Vancouver and Boston start the Stanley Cup finals this week – the Canucks have never lifted the Cup, while the Bruins have not won it since 1972. We’ll take a look at this series, and also review the Pirates’ surprisingly strong start as well.
NHL Finals – Boston vs. Vancouver: This seems like a ‘redemption’ series to me – both of these squads had to overcome past demons to get where they are. For Boston, they had to overcome a 7-game fight with Montreal in Round One, avenge their 2010 loss to Philly in Round Two, and then managed to squeak out a 1-0 win against those pesky Lightning in Game 7. For Vancouver, they finally eliminated longtime nemesis Chicago in the first round – but not before almost blowing a 3-0 series lead. They then made relatively quick work of both Nashville and San Jose, although I felt San Jose deserved better – they dominated Game Five, and lost on what might be the most fluky series-deciding goal ever. Seriously, if you haven’t seen the goal, click this link and check it out for yourself. However, whoever wins this series will have all of their past playoff failures forgiven – Luongo has a chance to shed the ‘can’t win the big one’ tag, and the Bruins can dump almost 40 years of underachievement. Let’s take a closer look at each team:
As SI’s Peter King pointed out in his weekly online column, it would be hard for two teams to be more evenly matched than Boston and Tampa were. Both finished with the same number of regular-season wins and points; both needed seven games to advance in round 1, both swept in Round 2, and each scored 21 goals against the other in Round 3! Boston had some lapses in this series, and goalie Tim Thomas can certainly look silly at times with his unorthodox style – but all season he has come up HUGE when he was needed most, and none more than his shutout in Game 7.
This Bruin team LOVES to play at even-strength – they have outscored their opponents by 21 goals in 18 playoff games at even strength, an astounding differential. Only one Boston player has a negative plus/minus rating, another indication of their enviable depth at even strength. Boston has six players with 11 or more points, and 14 players with two or more goals. The flip side of the equation for the Bruins has been their terrible special teams – thanks mostly to an anemic power play, they have been outscored by eight goals in power play situations. Clearly, a low-penalty series favors the Bruins, but if the refs ‘call ‘em tight’, Boston HAS to get their power play rolling to win the series.
Vancouver has been almost the exact opposite in the playoffs – half their roster has a negative plus/minus rating, and their scoring has almost entirely come from their top two lines – but they’ve been lethal on the power play, scoring 17 power play goals in 18 games and converting at a 26% clip. Clearly, the Canucks want to see a LOT of penalties called in this series, to keep Boston from grinding away with their four lines and also to press their advantage on the power play. Really, there’s not much to analyze here – Vancouver’s top two lines HAVE to dominate for them to win, and Luongo will have to play as well as he did against the Sharks. Despite being the top regular-season team, I think Vancouver is the more vulnerable team here because of their lack of depth and their inability to dominate 5-on-5 play.
In goal, it’s close to a wash – both goalies have 2.29 goals against averages in the playoffs, and while Thomas has a higher save%, he’s also let in more sloppy goals, especially in the last round – while Luongo REALLY came on strong after his first-round problems. I like Boston’s top-4 defenders better than Vancouver’s, and while I acknowledge the perception that the Western Conference is the tougher of the two, I am not sure I buy it – I watched both conferences very carefully, and I didn’t see anyone playing better than Boston and TB over the last two rounds. I’m actually rooting for the Canucks – I love their uniforms, and I’d like to see a Glass raise the Cup (Tanner Glass plays forward for them, the only Glass I know of in major pro sports) – but I actually think the Bruins will handle the Canucks, and in fairly convincing fashion. BOSTON IN SIX is the call here.
On to baseball – I promised a Pirate review and a look at some individual players this week – but the look at surprise players will have to wait, thanks to the NHL preview. However, there’s plenty to talk about in Buccoland – as of this writing the Pirates are 25-28…not overly impressive, right? Well, yes, they aren’t hitting much, 13th out of 16 NL teams in scoring, and they are 9-14 at home – but they are 16-14 on the road, after going 17-64 on the road a year ago! They’ve won seven road series already, as many as they won in 2009 and 2010 COMBINED. What’s more (and the best sign for the near future), their pitching has been both good and remarkably consistent. They have allowed only 206 runs, 4th-best in the NL and far and away the best in their division. Charlie Morton is currently fifth in the league in ERA (ahead of Roy Halladay!), and the team’s ERA is 3.43 (Philly and their dominant rotation is at 3.45).
We’ll get to the hitting, but the first question is, can this pitching continue? Well, my answer is mostly yes. Morton’s ERA will rise – he has stopped walking people (only six walks in his last four starts after 23 in his first six), but he isn’t striking out many people…so some more of his grounders will find holes as the season wears on. On the other hand, his stuff is SO nasty, and he’s getting SO many ground balls, that I expect him to be quite good as long as he’s not walking people. Paul Maholm’s 2-7 record belies a very good year thus far, and while he too will allow more hits, I expect no worse than a 3.5-3.7 ERA. Same for Kevin Correia. The upside is in James McDonald, who got off to a slow start but has been striking out a lot of batters of late, and appears to have his good stuff again – his ERA was above 10 after four starts, but since then he’s had six really good starts out of seven total, and the ERA is below five – look for him to end up in the upper 3’s by August. So the rotation looks to decline somewhat, but not collapse.
The bullpen is more of a mixed bag – the back end of the ‘pen is great, led by Joel Hanrahan and Jose Veras. Both have been utterly dominant, and while both will eventually have a bad game or two, I look for them to be strong the rest of the season. If Evan Meek is finally healthy – and signs are positive so far – that gives them three top arms in the pen. Daniel McCutchen has been amazing, but his peripheral numbers indicate he will come back to earth soon, and beyond that it’s pretty mediocre in the bullpen. The end result is a bullpen that is great at holding leads, but can get into trouble if called upon in the middle innings. Overall, though, this is THE surprise staff of 2011 thus far, and with this kind of pitching the Bucs have been in just about every game (the top five starters have gone less than five innings only nine times, and only three times in the last five weeks – none since May 15).
The hitting – well, that’s been a disappointment. Pittsburgh is last in runs, last in batting average, 15th in on-base%…they have been flat-out BAD at the plate. The catching tandem of Doumit and Snyder has hit well, and even at .265 Neil Walker is providing enough pop for a second basemen – but literally every other position has underachieved to one degree or another, especially 3B (primarily Pedro Alvarez). The good news is there’s a lot of hope for improvement here – Andrew McCutchen will hit more than .250, as will Jose Tabata; when he’s healthy one would expect Alvarez to hit at some point; and while Lyle Overbay isn’t great, he should do better than .230 with no power as well. Also, the pitching staff is 6-for-106, terrible even by pitcher standards, so you expect they will drop a FEW singles in here and there.
However, to be even an average offense this team needs one more big bat, and the farm system has none to offer. They aren’t likely to end up contending this season, but .500 is still quite possible, and if the front office determines that these pitchers are for-real going into 2012, they really should look to add a bat, even via free agency if necessary, because with pitching this good it doesn’t take a lot of offense to contend. Even with the bad hitting, this has been the most interesting Pirate team to watch since 1997, because they are giving themselves a chance to win just about every night. We’ll check back on the Bucs in August to see how the pitching held up through the hot summer months.
The Eye will be off next week, but we’ll return the week of June 13 with a look at some individual baseball surprises.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.