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Bruins have done a 180 to square series
Canucks fans were entertaining notions of a Stanley Cup parade by week's end, while analysts wondered if the Bruins could find a way to get back into this series.
By Thursday morning, the Bruins had tied the series, silenced their critics and addressed the factors which plagued them in the first two games, while the Canucks, blown out of Games 3 and 4, were now the ones being questioned about their performance.
The Canucks weren't just beaten in the two games in Boston, they were humiliated, outscored 12-1 while looking nothing like the disciplined, patient club which used depth and speed to open the series with two victories over the Bruins.
Facing the challenge of back-to-back must-win games, the Bruins rose to the occasion, with their stars as well as their role players stepping up. It was very much a team effort.
Veteran winger Michael Ryder, held scoreless in the first two games, also netted four points.
Defenseman and team captain Zdeno Chara, who struggled earlier in the series, bounced back once the series shifted to Boston, with three assists and a combined plus-minus of plus-5.
Even right wing Mark Recchi, at 43 the oldest player in the series, made his presence felt with two goals in Game 3.
And of course there was the performance of goaltender Tim Thomas, who turned aside 78 of 79 shots in the two victories, emerging as the front-runner for the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.
Thomas was superb, thwarting Vancouver's scorers time and again, while his willingness to get physical -- flattening Daniel Sedin with a body check in Game 3, and swatting at Vancouver pest Alex Burrows following a goal-mouth scramble late in Game 4 -– earned comparisons to legendary Bruins netminder Gerry Cheevers.
As if playing in front of their hometown fans and legends Bobby Orr and Cam Neely weren't enough, the Bruins had additional motivation by playing for an injured teammate.
Right winger Nathan Horton, who'd been a clutch scorer for the Bruins earlier in the playoffs, was knocked out of the Finals with a concussion due to a late hit early in Game 3 by Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome, who was suspended for the remainder of the series.
The Canucks, meanwhile, had good starts in Games 3 and 4, but fell apart in the second and third periods.
Vancouver's power play, third-best overall in this year's playoffs, has been a non-factor in this series, scoring only once in 22 chances in four games, and not at all in Boston.
The Canucks consistently outdrew the Bruins in the faceoff circle, but that was cold comfort for an offense which has grown stone cold. Their power play fell apart in Game 3, giving up two short-handed goals to the Bruins.
Worse for the Canucks, their best players weren't at their best in Boston.
Leading scorer Henrik Sedin was held scoreless in the first four games, as he appeared to be hobbled by an ankle injury.
Brother Daniel Sedin and linemate Burrows were held scoreless in three of the four games, including both in Boston.
Ryan Kesler, who entered this series as the favorite for the Smythe trophy, has not been the same energetic, hard-hitting, two-way force he was in the first three rounds, struggling through a nagging groin injury.
Defensemen Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler were among the top-scoring blueliners in this year's playoffs, but only Edler has points in this series. All three were held off the score sheet in Games 3 and 4. Bieska and Ehrhoff each had combined plus-minus stats of minus-4, while Edler's was minus-5.
Finally, goalie Roberto Luongo had his worst performances of this year's playoffs, giving up 12 goals on a combined 58 shots, looking nothing like the calm, confident netminder of Games 1 and 2.
As the series shifts back to Vancouver on Friday, the Canucks will hope to get a lift from the hometown crowd, but their arena is likely to be filled with nervous energy from a fan base whose confidence may now be shaken.
Injuries have undoubtedly taken a toll on several of Vancouver's stars. Perhaps as a team they weren't fully prepared for how much the Bruins would be charged up playing on their home ice. Maybe they were guilty of being a little overconfident after taking an early series lead.
Whatever the reasons, the pressure of the series has now shifted fully upon the Canucks, who return home for a crucial Game 5 against a Bruins team that now firmly believes it can win this series.
If the Canucks fail to generate more effective scoring chances, rattle Thomas, kick-start their power play and get more out of their best players, the Bruins could very well win it all.
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