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Matching lines an intricate cat-and-mouse game

Vancouver Canucks bench

Peter Power/Peter Power/ The Globe and Mail

The most frequently asked question in the 2011 Stanley Cup final thus far has been, why is home ice so much of an advantage now, when it wasn't in the regular season, or earlier in the playoffs?

A lot of it has to do with the coaching styles of the Boston Bruins' Claude Julien and the Vancouver Canucks' Alain Vigneault, both of whom work hard to get what they consider to be favorable line match-ups and especially getting the right defence pairings on the ice.

In Boston, Julien has pretty much succeeded in getting his shutdown defence pair of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg to play against the Sedin twins. Julien will also put centre Patrice Bergeron, Boston's best defensive forward, out against Henrik Sedin whenever possible, but he is prepared to concede the match-up, up front, in order to get his defensive pair of choice on the ice.

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Frequently, it is a cat-and-mouse game, which involves subtle intricacies such as splitting up defence pairs at a stoppage in play, so that only one defenceman needs to come off the ice, not both, when trying to get the desired match-up.

It is why you'll sometimes see the Bruins put Andrew Ference and Chara on the ice together. They'll only play together for a few seconds until the Bruins can determine which forward line the Canucks send out. If it's Sedins, then Ference retreats to the bench in favor of Seidenberg. If it's one of the other units, then Chara exits and Johnny Boychuk goes on to play alongside Ference.

By changing just one defenceman rather than the pair, you prevent that brief mad scramble to the bench when the ice is completely vacated and you're prone to giving up a clean breakaway on a well-timed stretch pass.

It is a strategy that has worked for the most part for the Bruins, but backfired once in a meaningful way. For the start of overtime in Game 2 here in Vancouver, Julien split up his regular pairs and started Ference and Chara, unsure of who Vigneault would counter with off the opening face-off. It was the Sedin line - and the Bruins couldn't get the defensive change made in time before Alex Burrows scored the winning goal 11 seconds into overtime.

Vigneault and Julien both served long apprentices as coaches and philosophically, believe in playing the match-up game. Not every NHL coach does.

Some will regularly concede the match-up in order to avoid the Grand Central Station-like confusion that changing on the fly sometimes causes - or the too-many-men on the ice penalties that sometimes follow.

Others are willing to go strength-against-strength and can live with the match-ups that their opposite numbers seek out.

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Tonight, Vigneault will work to get Ryan Kesler out against Bergeron, Henrik Sedin against David Krejci and hope that they can occasionally get the twins away from Chara. In this series, it has been easier said than done.

And by the way, statistically, home clubs are a perfect 6-0 in the Stanley Cup final for only the sixth time since the best-of-seven format began in 1939. The home club went on to win Game 7 on three of the five previous occasions (Detroit Red Wings in 1955, Montreal Canadiens in 1965 and New Jersey Devils in 2003). The only clubs to win Game 7 on the road in the Stanley Cup Final after the home team won the first six games were the 1971 Montreal Canadiens, who defeated the Chicago Blackhawks, and the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, who edged the Detroit Red Wings.

Moreover, home-ice advantage seems to mean more in the final than it does in earlier rounds. Since 2009, home teams are 17-2 in the Stanley Cup final; and since 2006, the home team is winning at an impressive .784 percentage, more than .200 percentage points better than it does at other times in the playoffs.

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