Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals was not pond hockey, as had been played a few times by the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins in previous clashes. It was gritty, tough, "Hey ref, let the guys play" hockey whose resilience was as clear as the blood on Steven Stamkos's(notes) face.
The kind of hockey where one mistake changes everything, as it did in the Bruins' 1-0 win over the Lightning. The Bruins advance to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks. It's Boston's first battle for the Cup since losing in 1990.
The Bruins are seeking their sixth Stanley Cup and first since 1972.
That mistake came in the form of a Lightning defensive breakdown at 12:27 of the third period, as David Krejci(notes) sent the puck to Nathan Horton(notes), who finally solved Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson(notes):
It's been quite a journey for Horton in his first playoffs, coming to Boston last summer in a trade from the Florida Panthers.
He scored a double-OT game winner against the Montreal Canadiens in the quarterfinals, scored the OT game winner in Game 7 against the Habs, and had a three-point game in Game 2 against the Lightning. And while it went unmentioned by the NHL's TV rights-holders on Friday night, he had a water bottle incident with a fan in Tampa Bay after Game 6 that, under different circumstances, could have cost him a suspension. But not with a trip to the Cup Finals on the line; in fact, Horton became the first player in NHL history to have two Game 7 game-winners in the same playoffs.
Roloson was brilliant for the Lightning, stopping 37 shots and keeping his team in the game. But his offense couldn't beat Tim Thomas(notes) (24 saves) and Thomas didn't have to face Tampa's explosive power play as his Bruins stayed out of the penalty box and neither team was given a man advantage.
So the Bruins eliminate the surprising Lightning. Their opponents for the Cup are no surprise: The Canucks, the best team in hockey during the regular season and one shaping into a juggernaut in the Western Conference Playoffs.
Who wins the Cup?
The Bruins and Canucks played once this season: Feb. 26 in Vancouver, eight days after the Tomas Kaberle(notes) trade went down. Manny Malhotra(notes), who could be available for Vancouver in the Stanley Cup Final after a horrific eye injury, scored in the first period. Boston scored the next three goals: Horton in the second, and then Milan Lucic(notes) and Patrice Bergeron(notes) (empty netter) in the third. Tim Thomas (27 saves) had the win over Roberto Luongo(notes) (22 saves).
How do they match up for the Cup?
The Bruins are arguably the best 5-on-5 team in hockey - their physical presence is going to be a hell of a battle with the Canucks' blue line and in front of Luongo. (They've got Byfuglien-ish bodies on that roster for screens.)
But the Vancouver power play came to life against the San Jose Sharks, and the Bruins aren't going to have the benefit of "let them play hockey" in against the Canucks as they did in Game 7. They're in the Final having played the Lightning even on special teams. Can they do the same against Vancouver?
The Sedins, Ryan Kesler(notes), Alex Burrows, the power play … the great equalizer for all of them is Tim Thomas, who shut the door in two of the last three games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Frankly, he's got the talent and fire to carry the Bruins to the Cup; the way the Canucks are playing, that might be the most logical path for Boston.
The pick: Vancouver in six.
The Bruins will play them tight, but the Canucks' depth, special teams and, let's face it, hockey voodoo will prevail … sending the Bruins to their sixth loss in the Finals since the 1972 Cup; winning the first Cup in Vancouver's franchise history; and the first for Canada since 1993.
Oh, and beating Cam Neely's team 25 years after they traded him. That too.