First look at the 2011 Stanley Cup finals: Are the Bruins the junior varsity Canucks?

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While the Vancouver Canucks took advantage of a lucky bounce or two to neatly beat the San Jose Sharks in just five games, the Boston Bruins faced a much bumpier road to the Stanley Cup finals. They managed a nail-biting 1-0 win against Tampa Bay in Game 7 Friday night thanks to a Nathan Horton goal and Tim Thomas shutout to get to this point.

With a bountiful amount of time between last night’s Game 7 and Wednesday’s Cup finals opener, PHT will cover all the angles for the upcoming Bruins-Canucks series. Yet as anticipation builds for each fan base (Vancouver hasn’t been to the final round since 1994, and Boston has been waiting since ’90), we thought it might be fun to take a quick look at how these teams match up.

If there’s an ultimate takeaway from this matchup, it’s that the Bruins almost seem like a poor man’s version of the Canucks. Both teams lead their respective conferences in goal-differential (one of my favorite simple “bottom line” stats), with Boston finishing +51 and Vancouver earning a league-leading +77. Each team has a Vezina-caliber goalie, multiple scoring options and coaches with similar backgrounds and styles. OK, let’s get to the matchup breakdowns:

Team offense
Canucks Goals For (regular): 262; Canucks Goals For (playoffs): 50
Bruins Goals For (regular): 246; Bruins Goals For (playoffs): 58

Both teams have strong first lines, second-line centers beloved by hardcore fans and solid depth surrounding them. Vancouver boasts possibly the best first line in the NHL in the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows, the possible 2010-11 Selke Trophy winner in Ryan Kesler and plenty of snarl and speed in their lower ranks.

The Bruins are a more offensively gifted squad than many realize, especially with the Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton line on fire in the last two rounds of the playoffs. Patrice Bergeron isn’t as explosive or agitating as Kesler, but he’s a fantastically versatile two-way center in his own right.

Team defense
Canucks Goals Allowed (regular): 185; Canucks Goals Allowed (playoffs): 46
Bruins Goals Allowed (regular): 195; Bruins Goals Allowed (playoffs): 45

The Canucks allowed the least amount of goals in the NHL while Boston was next on the list. The two teams accomplished the task in different ways, as the Canucks excel thanks to their strong depth while the Bruins lean heavily on their top pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. Vancouver’s defense managed to contain the dangerous San Jose Sharks attack while the Bruins’ corps was frequently exposed against the speedy and talented Tampa Bay Lightning.

Defense seems to be a significant advantage for the Canucks, but Chara could make things interesting if he successfully smothers the Sedin twins.

Special teams
Vancouver PP %: 24.32 (reg); 28.3 (playoffs); Vancouver PK %:85.58 (reg); 80.6 (playoffs)
Boston PP %: 16.17(reg); 8.2 (playoffs); Boston PK %:82.64 (reg); 79.4 (playoffs)

The Bruins won Game 7 against the Lightning in a penalty-free game. Boston might want to bargain for more of those, because they face a serious disadvantage in special teams. Their penalty kill has been solid-to-strong, but an already bad regular-season power play has taken a well-documented tumble in the postseason. The Canucks’ power play has been outright scary at times, with Henrik Sedin’s surgical passing leading the way.

Goaltending
Roberto Luongo’s regular season: 38 wins, 92.8 save pct.; postseason:12 wins, 92.2 save pct.
Tim Thomas’ regular season: 35 wins, 93.8 save pct.; postseason:12 wins, 92.9 save pct.

This is a matchup of two Vezina Trophy candidates. You might assume Thomas is more likely to steal games until you realize Luongo did just that in Game 5 against the Sharks, making 54 saves in Vancouver’s double overtime win. It seems like a match between the unorthodox (Thomas) and the butterfly prototype (Luongo), but both are aggressive and emotional goalies.

Coaches
Alain Vigneault vs. Claude Julien

Both coaches have a tendency to slip into “turtle mode” with leads. Each experienced some heartbreaking losses in previous playoff years. They also share ties to the Montreal Canadiens organization and have spent quite a bit of time behind their current benches (Vigneault’s been the Canucks coach for five seasons, Julien has been with Boston for four).

Overall, these are two very similar coaches who might not get the respect they deserve in many circles.

***

Vancouver looks like a heavy favorite going into this series, arguably holding advantages in all areas except (maybe?) goaltending. That said, the Canucks carry a lot of pressure on their shoulders while the Bruins’ talent and all-world goalie should not be underestimated. If Thomas, Julien and the Bruins can make this a series that comes down to bounces rather than special-teams efficiency, the junior varsity might just make the varsity sweat on hockey’s grandest stage.

(Want to cast your vote for the winner of this series? Vote in the poll.)

Oilers coach on Draisaitl negotiations, cap crunch and more

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As NHL.com reports, Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan doesn’t seem too worried about Leon Draisaitl‘s contract negotiations.

“I’m confident we’re going to see Leon in an [Oilers] uniform,” McLellan said at a charity golf tournament. “We want him to be there, he wants to be there, and it’s just a matter of getting a few things done over the summer.”

Granted, as confident as McLellan is, he also admits that he doesn’t really get involved in that side of the hockey business, preferring to leave that to GM Peter Chiarelli.

On that note, McLellan said he’s aware that locking down Drasaitl, Connor McDavid, and other key members will likely leave the Oilers with a “tight wallet … and that’s not going to change for many years.”

(For an in-depth look at the Oilers’ salary structure, check out this deep dive.)

McLellan faces the challenge of aligning those big-ticket items with bargain signings, something that’s likely only to become a more common situation as time goes along. He also must deal with an obstacle that isn’t new to him considering his Sharks days, but will be unusual for many Oilers: no longer slipping under the radar.

“Expectations make it a little harder on a hockey club, mentally and physically, and we haven’t experienced that as a group yet and that’s why I still consider our team a growth team,” McLellan said. “We’ve got to go through that now. Teams will be ready for the Oilers. They’ll be prepared to play against us night in and night out, and people expect us, our fans in particular, to win on a more regular basis than we have in the past. Our task just gets tougher.”

If they fail, McLellan will shoulder much of the blame, even if management makes some poor decisions with that “tight wallet.”

Blues re-sign goalie Binnington

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Jordan Binnington, the netminder taken 88th overall by the Blues in 2011, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced on Friday.

Binnington, 24, has played almost exclusively with St. Louis’ AHL affiliate since turning pro four years ago, though he did spend some time in the ECHL.

Last year he worked alongside Ville Husso and Pheonix Copley in the Wolves’ goal, and will likely do so again with Husso moving forward (Copley was traded to Washington as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk deal.)

Binnington’s NHL body of work is brief — one 13-minute relief appearance during the ’15-16 campaign. Right now he’s jockeying with Husso to be the organization’s No. 3 netminder, a potential call-up should either Jake Allen or Carter Hutton get hurt.

Chris Neil wants a one-way deal, and says he’s received offers

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Here’s what we know about veteran tough guy Chris Neil.

He won’t be back in Ottawa, the city where he’s spent his entire 15-year career. But he does want to keep playing. What’s more, he’s not ready to accept a two-way deal or training camp PTO, because offers for a one-way deal have already come in.

“The offers I’ve had so far haven’t been [two way or PTO]. They’ve been a one-way deal,” the 37-year-old forward said, per the Ottawa Sun. “For me, that’s what I’d be looking for.

“It’s up in the air right now. There’s some interest. There’s some teams you’d prefer over others.”

Neil was informed by the Sens last month that he wouldn’t be brought back next season, which marked the end of an era. Ottawa took Neil in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, and he made his NHL debut three years later. He went on to become one of the club’s most recognizable players, in large part to his pugilistic ways — during the 2003-04 campaign, he fought a remarkable 24 times.

That trademark toughness could be something teams are interested in bringing aboard. There were rumblings St. Louis was eyeing him after trading Ryan Reaves to Pittsburgh, with Fox Sports Midwest reporting that Neil had three offers on the table.

If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that Neil believes he can still play. After learning that he wouldn’t be brought back to the Canadian capital, he had some choice words for Sens head coach Guy Boucher and the perceived lack of opportunity Boucher afforded him.

“I have a lot of respect for Randy [Lee, Sens assistant GM] and Pierre [Dorion, GM] … I think, if it was up to them, I’d be back,” Neil explained, per the Citizen. “But they kind of put it in the coach’s hands and that had a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, Guy [Boucher] never really gave me the chance to show I can play.

“Even before I got hurt, I was a healthy scratch for a couple of games and I saw the writing on the wall.”

After tough year in Florida, Smith ready to reunite with ‘players-first’ Gallant

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For Reilly Smith, the anticipation of playing for Las Vegas next season goes beyond playing for the league’s newest team.

It’s also about playing for his old coach, Gerard Gallant.

“I think he kind of embodies the motto that it’s a players-first league and everything kind of revolves around that,” Smith said, per the Golden Knights website. “I know particularly last year in the Florida Panthers organization, there was a lot of change and things going on and I know one of the main messages that he always put forth was that whatever goes on outside, make sure you guys are a tight-knit group inside and play for each other.

“That was one thing that he definitely tried to convey to the team and try to get us to rally behind.”

Smith’s time in Florida was a two-part tale.

After coming over from Boston as part of the Jimmy Hayes swap — Marc Savard’s contract was also shipped to Florida — Smith had a terrific ’15-16 campaign under Gallant, posting career highs in goals (25) while helping the Panthers qualify for the playoffs.

In the postseason, he was a consistent scoring threat, finishing the series with four goals and eight points in six games.

Year two wasn’t nearly as successful.

Gallant was fired early on — controversially so — and Smith’s production dropped off. He ended with just 15 goals and 37 points, disappointing figures that were exacerbated by the big five-year, $25 million extension he signed in the offseason.

Reading between the lines, fair to suggest Smith struggled with the coaching change from Gallant to Tom Rowe. Things came to a head in early March, when Rowe called out Smith following a loss to Dallas.

On the Stars’ first goal, Smith seemed to lose his man in front of the net. Rowe was asked about it, and responded.

“We went over that exact play in team meeting and we haven’t learned our lesson yet,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Rowe wasn’t done there. Later, he was asked about Dallas’ winning goal, which may have been deflected in off a skate. The criticism went back to Smith.

“I don’t know,” said Rowe. “All I know is Reilly Smith was blowing the zone doing exactly what he is not supposed to be doing.”

Smith will certainly be a guy to watch this season. He’s still only 26 years old, looking for a bounce back, and noted that Gallant gave him the opportunity to play a larger role than he had with the Bruins (and, prior to that, the Stars).

One wonders if that’ll happen again, this time in Vegas.