By Steve Keating
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The Vancouver Canucks faceoff against the Boston Bruins in a Stanley Cup final that will allow one city's long-suffering fans to quench its championship thirst.
The best-of-seven final begins on Wednesday in Vancouver on the same ice that Canada claimed Olympic gold just over a year ago.
For Canadians, it is a tense but exciting time as the hockey-mad nation prepares to reclaim one of the country's lost NHL franchises, with the possible relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, and hope that the Canucks can return the Stanley Cup to the game's spiritual home.
The Cup is seen as a national treasure by Canadians, routinely appearing in commercials, movies, public appearances and even a promotion that allows a lucky fan to spend a day with Stanley.
But hockey's Holy Grail has not called a Canadian city home since 1993 when the Montreal Canadiens won the last of their record 24 Cups and has never been won by Vancouver.
"We work all our lives for this, not only this season," said Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo. "Growing up as a kid, this is where you want to be.
"There's a lot of guys in the locker room that haven't had a chance to be where we are right now, including myself.
"Obviously we have the biggest step of all ahead of us."
The Canucks joined the league in 1970 and reached the finals twice, in 1982 and 1994, but their championship dreams remained unfulfilled after they lost both times.
Vancouver hockey fans, however, have not cornered the market on Stanley Cup disappointment.
An "Original Six" franchise, the Bruins have a rich hockey history that includes five Cups but it has been 39 long years since players last sipped champagne from the famous mug.
The Bruins title drought may seem modest alongside the 86-years Boston baseball fans waited for the Red Sox to end their World Series dry spell in 2004 but patience is wearing thin in Beantown.
"Right now we're four wins away from winning a Stanley Cup," said Boston coach Claude Julien. "We understand what's at stake here.
"We understand who we're playing, a really good team that dominated the whole league this year."
The final will feature two battled hardened teams who have been pushed to the limit surviving Game Seven tests.
After posting the best regular season record, the top-seeded Canucks had looked poised to make a shock first round exit when the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks erased a 3-0 series lead and forced a Game Seven before Vancouver recovered to advance with 2-1 win.
Following the early stumble, the Canucks have hit their stride taking out the Nashville Predators in six games and then San Jose Sharks in five to claim the Western Conference crown.
The Bruins have also displayed their mettle on a roller coaster ride to the finals.
Boston needed a Game Seven overtime goal to see off the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round then swept aside the Philadelphia Flyers 4-0.
But the Bruins found themselves back on the brink in the Eastern Conference championship needing seven games again to put away the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The finals will feature some of the NHL's top talent with Hart, Vezina, Norris and Frank Selke Trophy nominees sprinkled through the lineups.
Both nets will be manned by Vezina trophy finalists, the Canucks Luongo and Bruins Tim Thomas.
Up front, the Canucks are led by Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, whose trophy cases each contain Art Ross trophies as well as NHL regular season scoring champions.
Daniel, who captured the scoring crown this season, leads the Canucks with eight goals while brother Henrik, winner of the Art Ross and Hart trophy as NHL's most outstanding player last year, has just two goals but also has 19 assists to lead all playoff scorers with 21 points.
The burly Bruins roll out four hard-working lines that play a physical game but can also put the puck in the net with David Krejci tied for the lead in playoff goals with 10.
The Bruins also have a rock solid back end anchored by Norris trophy finalist hulking defenceman Zdeno Chara.
(Editing by Julian Linden)