NHL Playoff Rankings: Conference finals

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Guy Boucher first caught the attention of Scotty Bowman early last season. Bowman, the retired coaching legend, was chatting with one of his former players, Bob Gainey, then the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens. Gainey mentioned the young up-and-comer he had hired to coach the Habs’ minor-league affiliate.

“He said, ‘I’ve got this special coach in Hamilton,’ ” Bowman said. “ ‘He’s a very different coach.’ ”

Gainey had hoped to put the two in touch. They didn’t end up connecting. But Bowman watched as another of his former players, Steve Yzerman, the new general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, hired Boucher to coach the Bolts. He kept watching as Boucher took them to the playoffs and then to the Eastern Conference final.

Boucher and the Bolts are the mystery men of the third round, the ones who just aren’t like the others. Boucher is only 39, spent only one season in the minors and is in his first season in the NHL. The Bolts won the Stanley Cup in 2004, sank to the depths of the league, missed the playoffs for three years and suddenly are back in the final four. How did they do it so quickly?

Why didn’t they have to suffer? The Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks all have waited so long and endured so much. The Canucks haven’t won the Cup since entering the league in 1970 and have made the conference final for the first time since 1994. The Bruins haven’t won the Cup since 1972 and have made the conference final for the first time since 1992. The Sharks haven’t won the Cup since entering the league in 1991 and were swept in the conference final last year. All have had to shake – or still have to shake – labels as playoff disappointments.

And here are Boucher and the Bolts, threatening to crash three long-planned parties. You can wonder about the scar on the Boucher’s right cheek, the one he won’t talk about because he doesn’t want to scare his children. But it’s the bags under Boucher’s eyes that might hold the key, indicators of lots of late-night preparation.

“He plans a lot, this Boucher,” said Bowman, who scouts a lot of Lightning games from his Florida home as a senior advisor for the Chicago Blackhawks. “I don’t know him. I’ve met him a few times. But he’s very innovative.”

This is coming from perhaps the most innovative coach in NHL history, the father of the Russian Five and the left wing lock. As we recalibrate our playoff power rankings for the third round, Boucher’s Bolts aren’t No. 1. They aren’t the favorites. They never were. But each of the final four have a good chance to win the Cup, and the Bolts might be the most intriguing.

1. Vancouver Canucks: After winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, the Canucks entered the playoffs as the prohibitive favorites to win the Stanley Cup. They took a 3-0 lead in their first-round series with the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending champions, the team that had eliminated them from the playoffs each of the past two years. Then they blew it, benching goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes) along the way.

All of Vancouver’s worst fears seemed confirmed – that the Canucks couldn’t win in the playoffs, that Luongo couldn’t handle the pressure – until the Canucks escaped Game 7 with an overtime victory. Then they ground their way through a gritty six-game series with the Nashville Predators, led by a determined Ryan Kesler(notes). The past is supposed to be behind them now.

“I think it’s a process where you learn how to get your emotional level to a point where you can compete in these games,” Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said. “It’s rare that teams can do that without having failures as experiences in prior years. … I think the Chicago series showed we were prepared to get to that emotional level and learn how to continue to play through no matter what’s going on. This series, the same thing. Next series, will be the same.”

The thing is, the next series will be only harder. If it’s rare that teams can reach the emotional level needed to compete without having experienced failures in prior years, the Canucks haven’t experienced it yet this deep in the playoffs – and the Sharks have. Daniel and Henrik Sedin(notes), who were non-factors for too much of the second round, have never been this far before. Luongo, who regained his spot and form in the second round, has never been this far before, either.

The Canucks struggled with the Blackhawks the past two years largely because of Chicago’s depth. They added depth to compensate, but that depth has been thinned by injuries, and the Sharks are as deep – or even deeper – up front as the ’Hawks were the past two years. Oh, and the Sharks have the goaltender that led Chicago to the Cup: Antti Niemi(notes).

Only by a hair do the Canucks remain the favorites. They cannot keep relying on Kesler the way they did against the Predators. As coach Alain Vigneault said: “He’s obviously decided to drive the bus. … We need some other guys to come on board here because it’s not going to get easier.”

2. San Jose Sharks: Yes, the Sharks showed guts by winning Game 7 on Thursday night. Joe Thornton(notes) showed up. Patrick Marleau(notes), whom former teammate Jeremy Roenick(notes) had called “gutless” on television, scored the game-winning goal and made a critical defensive play in the final moments. Had the Sharks lost after blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Detroit Red Wings, it would have been the biggest disappointment in a playoff history full of them.

But the Sharks beat the Wings in five games in the second round last year, then got swept by the Blackhawks in the conference final. All they did against the Wings was survive. They haven’t taken the next step yet, let alone accomplished anything close to their goal. They still haven’t made the Cup final, let alone won the Cup.

The Sharks have the talent to do it. No longer is this the team of Thornton, Marleau and Dany Heatley(notes). The forward core goes deep and keeps going with Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture(notes) and Joe Pavelski(notes) and Devin Setoguchi(notes) and Kyle Wellwood(notes). The defense isn’t as deep, but Dan Boyle(notes) and Douglas Murray(notes) are excellent. Niemi has gotten better as the playoffs have gone on.

This is a team that rallied from a 4-0 deficit to win a 6-5 overtime game against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, that has gone 5-0 in overtime in these playoffs, that won that Game 7 on Thursday night. The Sharks have been resilient and risen to the occasion at crunch time.

At least some of the time. There are still times when they seem less than the sum of their parts, times when they fall apart, and they must be at their best against a team that has as much – or more – to prove at this time of year as they do.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning: When Yzerman became GM of the Lightning last year, he inherited some top-end talent: Martin St. Louis(notes) and Vincent Lecavalier(notes), veterans who won the Cup in 2004, and Steven Stamkos(notes) and Victor Hedman(notes), young stars around whom he could build.

Yzerman has made a number of smart moves since, such as trading for Dwayne Roloson(notes), who has starred in goal at age 41, and signing Sean Bergenheim(notes) and Dominic Moore(notes), role players who have become integral parts in these playoffs.

But Yzerman’s best move might have been hiring Boucher. Not only was he unafraid to hire a rookie coach, he was unafraid to hire a rookie coach who was unafraid to try new things – like a 1-3-1 system that has impressed even someone like Bowman.

“It’s different,” Bowman said. “They force you to shoot it in, and if you shoot it in, they have a guy right there to shoot it out.”

Bowman laughed.

“It’s as simple as that,” Bowman said. “You’ve got to have a plan. I haven’t studied it that closely, but I watch a lot of games, and I see these teams come in and they don’t have a plan and they start carrying the puck alone or they start shooting it in. It doesn’t work. The players get frustrated, and especially if they fall behind in the game. He doesn’t use it all the time. He uses it strategically.”

Bowman compared the system to the left wing lock he once used in Detroit. He can’t wait to see how the Bruins attack it.

“It’ll be interesting to see what they do,” Bowman said. “Boston’s had a week to plan. I’m sure that you’ve got to look at how Tampa plays, because they play a different style than most teams, and unless you really have a plan and you can implement it … You can’t just talk about it. You’ve got to practice it, too.”

4. Boston Bruins: Expect the Bruins to have a plan. They found their way through the Canadiens’ suffocating system in the first round – even if they had to rally from a 2-0 deficit and win in seven games to do it – and they have studied the Lightning plenty. They plan to make little adjustments, not overhaul their game plan.

“When we start talking about what they do, (the players) start nodding their heads,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “We are on the same page. It’s pretty clear. I don’t think there are too many secrets in hockey anymore. … All it’s going to be about is making sure the execution is going to be good, the battle, the commitment.”

The execution, battle and commitment were better for the Bruins in the second round. Milan Lucic(notes) broke out of his scoring slump. David Krejci(notes) came alive. Nathan Horton(notes) and rookie Brad Marchand(notes) can be big factors up front, and the Bruins have Zdeno Chara(notes) on defense and Tim Thomas(notes) in goal.

But they won’t have Patrice Bergeron(notes) at least for the start of the series, a big blow because he’s a top two-way forward who could match up with Tampa Bay’s top-end offensive talent. His absence further weakens the special teams, where the Bruins already had a decided disadvantage. Tomas Kaberle(notes), whom the Bruins acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs to quarterback the power play, has not made the impact expected. The Bruins have scored only two power-play goals.

In the final four, the Bolts are the ones that aren’t like the others. But in Boston, the Bruins are the black sheep. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has won a championship. Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona has won a championship. Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers has won a championship. Julien needs a Cup.

“Sometimes you want to fit in,” Julien said, “and that would certainly help.”

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