BOSTON - The date was Feb. 26, there were stars aplenty on both sides, and the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins met on "Hockey Night in Canada" in what turned out to be a dandy.
Little did they know that the Bruins' 3-1 victory in Vancouver would turn out to be a preview of the Stanley Cup final, as well.
But don't talk to the Bruins about it. To them, it was just one regular-season game out of 82. Sure, it was a big win. Tim Thomas made 26 saves and Vancouver native Milan Lucic scored the game winner. It was a feel-good night, for sure.
But that doesn't mean the Bruins will take the league's No. 1 seed lightly this week. Vancouver, after all, cruised to a Northwest Division title, and led the NHL with 117 points, 10 more than any other team.
After the Bruins practiced one last time in Boston on Monday, and before they took off for Vancouver, they were more than complimentary of their next opponent.
"Obviously, they're a President's Trophy winner, they're a great hockey team, deep and well coached, and we'll look at things we have to do," Bruins forward Mark Recchi said. "Any key to your team's success is how you play personally. I think we focus on what we do ourselves. Our coaching staff will give us their tendencies, and their coaching staff will give them our tendencies. It's who's going to want it more and who's going to play to their abilities the best."
Game 1 is on Wednesday night. By the time the puck drops, the Canucks, who defeated San Jose in five games to win the Western Conference title, will have had seven days off.
"Well, they are a great team, they have a lot of depth," Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron said. "They are good on all positions and it's going to be a tough series and we are aware of that. Obviously, we are going to have to take it a game at a time and we are going to have to concentrate on Wednesday right now."
The Canucks have many weapons to focus on, most notably Daniel and Henrik Sedin, the twin forwards who, along with forward Ryan Kesler and goaltender Roberto Luongo, have led this Vancouver renaissance. Together, the Sedins have 37 points this post-season, and Daniel has eight goals.
In the regular season, Daniel had 41 goals, and Henrik had 75 assists.
"You want to try to not be over-aggressive, because once you do that, they spin off of you and that's what they want to try to accomplish, be one guy and then two on the next," Bruins defenceman Dennis Seidenberg said. "They're really good at finding each other, with the give-and-gos, and the blind pass behind the back. So that's a real challenge for us, to be aggressive but not be stupid about it. So, we have to be smart in our defensive play."
Kesler could be the x-factor, though. Too much concentration on the Sedins, and the rugged, six-foot-two, 195-pound centre from Livonia, Mich., will pounce. In his breakout year this season, Kesler scored 41 goals. He's followed that up with seven goals and 11 assists in the playoffs.
"There is a lot of skill, there is a lot of speed," Boston coach Claude Julien said in reference to the Canucks. "Their back end has a lot of versatility, and they love to carry the puck up the ice a lot. So, they are a pretty potent team and obviously, they thrive on their power play. So, we are going to have to be a physical team. But we are also going to have to be a very disciplined team."
Which is why practice has been a little toned down this week in Boston as Game 1 approaches. Keep in mind, the Bruins have already played 18 times this post-season, including two seven-game series vs. Montreal and Tampa Bay, respectively. Vancouver has only played one seven-game series, a win over Chicago in Round 1.
"I think one of the things was giving our guys some rest and that's why (on Sunday), not everybody went on the ice. Guys that have played a lot, they could benefit from two days of non-skating. The conditioning doesn't go bad," Julien said. "(On Monday), we came back on the ice as a whole team and obviously, it was a little warm out there today. So, ice was probably not at its best, and it was a tough grind to push through this practice (on Monday), which I think is not a bad thing because we might as well get used to it.
"I thought we pushed ourselves through pretty good."
The Bruins will have four days off in between games, and that break should pay off for Thomas, who already has two shutouts this post-season. In Games 1 and 2, Thomas will return to the site of the last Winter Olympics, where he walked away with a silver medal along with the rest of Team USA.
Of course, back then, he was the backup to Ryan Miller. This time, barring something unforeseen, he should play every minute.
"You keep doing the same thing you've done all year, but you've just got to keep it going," Thomas said with regards to his preparation. "You started training for this moment last summer. And you know, it's a build-up and then during the season you've just got to stick with your routine and basically never let yourself fall behind. Because once you fall behind, it's too hard to catch up."
Thomas is 12-6 in the playoffs, with a 2.29 goals-against average. In a four-game sweep of Philadelphia in Round 2, he allowed just seven goals total.
"The goal is not to think too much," Thomas said. "And for the most part, you have to think to play, but you just want to keep it all focused on hockey. Be in the moment."
So far, so good.