The term “goaltending duel” is used to make games with little scoring seem exciting. The more jaded among hockey fans often see offensively starved games as boring, so those trying to hype things up repackage tight hockey games as goalie duels. Imagine two goalies in the Old West, staring each other down, killing on their minds, hands twitching towards their guns, waiting for the signal to draw on each other.

Okay, now imagine them doing that, only they’re in separate cities, and instead of staring each other down, they’re staring down two different groups of people. And the two groups are of unequal size and skill.

I cringe whenever a game between two marquee tenders is made to seem like some high-noon showdown in the blue paint. “Goalie duel” suggests we’re about to witness some big altercation between the two men between the pipes, but these are the two players who are most likely to not interact with each other. Maybe if they got into a fight it would count as a goaltender duel, but lacking that, the concept takes the only players who can’t come into conflict with one another and insists that they are in conflict and that this conflict is the most exciting part of a game.

Calling Game 1 a goaltending duel is extra silly. Some people have even gone as far as to say it about the series itself. While the concept of a goalie duel is silly on its face, it’s even worse when applied to Boston vs. Vancouver.

Why? Because the Boston Bruins play a style that doesn’t leave Tim Thomas alone, at all. Thomas isn’t some lone desperado. He’s had Zdeno Chara on his blueline most of his NHL career, and Claude Julien’s his coach. In the four seasons after Julien hired on with the Bruins, Thomas has posted a save percentage greater than .930 twice. Before Julien, his percentage trended below .910 two out of three seasons.

That’s not to say Tim Thomas isn’t a force in his own right, but it’s much easier to play goal when you know your team’s going to bail you out. Thomas comes way out to make a save, and he does that because he can count on his teammates to clear rebounds and limit passing options. He’s not alone, he’s an incredibly talented part of a finely tuned defensive machine. The Bruins team is committed to defense, which is why Tim Thomas is routinely a Jennings trophy candidate.

Roberto Luongo used to play the way Thomas does now. In his highly-touted 2006-07 campaign, Luongo had the benefit of dressing for a team that played the trap. He made some spectacular saves by cutting down the angle and getting way out, square to his shooter. He was spoiled by a team that collapsed around him. When the team switched to a puck possession style, he didn’t immediately go back into his paint, making him more susceptible to the second chances a Canucks team more eager to break out suddenly gave up constantly.

The team has since gotten better defensively, and he’s playing more within his crease, and so we’re seeing again the goaltender who recorded ridiculous numbers playing for a horrible Panthers team that seemed to forget he was back there for long periods of time. Luongo is by no means alone on this Canucks team, either, but he’s got less support now than he did in 06-07, and he’s got less support in this series than Tim Thomas.

Looking at the matchup in Game 1, and what it’ll be throughout this series, then, the term “goaltending duel” seems like a lazy tag attached to a game solely because of the score. In actuality, it was a strongly-contested competition between two teams intent on limiting second and third chances, whose goaltenders both had fair outings. There were times both Luongo and Thomas seemed shaky — Mark Recchi managed to miss a wide-open net — but they were solid, and were made to look perfect (or near-perfect) by their teammates.

Many people have said that Thomas was the better goaltender in Game 1, which I don’t buy, but that people are suggesting that the better goaltender might have lost demonstrates the craziness of the “duel” label. If it really were a story of two world-class goaltenders seizing control and duking it out all alone, then the superior goaltender would prevail by default. The reality as that both teams made sure their goaltenders could find the puck and make their saves, and then the Canucks were better at capitalizing on the Bruins’ mistakes than vice versa.

If that takes longer to say than “goaltending duel,” oh well. It’s a far better narrative, and has the added bonus of being true.


Game 1 is the Least Important

Not to take the jam out of anyone’s donut, but Game 1 has to be the least important game of a series. At the end of every Game 1, a team will have a 1-0 lead in the series. This one-game lead will be easier to come back from than any other lead. Coming back from a 1-0 deficit necessitates winning four of six games. Coming back from a 2-1 deficit necessitates winning three of four. Coming back in a 3-2 series requires winning all remaining games. If you have to trail in a series, the best time, in terms of your chances, is after Game 1.

I’m tired of hearing the statistic that 69.1 percent of teams who win Game 1 win a series. Of course they’ve got a good shot, they only have to play .500 hockey for the rest of the series. All the playoff games are important, including Game 1. Just not especially Game 1. Teams who win Game 5 of a 2-2 series advance 80.6 percent of the time. Clearly more important.

The Canucks had a great win on Wednesday and they’re statistically likely to win the series now. Still, nothing is over, so don’t get cocky.


Special Teams Are Still a Big Deal

The Canucks have the special teams advantage coming into this series, despite last game’s poor outing by the PP. The cool thing about the special teams in Game 1, though, was that the Bruins looked pretty good. The Canucks had an awful night on the man advantage, failing to get set up and generate the kind of traffic they like to. They won’t always do that, but early penalties in a game after a long layoff may have contributed to their being a step too slow. Shorthanded, as well, the Canucks weren’t up to their usual standard, although the Bruins couldn’t make them pay.

That’s the beauty of Game 1. It can be reasonably expected that the Canucks’ special teams will be better during the Finals, but the same can’t be said about the Bruins, who did slightly better than usual. The Canucks have nowhere to go but up.

As for the Bruins’ power play, a lot has been made of its predictability, which is a big part of it, but it hardly tells the whole story. Recall, if you will, the Canucks’ lethargic power plays from 06-08. Going on the power play actually killed the Canucks’ momentum. The Bruins power play looks a lot like the Canucks did back then. They’re trying to cycle, but they’re so defensive-minded that they take that extra second with the puck to be safe. They don’t take shots without lanes, because blocked pucks can lead to odd-man rushes the other way. All over Boston, fans are yelling “Shoot!” at their television.

The unit actually got worse with Kaberle there, mostly because the Bruins all seem to want to pass to him. As a power play quarterback, it’s his job to make a play, and all four other Bruins want to help him by giving him the puck. “Thanks for the puck, Tomas, but it’s your job to make plays,” Krejci will say. “Here’s the pass back.” The same thing happens to Chara. It’s ridiculous when he makes a decent pass to an open player trying to generate something, and the guy just holds on to the puck a second, then sends it back to the point.

All of this, of course, takes a backseat to Savard’s being out. Add him to the Boston lineup and all of a sudden their power play is dangerous again. For now, though, if it looks like the Bruins are gaining momentum, the Canucks can change it by taking a penalty.


We’ve Lucked Out a Bit With Officiating

Harrison noted earlier that referees seem to care too much about calling an equal number of penalties. While I’ll readily agree that the first priority should be to call the game fair, Canucks fans shouldn’t complain about the refs keeping them even. It helps the Canucks statistically. If the Canucks have a better power play and a better penalty kill than the Bruins, then percentage-wise, the Canucks are more likely to score on any given penalty. Ensuring the power plays remain even also ensures that the Canucks are statistically likely to have more power-play goals each game than the Bruins. Sure, in Game 1 it seemed the Bruins should have taken more penalties, but the Canucks aren’t immune to marches to the box, either, and if the refs’ intention is to even things out, then the Canucks can only gain from that.

The Canucks have actually been pretty lucky when it comes to officiating, despite what conspiracy theorists tend to think. The San Jose series was characterized by over-active whistles, leading to power plays the Canucks quickly capitalized on. How many games during the regular season do you remember both teams getting extended 5 on 3 time? And yet how many times has it happened in these playoffs? If the Canucks continue to dominate special teams, then active whistles help them.

Besides, given the number of controversial calls that have gone the Canucks’ way and resulted in goals, Canucks fans can hardly argue conspiracy. It wasn’t just the maybe-icing that led to Kesler’s Game 5 heroics against San Jose. In the same game, what happens if the refs, after losing sight of the puck when it bounced off the stanchion, assume it went out of play and blow the whistle? What happens if Kesler’s onside-by-an-inch toe drag still appears offside to the linesman? The Canucks haven’t had all the calls going their way, but if the referees are conspiring to hurt the Canucks, they missed a lot of opportunities.

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  1. jer
    June 3, 2011

    Game 1 may be the least important, but I still like the Canucks chances of playing .500 hockey against the Bruins better than I like the Bruins chances of playing .667 hockey against the Canucks. :)

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  2. SteveB
    June 3, 2011

    Great writing and a much-needed counterpoint to the local Media’s pom-pom waving!

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  3. John Andress
    June 4, 2011

    Goal tending duels? Game 1 relevance? Over-enthusiastic officials? Feeling a little nit-picky today are we, Qris?

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    • Daniel Wagner
      June 4, 2011

      What do you mean today?

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  4. Gabrielle
    June 4, 2011

    I actually don’t agree that Tim Thomas has more defensive support than Roberto Luongo. With the Canucks, you’re looking at the #1 defensive team in the league here! I heard a stat on Team1040 the other day that said Boston Bruins were #2 in the league in goals against but #29 in shots against. So they allow a lot of shots on Tim Thomas. While at first glance it may appear that Tim Thomas has more support from his D-men than Roberto Luongo, when you look a little closer you realize that it’s not true.

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