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Even under the NHL's brightest spotlight last week, it wasn't always easy for all to see some of the pivotal moments of what quickly shaped up as an edgy and antagonistic Stanley Cup finals. It required a zoom lens for everybody (except the league's disciplinarians) to spot Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows snacking on one of Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron's gloved fingers during a scrum in Game 1 in Vancouver. You had to take a long look down the Canucks' bench to find Raffi Torres, the team's scruffiest grinder, until he shed his obscurity with a superb last-minute goal that decided the opener. In the first period of last Saturday's Game 2, Boston goalie Tim Thomas didn't glimpse Burrows's deceptive shot as it tunneled under his right armpit then trickled into the net for the game's first goal. And the vision of Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo was often blotted out by Zdeno Chara, the Bruins' skyscraper of a defenseman, who cast a long shadow in the crease during Boston's power plays. "Usually I'm tall enough to look over the shoulders of guys who try to screen me," says the 6'3" Luongo, "but with Z, I think I might [need] a ladder."
Chara, at 6'9" the tallest player in league history, was the only thing about this series—which Vancouver led 2--0 after its 3--2 overtime victory in Game 2—that nobody could miss, the inescapable fulcrum around whom everything turned. Bruins coach Claude Julien had him covering every inch of the ice, from his own zone to the point to the opposing slot to the face-off dot. "Wherever he plays," says Boston forward Nathan Horton, "he brings this unique dimension. There is really nobody else like him." Yet in the waning moments of each of the series' first two games, Chara's immense shoulders showed some sag. The Boston captain had logged more shifts (65) and ice time (56:21) than any player on either team. And in both games Vancouver took advantage of him late. Chara was tardy dropping to the ice to block a pass from Jannik Hansen to Torres when the latter scored with 18.5 seconds to play for a 1--0 Game 1 win, and Burrows beat Chara cleanly in a footrace around the net to score 11 seconds into overtime in the Game 2 victory. In all, Chara was on the ice for three of the Canucks' four goals in the first two games and in the penalty box for the fourth. "I always play a lot of minutes," he said between games. "Why is this different?"
Because the minutes have been so demanding. For starters, Chara has skated most of his shifts against Vancouver's talented top two lines, often wrestling with scrappy center Ryan Kesler in front of the Bruins' net or using his extra-long stick to sweep the passing lanes free of astute feeds from twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. But because Boston's power play had been so anemic during the playoffs—the team had scored on just six of its 70 postseason chances at week's end—Julien installed Chara as a screener in front of Luongo when his team was up a man in Game 1. Last spring the Blackhawks used the same strategy to great effect against Luongo with the 6'5", 265-pound Dustin Byfuglien, but Julien was sacrificing Chara's booming shot from the point, once clocked at 105.9 mph. Chara even took an offensive-zone face-off, beating Kesler, though he hadn't taken a single draw during the regular season.
The Canucks chose to leave Chara alone in the crease while trying to keep pucks away from him, banking both on Luongo's ability to see shots and on Chara's inexperience at knocking in rebounds. Only during stoppages in play did they engage Chara, shoving and poking at him to wear him down and to try to draw him into penalties. In the first period of Game 1, with Daniel Sedin serving a double minor for clipping Chara's face with a high stick, Boston got off eight shots in four minutes, including two that simply happened to hit Luongo. Between periods, Vancouver's coaches adjusted their approach, telling their forwards to cover the middle of the ice, forcing the Bruins to shoot from the sides and giving Luongo less of the net to cover. Boston's power play sputtered afterward, going 0 for 6 on the night.
After the first period of Game 2, Julien returned Chara to his regular position at the point. Playing a man up a little more than 10 minutes into the second, he launched a shot that Boston forward Mark Recchi tipped past Luongo to give the Bruins a 2--1 lead. "[We] certainly don't want him in front all the time," Julien admitted after the game. "It's a very taxing position to be in." And costly.
The combative tone for the finals was anticipated as soon as the previous round had ended, when the Sharks and the Lightning, two clubs that merely wanted a championship, ceded the ice to two that were starving for one. In the last four decades the Cup has remained a Sisyphean tease for both franchises—Boston last won in 1972, while Vancouver never has in its 40-year history. "It would be hard to find two places where the Cup would mean more to people," says Recchi, at 43 the only player from either club who was alive in '72. Indeed, both teams could look across the ice and see themselves in their opponents: adaptable, resilient squads that had survived Game 7 overtimes in their opening series; had Vezina Trophy finalists in goal; and, in a Stanley Cup first, dueling European captains and Francophone head coaches.
The result was stirring, if imperfect, hockey. "I wouldn't say Game 1 was ugly," Recchi said. "There just wasn't a lot of room to make pretty plays." Maybe ugliness is in the eye of the stick holder. Besides Chara's face-off, there was Dan Hamhuis, Vancouver's steady defenseman, injuring himself on his own hip check. (He had to sit out Game 2 with a lower-body injury; he's currently day-to-day.) And there was Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg's awkward kneeing penalty on Canucks winger Mason Raymond, the first such infraction in the finals since 1985. But the most tasteless exchange took place at the end of the first period, when Bergeron put his glove in the face of Burrows, who treated it as a Canuckle sandwich. "He had his finger in my mouth," Burrows later insisted.
To Bucky Dent's sailing fly ball, Mookie Wilson's little roller up along first and Magic Johnson's junior, junior skyhook, you can now add Burrows's chomp to the list of most-reviled images in Boston sports folklore. Yet remarkably, the league declined to suspend him, claiming inconclusive evidence of intentional mastication. In Vancouver, Burrows became a sympathetic figure. Though he claims not to read sports pages or watch highlight shows, his father, Rodney, couldn't stomach the biting commentary and told Alex by phone on Friday to "score some goals and piss them off even more." It was the kind of I'll-show-you attitude that has fueled the 30-year-old Burrows since his days as a ball-hockey player and undrafted minor leaguer making $28,000 a year.
Burrows opened the scoring in Game 2 with a bad-angle shot from the left circle that trickled through Thomas. With 10 minutes gone in the third period, and with Chara to the left of the crease and screened by Thomas—who, as usual was playing well in front of his net—Burrows outmuscled Seidenberg for the puck in the low slot and fed Daniel Sedin to the right for an easy conversion. Seconds after the opening draw in overtime, Burrows raced down the left side, outskating the sagging Chara while pushing past Thomas, who ranged far to his right before diving at the puck in a vain attempt to poke it away. With Chara grasping from behind him and Thomas sprawled out of position, Burrows cornered sharply around the cage, banked the puck to himself off the end boards and wrapped it around the opposite post into the empty net. Though Burrows humbly, and repeatedly, insists that he owes his successes to having the Sedin twins as linemates, he had scored his ninth goal of the playoffs, tying Daniel Sedin for the team lead. "If people think we win with three or four guys, it's really wrong," says Henrik Sedin. "Alex doesn't get enough credit on our line just like the other lines don't get enough credit. We win because we have different heroes each night."
Vancouver's enviable depth was increased on the eve of the finals when doctors cleared Manny Malhotra to play. The cerebral third-line center, who missed more than two months after getting hit in the eye with a puck on March 16, returned on Saturday to a roaring ovation. Though Malhotra saw only spot duty, he contributed to the victory by winning six of seven face-offs.