Saturday affords us not just a rematch of last June’s Stanley Cup finals, but a possible preview of this season’s championship series as well.
For the Canucks, this is a return to where it all went to hell last June. They were the favorites last spring and had a 2-0 series lead on the Bruins. But once they set foot in Beantown, it all fell apart as they lost four of the final five games of the series and were outscored (embarrassed?) 17-3 at TD Garden, site of Saturday’s 1 p.m. ET rematch.
From that perspective, we have to believe Saturday’s game means a little more to the Canucks, who surely want to prove they can play up to their potential in that rink and not lose their marbles, as they did last June.
But if you’re looking for that kind of sentiment, or any kind of hyperbole from the man behind the Canucks bench, you’re not going to get it.
“Unless they’ve changed the rules, even if we go in there Saturday and we win, they’re not going to hand us the Cup,’’ Alain Vigneault told ESPN.com Thursday.
“For us, at the end of the day, what it is, is two points in an 82-game schedule, a nonconference game against one of the best teams in the East that happens to be the team that beat us last year.”
Hey, he gets it. One of the NHL’s most veteran coaches, Vigneault understands the interest in the game.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of hype for that game, but we’re a different team than we were last year. We’ve added some different components,” Vigneault said. “Boston is pretty much the same team, but it’s a new year. We’re going to just go in there and try and play our best game.”
The Canucks have been playing their best game on most nights the past two months, much like the B’s. Both teams stumbled out of the gates in October, but since Nov. 1 they are both on absolute fire, with the B’s going 23-3-1 and the Canucks 20-8-1. The Bruins enter this game coming off a 9-0 shellacking of the Flames Thursday night.
Hard not to look at Saturday’s matinee as a possible Cup preview, but just don’t tell Vigneault that. He believes all 16 teams that make the playoff dance have a realistic shot.
“Once you get in, you never know what can happen in the playoffs,” said Vigneault. “There’s a lot of good teams that don’t even get in. That’s how strong the parity is. Obviously, we’re two of the more elite teams, and the way both teams are playing right now a lot of people would concur with that. But there’s a lot of great teams, and it would be very disrespectful to the rest of the league if either us or the Bruins would assume that this is a prelude to the Stanley Cup finals.”
It’s impressive the way in which each club has been able to overcome the so-called Cup hangover. For the Bruins, a team largely left intact from last season, it’s the obvious ability to recharge after a summer of celebrating and the way in which they’ve seemingly found a new hunger. That’s easier said than done, judging from past champions over the past decade. For the Canucks, however, it’s just as impressive when you consider the psychological impact last June’s collapse might have had on their key players, enough that some people didn’t think they could get off the mat this season. But they have.
And I credit Vigneault for the way he prepared his team in camp. The Canucks went only 5-5-1 in October, but as Vigneault said, his teams usually have started slow in Vancouver since he’s been coach. That slow start allowed him to work on specific facets of the game, and he had an attentive audience for it because of that .500 start.
“And then all of sudden, and it always seems to coincide at the same time, the big guy starts to stop the puck and we start to win. This year was no different,” said Vigneault. “I know people were talking about the Stanley Cup hangover and whatever, but I felt coming into this year I could see the group’s motivation, their need to win, their need to go out and win the big games at the big time, on the big stage. I’ve got a real motivated group of players here who just want to go out and have fun and play hockey. That hasn’t changed.”
The big guy, aka Roberto Luongo, has looked dynamite over the past month, but will not start on Saturday. More than anyone, perhaps, he would have had something to prove in Boston, given his performance there last June. That carried into this season when some Canucks fans lit up radio talk shows and cyberspace with demands that backup Cory Schneider should take over the starting role. That debate raged on in November when Schneider made seven straight starts. But once December rolled around, Luongo heated up, and he hasn’t looked back.
Either way, though, Luongo will continue to be the focal point with Canucks fans, especially come playoff time.
“It’s the nature of the position,” Vigneault said. “There’s a lot of attention being put on goaltenders these days. When things go well, they get a lot of credit, and when things don’t go well, they take a lot of blame. Sounds a lot like the coaches. Part of the treatment that Roberto was getting was unfair, but I really believe that was just a minority here in Vancouver. Sometimes it happens that it’s the minority in events that screams and rants the loudest. But I think the majority of our great fans here in Vancouver and in B.C. have always been behind him and behind our team. They’re like us, they want us to win.”
Especially on Saturday.