The 2011 Stanley Cup Finals features two teams -- the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins -- that haven't reached this point in a long time. But despite the similarities, they couldn't be more different in how they got to where they are.
They weren't supposed to be here.
They weren't supposed to be able to handle their hated rivals, and they were supposed to choke in the early rounds against their conference's reigning champion. Their goaltending was supposed to be too vulnerable on the big stage to make it this far. Their top line was supposed to choke when it mattered most. When their stars went out with head injuries, it was supposed to be the beginning of the downward spiral.
And yet, the Vancouver Canucks are here.
Oh, and so are the Boston Bruins.
There's no denying that the two teams that will square off for Lord Stanley's chalice took similar and difficult roads to getting here. Vancouver hadn't played for the Stanley Cup since 1994; Boston hasn't been there since 1990. The Canucks have never won an NHL Championship; the Bruins haven't won one since Vancouver was in its second year in the league.
Yet despite their similarities, the two teams couldn't be more different in how they got to where they are.
Vancouver jumped out to a quick three-games-to-zero lead over defending champion Chicago in the first round, before being pushed to the brink and advancing on the strength of an OT goal in Game 7. The Canucks had less trouble with a Nashville team enjoying its first trip to the conference semifinals in franchise history and even less trouble with San Jose. Then they sat back and watched Tampa Bay and Boston push each other about as far as two teams can go.
The Bruins, who needed overtime in Game 7 against Montreal in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, swept away a (literally) defenseless Flyers squad in the conference semis, but couldn't grow a 2-1 series lead or finish off a 3-2 lead, despite holding leads after the first period of Games 4 and 6.
The two teams have recent and less-recent reputations as chokers, but this year, they'll play more hockey games than any other team in the league. But only one of them will get to celebrate after the last one is over.
That team, of course, is Vancouver, says anyone who claims to know anything about hockey. And they have plenty of reasons to say so; Henrik and Daniel Sedin have both elevated their games; Ryan Kesler is the best player in hockey right now; Roberto Luongo has come up big when his team's needed him; Kevin Bieksa's developed a sense of the big moment; Manny Malhotra's set to return from an eye injury and Alain Vigneault has his team firing on all cylinders.
What he doesn't have them doing is backchecking. Similar to Tampa Bay, Vancouver is loaded up front; their top six forwards are the best in the game but any of them not named Kesler aren't exactly intimidating defensive presences. The difference between Vancouver's non-backchecking forwards and Tampa's is that Vancouver's still aren't afraid to hit in the neutral zone and know how to use their size to their advantage.
It doesn't hurt that Roberto Luongo moves much better in net than does Dwayne Roloson, but the Bruins would be smart to get bodies in front of him, because he's shown trouble tracking the puck when screened.
He's also shown a propensity for histrionics, a tendency to flop at the slightest breeze and a likelihood to throw a fit when things don't go his way. It's something the Blackhawks were able to take advantage of, it's something that the Predators tried to do use to their advantage and it's something that the Bruins should make sure they work on over the course of the series.
There is, to be sure, a contrast in styles between the lunchpail-toting Black and Gold and the glitzy, flashy Canucks. Claude Julien's bunch has been at their workmanlike best when they put their heads down, push their opponents around in the attacking zone, frustrate them in the neutral zone and keep them to the outside in their defensive zone. Vigneault's squad, meanwhile, prefers to skate up the ice - not down it so much, however - and hope that they get the best from their sort-of all-world goaltender.
It'd be easy to talk numbers, to point out how the Sedin twins, despite 37 goals, are a combined minus-8. How the Vancouver power play and penalty kill are both tops in the league this postseason. How eleven Canucks are in red numbers versus only two Bruins. How Boston has more double-digit point scorers than their opposition. How the Bruins have been more clutch in the playoffs than Vancouver. How Tim Thomas is the only goaltender left not to have been pulled in these playoffs.
And it'd be easier still to talk about how Boston already beat Vancouver, 3-1, back in February while the Bruins' road show was in the midst of its best tour in decades and fans still thought the Tomas Kaberle trade was a good one.
But numbers can change easily over the course of a game or a series. Human characteristics won't. The Sedins will skate hard from 100 feet in, and Kesler will have a few memorable moments. Raffi Torres will take some cheap shots. Luongo will fall all over himself, and not in an endearing, Tim Thomas-reactionary way, either.
On the other side, David Krejci will make some timely and some ill-advised passes. Brad Marchand will irritate the hell out of the Canucks. Tyler Seguin - if he plays - will probably be good for an highlight-reel goal or two. Nathan Horton will likely do the same. Dennis Seidenberg will block a lot of shots. Zdeno Chara will be a physical presence and a big puzzle for the Sedins. Kaberle and Johnny Boychuk will likely continue to be liabilities, and Thomas will have to win a game or two - and will.
The lists go on.
You'll hear from both sides that neither reads the papers, watches the coverage or buys into the hype machine. And they may be right. But Vancouver knows that they're the favorites in this series. Boston knows that they're the underdogs.
Neither team was supposed to be here. But both are. Wednesday night, favorites and underdogs will mean little. Numbers will mean less.
May the best team win.