On the surface, Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final seemed a testament to the Boston Bruins' willingness to do the things we associate with having stones — they got to the dirty areas, had the willingness to engage, took the puck to the front of the net and so on. It appeared that the Vancouver Canucks didn't have that same commitment.
But to claim that Vancouver wasn't playing with nuts last night or hasn't been throughout the playoffs is just flat wrong. At this point, they just look tired.
If you've followed the Canucks this year, you know they're accustomed to playing with plenty of sandpaper. A cursory glance of their roster tells you everything you need to know — there's Alex Burrows, Max Lapierre, Raffi Torres, Manny Malhotra, Ryan Kesler, Tanner Glass, Kevin Bieksa, and the list goes on from there. This isn't a soft team that doesn't have snarl — their snarl reserves just seem depleted.
These two squads have found their success in different manners, and that seems to be at the root of the Bruins resurgence in this series. In Boston, there's rarely a game on the scoresheet where you can find more than a player with a TOI in the single digits. They have no true offensive superstar. There is no real weak link.
Relying on everyone is pretty handy when you've played over 100 games in a season.
Vancouver uses the bulk of their players as well, but still relies more on their on their top dogs to power them through (top three forwards in minutes-played from both teams last night, in order: Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler). When those guys are fresh and flying, it gets easy for Vancouver.
When they look like this, well, it gets painful.
Playoffs, at any level, are physically exhausting. When the New York Islanders swept the Edmonton Oilers in the 1983 Stanley Cup Final, Wayne Gretzky walked by the Isles' dressing room expecting champagne, jubilation and confetti, but he saw something different. A bedraggled Isles team was sitting in their stalls blanketed in ice, exhausted, while the wives, friends and families celebrated. It was a lesson that Gretzky said prepared the Oilers for the grueling work required to win four playoff series.
In simple terms, winning ain't easy.
We've reached that point in the season where waking up hurts worse than getting hit. When you feel like that, it's a lot easier to fall back into the way the Bruins play, the team system where you share the ice time and count on all four lines for more than just a breather for your best players.
The Canucks have been generally adept at feasting on weak links; when they're at the top of their game, players like the Sedins can feast on anyone, really. But when they start to look as tired as they do, it helps to be able to find the odd weak player to isolate. That guy appears nowhere to be found.
If Vancouver is going to pull this thing out, their premier players are going to need to find a way to produce regardless of who they're up against. They need them to find a way to reach that level only superstars are capable of finding. It can't be acceptable to continue looking like dull knives grinding on top of a tough steak, unable to make any progress.
To make matters worse, while the Bruins have been able to sag back as a team, lean on Tim Thomas and wait for chances, the Canucks have received zero help from their goaltender. Obviously that doesn't make it easy, but Roberto Luongo's the same guy he's always been — hot and cold, streaky as ever. They know he's good enough to win, and frankly, he was irrelevant in Boston — the Canucks wouldn't have won with Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur playing net at the same time.
The travel back to Vancouver is only going to dull the blade further for both teams, but right now it looks like that plays into the Bruins hands.
It's corny, but I love the Vince Lombardi quote we had up in our junior locker room: "Any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is the moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious."
It's flowery, but if the Canucks are going to find a way to answer the Bruins in this series, they need to dig in and their best players need to find a way to beat the Bruins' steady stream of grinders.