Never had a regular season rematch been so highly anticipated and the timing of the game so awkward. Five years ago today – yes, it has been that long – the Vancouver Canucks squared off against the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden in a rematch of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final at 1 o’clock in the afternoon (or 10 am PST).
While the excitement in mainstream and social media was palpable, the game managed to do something few grudge matches actually accomplish. Instead of simply living up to the hype, it exceeded it. What transpired was a game for the ages, a classic, and arguably the greatest Canucks regular season game ever played. But it also marked the beginning of the end for the Stanley Cup-contending, Vigneault-coached Canucks. It represented a thrilling final act for the greatest era of Canucks hockey, with one of its most memorable victories also being one of its last.
By now, the story is a familiar one. The favoured Vancouver Canucks had lost the 2011 Stanley Cup to Boston, even after building an early 2-0 series lead – and having played Game 7 on home ice. The two teams were often – erroneously, I might add – depicted as teams playing diametrically opposed styles of hockey. The Canucks were the speed and skill squad (with a penchant for diving), and the Bruins were viewed as the stingy, tough, defensive side (with a penchant for violence).
What is often forgotten, however, is that the Canucks and Bruins were the first- and second-best defensive teams, respectively, during the regular season that year, and were backed by exceptional goaltending. The Canucks had an offence concentrated in the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows – as well as a mobile defence – while the Bruins had more scoring depth throughout its forward lineup.
By the time the Final rolled around, the Canucks minimal depth at forward had eroded due to injuries, its power play had dried up, and Roberto Luongo had struggled massively in Boston. Unable to generate much offence after the first two games, the Canucks scored less than a goal a game in Games 3 through 7 and fell victim to the Bruins’ superior depth and Tim Thomas’ impenetrable goaltending, losing both the series and the Stanley Cup.
By January 2012, the two teams were still juggernauts. On the season, this was Game 42 for the Canucks, who came into the game with a 25-13-3 record, good for first place in the Western Conference. The Bruins, meanwhile, were 26-10-1 and in first place in the Atlantic (and second in the East). The Canucks had scored the most goals in the league, but the Bruins had scored more per game. The Canucks again had the league’s best power play, but the Bruins were the best defensive unit in the NHL. Both teams were coming off convincing shutout wins – the Canucks with a 3-0 defeat of the Wild and the Bruins crushing the Flames 9-0.
One would have assumed that a Saturday game between two of the NHL’s top teams and its defending finalists would be prime Hockey Night in Canada material, but this was, oddly, not the case. The game was an afternoon affair in Boston, and it was carried not on CBC, but on Sportsnet. And because of the NHL’s strange inter-conference scheduling at the time, this would be the only time that season the two clubs would meet.
“Obviously, the NHL and their schedule-making didn’t think it would be that big of a game putting it at 1 o’clock in the afternoon,” said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who also surprised some with his decision to start Cory Schneider over Luongo – a none too subtle reflection of Luongo’s play at TD Garden back in June. Defenceman Aaron Rome, who had been suspended for the last four games of the Final due to his hit on Nathan Horton, would also be sidelined, but this time due to injury.
If there was any question whether or not there was still some lingering animosity between the two teams when the puck dropped, it was quickly answered 3:54 into the game with a heated line brawl.
The skirmish would set the tone for a penalty-filled contest. Milan Lucic would also be tossed from the game for allegedly coming off the bench to join an altercation (later replays showed he was actually already on the ice) and the Canucks would take to their first power play of the game with a 5-on-3 advantage. Ryan Kesler would open the scoring with his 11th goal of the year.
The Bruins would claw back to take the lead 2-1 about halfway through the second period, but the Canucks would draw even on another power play – courtesy an Alex Burrows tip-in.
The heated contest would soon boil over with a play that would ultimately turn the game. With the game tied at two goals apiece, Brad Marchand would low-bridge a pinching Sami Salo and earn himself a five minute major for clipping and a Game Misconduct.
The Canucks would score two goals on the ensuing power play. The first was a neat deflection by Henrik Sedin …
… and the second was perhaps Cody Hodgson’s most memorable goal as a Vancouver Canuck (and maybe his entire NHL career).
David Krejci would bring the Bruins back to within a goal, but the comeback would fall short as the Canucks would skate away with a 4-3 victory.
Nearly 26 minutes of the game was played with one team on the power play. Vancouver scored all four of its goals with the man advantage and Boston would go 0-for-7 with the extra skater. The Bruins lost both Lucic and Marchand and played a significant portion of the game shorthanded, yet held a concerted edge in even-strength play. The Bruins held a 55.9% shot attempt advantage at evens, but mitigated that by taking penalties. The Canucks, for their part, won the special teams battle handily, and Cory Schneider was solid – stopping 36 of 39 shots.
The Canucks and Bruins would not play each other again for nearly two years.
The game was an instant classic. The Canucks had gone into Boston and accomplished what they were unable to do back in June – win a game. To many back in Vancouver, the game was a glimpse of what could have happened if the Canucks had a healthy Ryan Kesler and Dan Hamhuis, a power play that fired on all cylinders, and a goaltender who stood his ground. It was fast, it was skilled, it was violent. It featured two excellent teams with little love for each other playing at their absolute best. The game was memorable, in short, because it contained everything we love about the sport of hockey.
Yet the game also came at a cost. I’m reminded me of an old Fred Shero quote, after his Philadelphia Flyers had beaten the Central Red Army team in 1976 (the famous “They’re going home!” game). “I noticed something missing from our team after that game,” said Shero, “We had defeated the best in the world.” We may not have known it at the time, but this was to be the last great victory of the Vigneault era. Mike Gillis admitted as much following the season. A certain Detroit game aside, after beating Boston – in a regular season game, no less – there were simply no worlds left to conquer for these Canucks.
So what happened?
In a general sense, not much changed for the Canucks in terms of their style of play. Through the first half of the season, the club ranked third in even-strength CF% at 53.9%. In the final half of the season, following the Boston game, these figures dipped but only slightly. The Canucks fell to eighth in the league at even strength CF (51.6%). The club’s expected goals per sixty minutes (5v5), however, dropped off significantly. Producing 2.50 goals/60 minutes in the first half of the season, the Canucks only had an expected rate of 2.09 in the last 41 games. When put in context, this development is even more salient. The Canucks expected goal rate fell from 13th in the league in the first half, to 27th in the final half.
Nevertheless, that might not have mattered to the degree that it did, if the Canucks were able to continue dominating on the power play. Alas, they did not. After posting an expected goals/60 minutes of 7.05 at 5v4 in the first half, the Canucks dropped to 5.09 expected goals/60 minutes on the power play over the second half of the season. Essentially, the bottom dropped out completely on the Canucks once lethal power play. For a team that relied so heavily on its special teams advantage, falling from the third-best expected goals rate in the league to 24th spelled its doom.
This unfortunate development was triggered partly by luck, and partly by failed execution. While the Canucks shooting percentage on the power play fell from 15.11% to 9.57% over the last half of the season (or from fifth in the league to 27th), after the Boston game, the Canucks were also no longer generating the same number of shots with the power play. The Canucks simply failed to generate shots at a rate sufficient to overcome its depressed shooting percentage. From a second-best 55.12 shots/60 at 5v4, the Canucks fell to ninth at 45.94 in the season’s second half. The Boston game, therefore, proved to be the last hurrah for Vancouver’s formerly potent power play.
A funny thing happened after that game, however. Despite a listless match against the Florida Panthers two nights later, where the Canucks dropped a 2-1 decision that lacked any and all of the intrigue of the Boston affair, the club continued to win. In fact – perhaps most impressively – the Canucks went 25-9-6 after the Boston game, which represented an improved winning percentage (.700 versus .646, not including the Boston game). Despite the disappearance of its offence both at even-strength and on the power play, the Canucks scraped out wins on the strength of its goaltending. Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider combined to give the Canucks the sixth-best save percentage in the league across all situations in the first half of the season, and then the third-best save percentage in the league following the Boston game. That came in handy as the Canucks would play 27 one-goal games down the stretch, including 13 that went beyond 60 minutes, out of the remaining 40. But it wouldn’t help come playoff time, when the Canucks ran into an equally hot goaltender in Jonathan Quick, and lost another series where they couldn’t score any goals.
It might be easy to attribute Vancouver’s decline to its psychological state following the Boston game, and those critics might have a point. But the personnel never really changed, give or take a late Daniel Sedin concussion. Maybe the power play became too predictable, the Canucks vaunted transition game too relaxed – avenues that would have tilted the ice in its favour and resulted in fewer one-goal games. However you may wish to describe it, the Canucks never really were the same.
But at least they gave us that Boston game.