Bruins-Canucks Preview

When Daniel and Henrik Sedin streak down the ice, exchanging

crisp passes in a display of their jaw-dropping offensive

creativity, it’s easy to forget the Vancouver Canucks were the

NHL’s best defensive team this season.

When Boston’s top line presses the attack, changes styles on the

fly and comes up with yet another clutch postseason goal, it’s

tough to remember the Bruins are nearly as defensively stingy as

the Canucks.

The Stanley Cup finalists are reminding the entire NHL that

elite defensive teams don’t have to fall into the trap – or any

other defensive scheme that results in boring hockey. Defense can

also be a natural outgrowth of a commitment to goal-scoring,

Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said.

”Who says you have to do one or the other?” he asked.

In Game 2 on Saturday night, the Canucks will continue their

quest to show it’s possible to win a title without retreating into

a defensive shell, while Boston will look to build on a quietly

impressive offensive season – except for that slumping power play –

for a club without a big-name scorer.

Both teams proved their approaches work in the series opener.

Vancouver’s 1-0 victory was hardly a boring defensive game, with 12

power plays, numerous tantalizing scoring chances and an

edge-of-the-seat intensity before Raffi Torres’ winning goal in the

final minute.

”Even when we’re not getting rewarded, we’re out there taking

chances and trying to find ways to be aggressive and score,”

Boston forward Milan Lucic said. ”We’re not a team that’s usually

going to sit back and wait and hide. We try to make things

happen.”

Vancouver scored more goals (3.15 per game) and allowed fewer

(2.2) than any team in the NHL during the regular season, while

Boston was fifth in goals and second in defense, giving up just 2.3

goals per game. Even after managing just one goal in their last two

playoff games combined, the Bruins are outscoring Vancouver in the

postseason with 3.05 goals per game, compared to the Canucks’

2.68.

And they’ve done it without the trap, which turned off many

casual hockey fans for life when New Jersey, Dallas and other clubs

had extensive success with thoroughly boring play in the 1990s. The

scheme still shows up in the NHL in various disguises, such as

Tampa Bay’s 1-3-1 formation this season, yet it’s no longer

considered a necessity for winning.

Vancouver has earned a spot alongside Detroit, San Jose,

Washington and Anaheim among the NHL’s most entertaining offensive

teams, but it’s not just because of the Sedin twins, who have won

the last two scoring titles and could take home back-to-back MVP

awards.

Canucks general manager Mike Gillis decided to build an

aggressive, high-scoring team behind the Sedins from the moment he

took over for the fired Dave Nonis in 2008. The former Bruins

forward knew he needed a special defensive corps to do it – and it

had to be eight or nine men deep.

”We got focused on defense initially,” Gillis said. ”I spent

three years trying to get the best defense we could assemble so we

could play any style of game. We wanted puck-moving defensemen who

could join the rush. That was the style of game we decided upon. We

went about trying to find those players that could complement

it.”

Coach Alain Vigneault then implemented a system that relies on

steady defensemen creating chances for the offense.

”This team was built on our depth on the blue line,” said

Christian Ehrhoff, the Canucks’ aggressive, puck-moving defenseman

from Germany. ”That’s what we have, eight guys deep. We can take

advantage of it in the playoffs, because some teams like to get

very conservative. We keep playing aggressive hockey, keep

attacking, and it works for us.”

All that depth comes at a price: The Canucks have teetered on

the edge of the salary cap all season, often relying on perversely

timely injuries to stay under the limit on a game-to-game

basis.

That also means the Canucks are built to handle the loss of a

top defenseman. Dan Hamhuis seems unlikely to play in Game 2 after

incurring an undisclosed injury while delivering a low check in the

opener, but Vigneault has three credible options as

replacements.

Hamhuis didn’t skate in Vancouver’s practice Friday at the

University of British Columbia. Andrew Alberts, a scratch in Game

1, skated with Ehrhoff, while Aaron Rome moved up to skate

alongside Hamhuis’ normal defensive partner, Kevin Bieksa.

”That’s who I think it’s going to be,” Ehrhoff said of

Alberts. ”He’s a very strong and physical defenseman, and he can

bring a strong presence to our back end.”

Keith Ballard, who’s making $4.2 million this year, also is an

option on the Canucks bench for Vigneault.

”We’ve tried to play the right way all year long, which is

having a good balance between good team defense and good team

offense when it’s time to go on the attack, when it’s

appropriate,” Vigneault said.

Boston doesn’t share the Canucks’ overall aggression, and the

Bruins can fall into a defensive shell when necessary. They didn’t

have a scorer in the NHL’s top 25 during the regular season, but

their top line is emerging as one of the best in hockey during the

postseason with David Krejci setting up Lucic and Nathan

Horton.

There’s another key factor in this scheme: top-notch

goaltending.

Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas are two of the league’s top three

goalies, if being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy indicates

anything. Both are experienced veterans at the close of outstanding

individual seasons, further cementing their reputations.

Luongo, who tied for the NHL lead with 38 victories, won a gold

medal for Canada in last year’s Olympics, while the late-blooming

Thomas already has a Vezina on his mantle. Both have thrived under

the burden of hefty contracts and high expectations, giving their

teammates the confidence necessary to be creative.

”You can survive a lot of mistakes and play with a lot of

aggression if you’ve got a goalie like we do, and they do,”

Boston’s Mark Recchi said. ”Your goalie is your most important

defensive player, and Timmy makes us a lot better as a team.”

Even casual hockey fans appear to be catching on to the

excitement generated by Vancouver, Boston and the other contenders.

The playoffs’ early rounds had the NHL’s highest U.S. television

ratings since 1994, and the Canucks’ win over Boston drew the best

U.S. rating for a finals opener in 12 years – along with a whopping

5.6 million viewers in Canada, where the high-flying Canucks are

must-see TV even for Maple Leafs or Canadiens fans.

”It’s fun to play at this time of year, and hopefully it’s as

entertaining for the fans as it is for us,” Vancouver’s Ryan

Kesler said.