Bruins-Canucks Preview

Daniel Sedin absently scratched his red playoff beard, thinking
back on a decade of struggle and setbacks before the Vancouver
Canucks reached the Stanley Cup finals against Boston.

Down the hallway, his identical twin rubbed his identical beard
exactly the same way.

Henrik Sedin was considering a more pressing problem, though:
Now that the Swedish superstars are finally close enough to touch
the Stanley Cup, how do they get it away from hulking defenseman
Zdeno Chara and the bruising Bruins?

”We’ve had a lot of challenges along the way to get here, but
he’s the biggest one yet – literally, I guess,” said Henrik Sedin,
last season’s NHL MVP. ”It’s going to be exciting to see what
happens, because we haven’t played each other enough to know those
guys very well. It’s unpredictable.”

The only sure bet is that one championship drought will end for
one long-suffering hockey-loving city after the Canucks face Boston
in the Stanley Cup finals, starting in Game 1 on Wednesday night in
Vancouver.

The Canucks have never won it all, falling in their only two
previous finals appearances in four decades of existence. Their
ever-anxious city is buzzing with anticipation, with hundreds of
fans filling the sidewalks and bars of Granville Street in
blue-and-green jerseys in the days before the finals.

They’re breathlessly following the Sedin twins, who finally
turned their talent into team success during a spectacular season
in Vancouver. With impressive depth and solid defense backing their
star-studded top lines, the Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy with
54 victories and 117 points before winning nine of their past 12
playoff games heading into the finals.

The Canucks might be the best team ever assembled on Canada’s
West Coast, yet they realize they haven’t done anything until they
raise the Cup.

”With the parity that is in the league, you’ve got to do a lot
of things right for a long time,” Canucks coach Alain Vigneault
said. ”I do believe you’ve got to get some bounces, you get the
bounces because you’ve been doing things right for a long time. I
believe that Vancouver is due for 40 years of good bounces.”

The Bruins have lost five straight trips to the finals since
Bobby Orr led them to their last title in 1972, and haven’t made it
at all since 1990.

Yet with only moderate expectations and a largely star-free
roster featuring no scorers in the NHL’s top 25, Boston survived a
rough Eastern Conference run during which it faced elimination
twice in the past three rounds. The Bruins coolly won two Game 7
showdowns, both on clutch goals by Nathan Horton, earning the right
to travel thousands of miles to the opposite coast for a shot at
their ultimate goal.

”We definitely earned the right to be here with everything
we’ve gone through,” Horton said Tuesday after the Bruins’ first
practice in Vancouver. ”I had never even been in the playoffs
before, so maybe I don’t know any better. I’m getting some real
goosebumps now, though.”

These teams know little about each other, meeting just once in
the regular season thanks to the NHL’s unbalanced schedule. They’ve
had several days to study film and scouting reports, but they know
they won’t fully appreciate the Sedins’ brilliance or Chara’s
ice-clogging force until they see it up close.

Chara clearly intrigues the Sedins and their fellow Vancouver
forwards. The Canucks struggled offensively in the second round
against Nashville’s shutdown defensemen, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter,
but bounced back with a dominant series against San Jose in the
conference finals.

Henrik Sedin is the league’s leading playoff scorer with 21
points, while Ryan Kesler has 18 – and Daniel Sedin a mere 16.

”There’s a few big defensemen in the league, but he’s obviously
the biggest and the best,” Daniel Sedin said. ”We’ll see how it
goes, but we see shutdown players in every game, so that part isn’t
any different.”

The Boston defense is equally fascinated by the Sedins, who
joined the Canucks in 1999 in a masterpiece of draft-day
maneuvering by Brian Burke. After a handful of difficult seasons,
the twins returned from the 2004-05 lockout with an all-out
attitude that allowed them to develop into the offensive virtuosos
that are dominating the Western Conference.

”There’s only a few players in the league that have been
together so long, and obviously them being brothers, it helps,”
Chara said. ”Growing up together, they know each other extremely
well. They know where they are even without looking at each other,
so it makes it challenging to play against them. We just have to
try to take as much away from them as we can.”

Boston is hoping both teams stay at full strength for most of
the series. The Bruins have been the NHL’s best 5-on-5 team all
season long, but their power play is in a horrific playoff slump,
scoring on just 8 percent of its chances compared to the Canucks’
28 percent efficiency led by the Sedins.

For all their differences in personnel and philosophy, Boston
and Vancouver share one similarity: strong veteran goaltending.

Just how similar? Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas have the same
2.29 goals-against average in the postseason.

Luongo bounced back from a one-game benching in the first round
to shut down San Jose’s offensive talent in the Western Conference
finals, refocusing his mental game on the fly. Thomas has been a
bit more inconsistent for Boston – but when the 37-year-old
survivor has been good, such as in his two shutouts or any number
of jaw-dropping big saves, the Bruins’ opponents have been
doomed.

”It’s a good battle for me,” Luongo said. ”Obviously you
focus more on the guys shooting at you, but you know who’s on the
other side over there, and I have a lot of respect for him.”

Either Henrik Sedin or Chara will join Detroit’s Nicklas
Lidstrom as the only European born-and-trained NHL captains to
raise the Stanley Cup when it’s all over. Sedin won’t allow himself
to think about the prospect until the Canucks take the four steps
necessary to get there.

”This year, we want it more than anyone else,” Henrik Sedin
said. ”We don’t need anyone to come in and tell us how to win it.
We know what we have to do.”