And nobody exemplifies this series' strange duality better than Luongo. Vancouver's enigmatic goalie has been outstanding at home, allowing just two goals in three games while posting two 1-0 shutouts, but the Canucks' $10 million man was horrific in Boston, giving up 15 goals in slightly more than four periods while getting pulled twice, including from Game 6.
Perhaps after one final head-clearing walk on the Vancouver seawall, his meditation of choice before two key victories this postseason, he'll get his last chance at redemption on the same ice where he backstopped Canada to Olympic gold last year.
"We're going to put what happened (in Game 6) behind us as soon as possible, and get ready for obviously what is going to be a dream, playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals," Luongo said Monday. "I've been in those situations before. I know how to handle it. I'll be ready for it."
The series' exhausting travel schedule - Boston has made five cross-continent flights, while Vancouver had a mere four - hasn't ratcheted down the intensity late in games.
The Canucks exude a confidence that must be rooted in their strong regular season, not their years of playoff struggles before this breakthrough. Daniel Sedin even guaranteed a Game 7 victory to the Vancouver Sun.
They'll probably have to attempt it in another nail-biting game in Vancouver, where the Canucks won all three games with goals in the third period or overtime.
The Canucks' superior talent has been obvious throughout the season, with Henrik and Daniel Sedin - the NHL's last two scoring champions - leading an aggressive style that showed excitement can win in a league too often dominated by trap defenses.
Since the NHL's first wave of expansion in 1968, no team has won the Stanley Cup while being outscored in the postseason. The Canucks almost certainly will be the first to do it if they win Game 7: The NHL's highest-scoring team in the regular season has been outscored 65-58 in the playoffs, and Boston has a 19-8 edge in the first six games.
Both teams could draw emotion from injured players if they choose. Boston rallied around forward Nathan Horton after his season-ending concussion in Game 3, while the Canucks will play Game 7 without top defenseman Dan Hamhuis, lost in Game 1 to an undisclosed injury, and forward Mason Raymond, who broke a bone in his back on a hit by Boston's Johnny Boychuk early in Game 6.
Horton was the Bruins' inspiration in Game 4, and he attended Game 6. He even made the cross-continent trip to Vancouver on Tuesday to support his teammates, who appeared touched by the gesture. The Bruins have set up Horton's locker and gear in the visitors' dressing room.
"If the doctor let him, he would play tomorrow," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "We all know that's not the right decision to make, but that's the way he's feeling. He wants to play so badly."
BOSTON OFFICIALS PREP FOR POSSIBLE WIN