VANCOUVER — Daniel and Henrik Sedin have become hockey’s most formidable force over the past decade, passing and shooting their way to more than 1,300 career points with teamwork that borders on telepathy.
Yet the Vancouver Canucks’ identical Swedish twins realize the enormity of the obstacle facing them in their first trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
It’s a 6-foot-9 defenseman with a pterodactyl’s wingspan and a well-earned reputation for shutting down superstars – and one of the NHL’s best goalies is right behind him.
The Sedin twins’ attempt to solve Boston captain Zdeno Chara and star goalie Tim Thomas is at the heart of everything when the Canucks host the Bruins on Wednesday night in Game 1 of a series teeming with compelling matchups and subplots.
“There’s a few big defensemen in the league, but he’s obviously the biggest and the best,” said Daniel Sedin, the NHL scoring champion and a strong MVP candidate after his brother won both honors last season. “We’ll see how it goes, but we see shutdown players in every game, so that part isn’t any different.”
The only sure bet is that one championship drought will end for one long-suffering, hockey-loving city in a series matching Vancouver, the NHL’s best team for most of the season, against a surprising title contender that just might be peaking at the perfect time.
“It’s going to be exciting to see what happens, because we haven’t played each other enough to know those guys very well,” said Henrik Sedin, the playoffs’ leading scorer with 21 points. “It’s unpredictable.”
The Canucks have never won it all, falling in their only two previous finals appearances in four decades of existence. Vancouver has pulled together with impressive depth and solid defense backing their star-studded top lines, winning the Presidents’ Trophy with 54 victories and 117 points before winning nine of its past 12 playoff games heading into the finals.
The Canucks might be the best team ever assembled on Canada’s West Coast, yet they realize they haven’t done anything until they raise the Cup.
“With the parity that is in the league, you’ve got to do a lot of things right for a long time,” Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. “I do believe you’ve got to get some bounces. You get the bounces because you’ve been doing things right for a long time. I believe that Vancouver is due for 40 years of good bounces.”
The Bruins traveled across the continent knowing they’re decided underdogs after squeaking into the finals with a Game 7 victory over Tampa Bay – their second Game 7 win of the postseason. Boston has lost its past five trips to the finals since Bobby Orr led the Bruins to their last title in 1972, failing even to make it this far since 1990.
Yet with only moderate expectations and a largely star-free roster featuring no scorers in the NHL’s top 25, Boston survived a rough Eastern Conference run, forging a tenacity that might be enough to get past the Canucks, who didn’t exactly look unbeatable while losing three straight to Chicago in the first round.
“You might never get a chance to do this again, so have fun with it,” said Mark Recchi, the 43-year-old forward from British Columbia who plans to retire if Boston wins it all.
“Everybody is important now. You need basically five lines and eight defensemen to get to this point. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to get to this point.”
These teams know little about each other, meeting just once in the regular season thanks to the NHL’s unbalanced schedule. They’ve had several days to study film and scouting reports, but they know they won’t fully appreciate the Sedins’ brilliance or Chara’s ice-clogging force until they see it up close.
The tallest player in NHL history clearly intrigues the Sedins and their fellow Vancouver forwards. The Canucks struggled offensively in the second round against Nashville’s shutdown defensemen, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but bounced back with a dominant series against San Jose in the conference finals.
Yet the Boston defense is equally fascinated by the Sedins, who joined the Canucks in 1999 in a masterpiece of draft-day maneuvering by Brian Burke. After a handful of difficult seasons, the twins returned from the 2004-05 lockout with an all-out attitude that allowed them to develop into offensive virtuosos dominating the Western Conference.
“There’s only a few players in the league that have been together so long, and obviously them being brothers, it helps,” Chara said. “Growing up together, they know each other extremely well. They know where they are even without looking at each other, so it makes it challenging to play against them. We just have to try to take as much away from them as we can.”
Boston is hoping both teams stay at full strength for most of the series. The Bruins have been the NHL’s best 5-on-5 team all season long, but their power play is in a horrific playoff slump, scoring on just 8 percent of its chances compared to the Canucks’ 28 percent efficiency led by the Sedins.
For all their differences in personnel and philosophy, Boston and Vancouver share one similarity: strong veteran goaltending.
Just how similar? Thomas and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo have the same 2.29 goals-against average in the postseason.
Luongo bounced back from a one-game benching in the first round to shut down San Jose’s offensive talent in the Western Conference finals, refocusing his mental game on the fly. Thomas has been a bit more inconsistent for Boston – but when the 37-year-old survivor has been good, such as in his two shutouts or on any number of jaw-dropping big saves, the Bruins’ opponents have been doomed.
“It’s a good battle for me,” Luongo said. “Obviously you focus more on the guys shooting at you, but you know who’s on the other side over there, and I have a lot of respect for him.”
Either Henrik Sedin or Chara will join Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom as the only European born-and-trained NHL captains to raise the Stanley Cup when it’s all over. Sedin won’t allow himself to think about the prospect until the Canucks take the four steps necessary to get there.
“This year, we want it more than anyone else,” Henrik Sedin said. “We don’t need anyone to come in and tell us how to win it. We know what we have to do.”