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Bruins facing balanced skaters

They needed their best to beat Canucks Feb. 26

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / May 31, 2011

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On Feb. 26, the Bruins strutted out of Vancouver’s Rogers Arena with a 3-1 win stuffed in their equipment bags. Nathan Horton, East Vancouver native Milan Lucic, and Patrice Bergeron scored goals. Tim Thomas turned back 27 shots. The Bruins skated, hit, and shot with urgency. They were rewarded for their efforts.

“That game was one of the best games I’ve seen, that game we played against them,’’ general manager Peter Chiarelli said. “One of the best games we played throughout the year. I think [the Canucks] were in a bit of a funk. I’d seen the game before out there. It’s all relative. Their funk is top 25 percent, top-quartile team.’’

If it took one of the best all-around efforts to topple the Canucks in the regular season, it will require even more of a push for the Bruins to match up with the President’s Trophy winners in the Stanley Cup finals, which begin tomorrow night in Vancouver.

In the first round of the playoffs, after Chicago rallied from an 0-3 deficit, Vancouver won Game 7 to claim the heart-attack series. In the second round, they dispatched the Predators in six games. In the Western Conference finals, they eliminated the Sharks in Game 5.

The Canucks have talent and depth at every position. They have a gold-medal winner in net in Roberto Luongo. Their blue line is the team’s strength — a deep, mobile six-pack that emphasizes retrieval and puck possession.

Up front, they feature two deadly scoring lines. They have a heavy, hard-to-play-against third threesome. A fourth unit, while used sparingly, can deliver energy at the proper times. Overall, they stress speed, pressure, and skill.

During the regular season, Vancouver averaged 3.15 goals per game, most of any team. They gave up 2.20 goals per game, least of any team. They delivered on a league-best 24.3 percent of their power plays. They killed 85.6 percent of opposing power plays, tied for the second-best percentage in the league. They have few weaknesses.

“They were the best team in the league,’’ said coach Claude Julien of the 117-point Canucks. “Winning the President’s Trophy, goals for, against, a lot of areas where they were very good. They have a lot of depth. They’ve got some good balance on that hockey club.’’

Luongo, who struck gold at Rogers Arena last year with Team Canada, is one of the game’s elite puckstoppers. Before this season, under the tutelage of goaltending coach Roland Melanson, Luongo tweaked his game.

In previous years, Luongo left his crease to attack shooters and cut down angles. Melanson wanted Luongo to stay deeper in the blue paint. The theory was that he would have an extra split-second to react to shots if he kept his heels near the goal line. The 6-foot-3-inch, 217-pound Luongo is big enough to keep his angles sharp even when he’s back in the net.

Luongo responded to the change. In 60 regular-season starts, he went 38-15-7 with a 2.11 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage. Former Boston College netminder Cory Schneider could spell Luongo if something goes wrong.

On the back end, the Canucks emphasize mobility, retrieval, and puck possession. The smooth-skating Alexander Edler (2-7—9 in the playoffs) is the team’s top two-way defenseman. Most recently, Edler has been paired with Sami Salo, who owns one of the most wicked shots in the league. In Game 4 against San Jose, Salo racked up two goals — both one-timers during five-on-three power plays.

The Canadiens’ P.K. Subban launched several whistlers in the first round against the Bruins. But Salo’s shot might be harder and heavier than Subban’s. The Bruins will have to either take away Salo’s shot or be brave enough to fill the shooting lanes when the 36-year-old winds up for one of his signature strikes.

Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault also can roll out a belligerent shutdown pair in Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa. The two blue-liners most likely will match up against Boston’s No. 1 line of Lucic, Horton, and David Krejci.

“Throughout the year, their D has been the strength of their team,’’ Chiarelli said. “From the puck-moving perspective, you’ve got the Edlers, the Bieksas, the Salos. They can all move the puck and shoot the puck.’’

Up front, Henrik and Daniel Sedin pile up the points by taking advantage of their unfair familiarity and hockey sense. Henrik took home the Hart Trophy as the league MVP last year after submitting a 29-83—112 line. This season, Daniel could do the same — Martin St. Louis and Corey Perry are the other finalists — after scoring 41 goals and 63 assists.

Henrik is the disher. In Game 4 against San Jose, he delivered one of his four helpers in a jaw-dropping way. The center dished a backhand pass five-hole through Antti Niemi to Alex Burrows for a backdoor tap-in.

“I think we’ve got to make sure we don’t give them too much space,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “When you give the Sedins the room they need . . . and they’ve certainly got some other guys on that team who can score.’’

If the Sedin twins are Ferraris, Ryan Kesler is the Ford F-150: a rugged workhorse who gets the job done when things get rough. The second-line center, Vancouver’s equivalent of Bergeron, is the engine that powers the Vancouver machine.

In 18 playoff matches, Kesler has seven goals and 11 assists while averaging 23:15 of ice time per game, most of any Vancouver forward. He averages 3:21 on the power play and 2:59 on the penalty kill. Kesler has won 54.7 percent of his faceoffs. Like Bergeron, he affects the game in just about every area.

Kesler, however, may not be 100 percent. He pulled up lame in Game 5 against the Sharks. The center finished the game, but he is one of several Canucks most likely not at full health. Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome didn’t play in the last two games against San Jose. Manny Malhotra, once feared to be out for the year because of an eye injury, could play in Game 1. The defense-first center hasn’t played since March 16.

Conversely, the Bruins have been blessed with good health. Bergeron suffered his third concussion during the Flyers series but missed only two games and hasn’t missed a beat. Adam McQuaid was transported from Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center in an ambulance in Game 2 after spraining his neck. He also missed just two matches.

The Bruins need all their bodies to contend with a club as talented as Vancouver.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.

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