(PhatzRadio / SI) — Two great teams. Two great markets. If anything could finally wash away the aftertaste of the lockout that nearly torpedoed the season, a Stanley Cup Final clash between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins is it.
Chicago comes into the series as the obvious favorite. The NHL’s best team during the regular campaign, the Blackhawks finished 15 points ahead of Boston in the overall league standings while putting together a season for the ages. They’ve extended their strong play into the postseason, going 12-6, and are coming into the Stanley Cup Final on a 7-1 roll after having eliminated the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in five games.
The Bruins, meanwhile, are proving to be a tough out in the playoffs, having won seven of their last eight series — the one they lost came in overtime of Game 7 against the Capitals last year. They’re on a roll, too, at 9-1 in their last 10 games after sweeping Pittsburgh, the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
The similarities don’t stop there. Both teams survived a brush with adversity that required an overtime win in Game 7 to advance. Both are getting elite goaltending, strong five-on-five play and scoring from across their rosters.
Expect a series that’s low on scoring but high on tension and goes the full seven games.
For Boston: The Bruins’ strength is the ability to overwhelm the opponent in the neutral zone, turn the puck over and attack with numbers. The one game the Kings won in their series against the Hawks was predicated on their control of the neutral zone. You can do the math. If Boston is able to exert its will in the middle, the Hawks will be in trouble.
For Chicago: Boston needs to win at least one game in Chicago to capture the Cup, and that sets up the real challenge of the series. The Hawks are 9-1 at the United Center during the playoffs, scoring 3.3 goals while allowing just 1.7. The Bruins are 5-2 on the road, scoring 3.43 goals and giving up 1.86. Holding serve at home is critical for Chicago.
Teams did not play each other.
Bruins: C Gregory Campbell (broken leg, out for season)
How the Bruins and Blackhawks were built
The first job of Boston’s deep, physical forward corps is clear: do not allow Chicago to score. In the Pittsburgh series, they proved how effectively they can handle that task, throwing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and crew off their games with heavy checking, a bit of chirping, some after-the-whistle shenanigans, and the occasional cheap shot. It worked brilliantly.
But they’re also fairly adept at putting the puck in the net, leading the postseason with 50 goals. While they lack the high-end skill of Chicago’s forwards, Boston’s group has proven to be opportunistic. They’re good driving the puck deep, winning battles along the boards, and getting it to the net. It’s not usually pretty (outside of the shooting gallery that was Game 2 vs. Pittsburgh, anyway), but it’s brutally effective. Their style doesn’t just put goals on the board, it wears down a defense with its relentless physicality.
David Krejci (21 points) is poised to lead the playoffs in scoring for the second time in three years because he’s doing something that he didn’t do enough of in the regular season: shoot the puck. That’s made his hulking wingers, Nathan Horton (17) and Milan Lucic (13), more effective because it keeps them focused on going to the net. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have been off-and-on, but both have a knack for scoring timely goals. Jaromir Jagr and Tyler Seguin are the X-factors. Jagr’s been making plays from along the boards, but he’s yet to score his first playoff goal of the year. Seguin hasn’t been much better, with just one goal in 16 games. Expect one of them to step up in this series.
The group’s depth and chemistry took a hit with the loss of Campbell in Game 4 of the Pittsburgh series. Kaspars Daugavins stepped in for the clincher and showed some jump. He might bring a bit more flourish offensively, but he’s not a face-off or forechecking force like Campbell.
Chicago counters with an offense that seems to be hitting its stride just in time. Bryan Bickell leads the team with eight goals and plays a Bruins-style game. His physicality and net-front presence will pose a challenge. Patrick Kane broke out of a lengthy slump with four goals in the final two games of the L.A. series. He spent a lot of time with the puck in those contests, and seems to have his old swagger back. Jonathan Toews isn’t lighting the lamp, but he’s making plays and keeping defenses honest. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa (14 points each) provide the secondary scoring. Michal Handzus has excelled since being promoted to the second line, and the easy chemistry he shares with Hossa has made that unit more consistently effective.
What the Hawks need is this series is a more reliable effort from their bottom six. Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad can be effective in stretches, but they must strike a balance between aggression and smart play in order to counter Boston’s depth. Viktor Stalberg has struggled to find his game, but his speed could be valuable breaking through the Bruins’ defense. He could step up in this round.
The foundation of the Bruins is a defense that’s improved steadily with each series. After allowing 2.57 goals-per-game to the Maple Leafs and 2.00 to the Rangers, this group authored a defensive performance against Pittsburgh that already ranks among the most dominant in playoff history, giving up just two goals in four games.
Zdeno Chara was overlooked for the Norris Trophy this season, but he’s proven during the playoffs that he is the best defenseman in the world. After blanking Evgeni Malkin in the last round, he’ll be under pressure to shut down Toews and Kane. He’ll be paired again with his regular partner, Dennis Seidenberg if Toews and Kane remain on Chicago’s top line, but Boston’s shutdown duo can be equally effective apart as a counter to any line juggling by the Hawks.
Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid play a physical, stay-at-home game that will gain emphasis against Chicago’s big forwards, but both can chip in at the other end as well. Boychuk has five goals in the postseason. McQuaid scored the winner in Game 4 vs. Pittsburgh. In all, Boston’s defense has contributed 15 of their 50 goals, compared to just six from Chicago’s blueline.
Rookie Torey Krug was less obvious against the Pens than in his dynamic debut against the Rangers, but he was a steady presence who helped move the puck out of the zone effectively. He and Andrew Ference will need to be effective in that role to spring Boston’s forwards through the neutral zone.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will do the heavy lifting for the Hawks. They’ll be up against the Krejci line defensively, but it could be their ability to move the puck in transition that defines their success. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Michal Rozsival stepped up in the Kings series, playing heavier minutes and responding with outstanding two-way play. Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya can move the puck, but they’ll be the two that the Bruins focus on exploiting. They need to stay focused and play within themselves to avoid becoming road kill.
There’s no bad way to earn a Stanley Cup ring, but it’s nowhere near as much fun to win it while sitting on a bench and watching as someone else does the work.
Both Tuukka Rask and Corey Crawford wore ball caps when their teams last clinched the Cup. Now it is their moment between the pipes.
Rask comes into the final as one of the leading candidates to win the Conn Smythe. His numbers (1.75 GAA and league-leading .943 save percentage) are better than the ones that Tim Thomas rang up after three rounds of Boston’s 2011 Cup run, thanks to the ridiculous 0.44 GAA and .985 save percentage that Rask just posted against Pittsburgh. As reliable as his teammates were during that series, Rask was the ultimate game-changer, routinely making the sort of stops that sent the Pens back to the bench shaking their heads or smashing their sticks in frustration. He proved he could be the best player on the ice in that series. Against a bigger, more physical Chicago team that’s likely to spend a lot more time in his kitchen, he’ll face a completely different challenge. Controlling his rebounds will be key.
Crawford has used the postseason to erase the bitter memories of last spring’s failures, and, with a performance that’s been steady and efficient, to maybe position himself for a role in Sochi with Team Canada. He’s allowed two goals or fewer in 12 games so far, but he hasn’t had to steal any wins the way Rask has because his defense allows just 28 shots per game, mostly from the outside. That’s not to belittle his efforts. Crawford’s already outdueled a pair of high-end stoppers in Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Quick during the past two rounds. Watch his work in OT of Game 5, especially that quick glove hand, and you’ll know why the Hawks believe he can do the same to Rask.
Chicago’s top-ranked penalty kill will be a factor in this series. The Hawks are on a 55-of-58 tear in the playoffs, turning opposition power plays into two-minute doses of demoralization. The Hawks take an aggressive approach, led by speedy forwards Marcus Kruger and Michal Frolik, that applies heavy pressure at the points, which is where the Bruins like to set up. They also do a great job of making quick adjustments that allow them to shut down the lanes and keep the puck well to the outside. Boston’s power play, operating at a 15.6 percent success rate, will be lucky to score at one-third of that pace in this series.
But as snappy as their PK has been, Chicago’s power play is a dud, clicking at just 13.7 percent. The Bruins held Pittsburgh scoreless in 15 chances during the last round, but they’ll be missing Campbell, who was always willing to pay the price to make a play. His absence could be an opportunity for the Hawks. If Boston dominates at five-on-five, Chicago has to make hay with special teams.
It’s tough to overstate Joel Quenneville’s impact on Chicago’s success to this point. He pushed the right button with Brent Seabrook, helping the struggling defender right himself by promoting him to the top pairing in the Detroit series. He lit a fire under Kane by skating him alongside Toews. He rewarded Bickell with more time and responsibility on the first line. He moved Handzus to the second line to replace Dave Bolland. Every key adjustment he’s made along the way has paid off with a superior effort, and the Hawks have been a better team for them.
Boston’s Claude Julien has made his share of savvy moves as well, working players effectively into the lineup to mask injuries, flipping Seguin and Jagr, and trusting the rookie Krug against bigger, more experienced opponents — the last a perfect illustration of his own flexibility. He’s an expert at getting the matchups he wants and has complete buy-in from his team that ensures his tough, defensive-minded scheme will be adhered to.
Both men are at the top of their game.
Bruins in seven: I’ve picked against Boston twice before during these playoffs. I can’t do it again. That doesn’t mean this call comes backed with a high-degree of confidence, though. Every one of those edges I’ve given them above comes with the slightest of margins. This series is as tough to suss out as any this spring, but I think the physical play of the Bruins will pay off as it wears on.