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The unbelievable news of Manny Malhotra’s return to the Canucks’ lineup will be a major x-factor in the Stanley Cup Finals. When you listen to him deal with the media, the guy oozes class, professionalism, and positivity. In the two-and-a-half months since his injury, he has dealt with two major eye operations and faced the fear that his hockey career was potentially over and that his vision may never fully recover. Despite the gravity of the injury, Malhotra remained directly involved with the team — going on road trips, being present in the locker room, and working on faceoff techniques with his fill-ins: Maxim Lapierre, Mason Raymond, and Cody Hodgson. And when Henrik Sedin accepted the President’s Trophy, what an emotional moment it was to see Manny emerge and accept the trophy alongside the Canucks’ captain. And now he’s back. Naturally, Alain Vigneault is remaining discreet about how Malhotra will fit back in to the Canucks’ lineup, but you’ve gotta think he’ll be there, centring either the third or fourth line. Bringing a guy like Malhotra into the Canucks’ dressing room is where Mike Gillis deserves a tremendous amount of credit. Signed very early in last summer’s free-agency period to a 3-year $7.5-million contract, some observers thought it was a lot of money for a third-line guy with limited offensive potential. But $2.5 million to Malhotra is the luxury Gillis could afford by maintaining a very balanced salary structure since taking over the ship three years ago. With cap hits of $6.1 million for each Sedin, $5.3 million for Luongo, $5 million for Kesler, and an incredibly deep blue line with six guys each making between $3.1 million and $4.5 million (Hamhuis, Ballard, Bieksa, Salo, Edler, and Ehrhoff), Gillis has refused to invest too heavily in one guy, knowing that depth throughout the lineup is far more important than putting all your eggs in one basket the way Washington has with Ovechkin or New Jersey did last summer with Kovalchuk. Of course, long-term injuries to Salo, Burrows, Edler, and Malhotra helped the Canucks retain their tremendous depth (while even adding to it with the shrewd deadline acquisitions of Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre). But Gillis, along with capologist Laurence Gilman, must be applauded for remaining patient and not dealing anyone until it became an absolute necessity, which it never did. So now that Vancouver has made it to their third Stanley Cup Final in the 40-year history of this franchise, Malhotra’s return adds yet another chip for Vigneault to play against the Bruins. All season, Malhotra has been a leader on and off the ice. Every Canuck fan knows that much, and if you’d forgotten, his recent press conference to discuss his return told you everything you need to know about Malhotra as human being. When asked what he learned about himself and his teammates by enduring such a severe injury, Malhotra choked up a little in discussing the family environment the Canucks have built over the past few years, and as an outside observer to that family, the bond has never seemed stronger. Here it is in Malhotra’s words: “We talk about our team concept all the time…We have a real family environment around here…Obviously, we’re here to win, we’re here to play hockey. But more importantly, the level of care we have for each other in the room and the importance we put on our personal health and the health and well-being of our families really came first and foremost. Right from ownership to management, coaches, teammates, and even players around the league. GMs, coaches I’ve never played for expressed their best wishes and thoughts just for my health, and you really put things into perspective. And like I said, we’re here to play hockey, we’re hockey players, but at the end of the day the level of respect that we have for one another as friends, husbands, brothers, fathers — that really came to the forefront for the last couple months.” Once you get past the miracle of Malhotra’s return and you consider things purely from a hockey perspective, you remember what a solid player he is, and how much pressure he takes off Ryan Kesler to be the shutdown guy. To be sure, Kesler will likely be playing against the Krejci, Lucic, and Horton line for much of the series, but as Malhotra gets more comfortable on the ice, you can expect to see him taking more key draws (especially in the defensive zone, in the closing minutes, and on the penalty kill). Throughout the regular season, he was a rock on the third line between Torres and Hansen. He has size, speed, and smarts, and even if Lapierre starts the series on the third line, if things go well for Malhotra, it seems pretty likely that he’ll return to his regular spot, which should alleviate the need to have Kesler’s line playing the shut-down role all the time. Against Chicago and San Jose, Kesler’s primary focus was shutting down the Toews line and the Thornton line respectively. But against Nashville, when there was no dominant player to contend with, Kesler was free to roam and he turned in a dominant offensive performance. If all goes well, we may see that same Kesler in the finals against Boston, and that may prove to be Manny’s greatest contribution.
With the Stanley Cup Finals set to begin on Wednesday, June 1 at The Garage, Vancouver has a distinct advantage over Boston in two areas: their power play and overall team speed. So far in these playoffs, Boston's power play is clicking at a paltry 8.2% (5-for-61) compared to Vancouver's 28.3% (17-for-60) efficiency. Boston scored 0 goals in their first-round series against Montreal, 2 goals against Philly in Round 2, and 3 goals in their schizophrenic series against Tampa. And if you've seen many Bruins games since their trade for Kaberle, you'll know that his presence hasn't blended well with the rest of Boston's first unit — which generally includes Chara, Lucic, Horton, and Krejci. Most of the time they look dysfunctional, and although Chara may disturb Luongo in front of the net, I'd rather have him there than unleashing bombs from the point with Lucic and Horton banging around and sniffing for rebounds. The sheer fact that Boston has advanced to the Finals in an era where special teams usually play a decisive role in winning and losing is a remarkable testament to their 5-on-5 play, their collective resolve, and their good fortune. Vancouver, on the other hand, had the best power play in the regular season at 24.2%, and it's continued to be efficient throughout their playoff run, accounting for a lot of clutch goals. And since we're talking special teams, both penalty-killing units have been mediocre at best. The Canucks have killed 80.6% (58-for-72) of their short-handed situations, while the Bruins have killed 79.4% (50-for-63) of their penalties. Vancouver's other distinct edge is their team speed. When you think of getting in on the forecheck, as both Boston and Vancouver like to do, the Canucks have burners like Kesler, Raymond, Hansen, Torres, Burrows, and Lapierre who should wreak some havoc on Boston's blueline. Chara is obviously solid, but expect Torres to take a run or two at Chara, while the rest of the Canucks forecheckers should focus on hammering the other guys: Seidenberg, Kaberle, McQuaid, Ference, and Boychuk. Like Boston's forwards, their defense has size, but they're not the most mobile group, so Vancouver's game plan will be to use their speed to hit, cause confusion, and force turnovers. In contrast to Vancouver, Boston has very few speedsters. Despite the imposing size of guys like Lucic and Horton, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Chris Kelly will be key to disrupting Vancouver's quick and efficient breakout. If Boston is too slow to get in on the forecheck, though, Vancouver's slick passing and collective speed could help them accelerate the tempo, which is something Boston will want to slow down. Boston's toughest test so far in the playoffs was against Montreal, when Thomas played very well (unlike the Tampa series where he was pretty shaky), but Montreal's team speed and skill, along with an efficient power play, gave the Bruins all they could handle. It wasn't a good match-up for Boston, and although they squeaked through, Vancouver boasts a deeper, a more experienced, and a much tougher line-up than the Habs. So what about Boston? Where do they hold the advantage? Let's say that in goal, Vezina finalists Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo are a wash. Both are capable of playing at an elite level, and both have their bouts of inconsistency. But Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, and Nathan Horton are Boston's biggest difference makers, and their presence raises a few vital questions for the Canucks: 1. Will the Sedins and Burrows be able to win their fair share of puck battles to gain control in the offensive zone? 2. Will Chara, Lucic, and Horton succeed in causing chaos in and around Luongo's crease? And if so, how will Luongo handle the disturbance? 3. Boston has had a more balanced offensive attack in the playoffs than in the regular season with the emergence of Marchand, Seguin, and others. But Vancouver has more depth on their third and fourth lines, so the real question is whether Kesler, Raymond, Higgins, Bieksa, and Hamhuis can control the Krejci-Lucic-Horton line and prevent them from taking over games. In the lone regular- season game between the Canucks and Bruins, this line took over a tightly-contested affair that was played at the Bruins' speed. X-Factors: With the news that Manny Malhotra may be ready to play (and possibly even in Game 1), will he play his third-line role right away and be assigned to the Krejci line? Or will he begin on the fourth line, leaving Kesler and company to deal with Boston's best line? Either way, the Malhotra storyline will be fascinating to follow, because whatever role he plays should be galvanizing for Canuck fans and an emotional boost to the whole team. For the Bruins, Tyler Seguin has only played 7 games in the playoffs, but he has 6 points. If Boston is going to win, they'll need Seguin or Michael Ryder or Rich Peverley to give the Bruins the balanced scoring they've enjoyed through three rounds.