The Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks meet Sunday for the first time since they squared off in the Stanley Cup finals in June. ESPNBoston.com's Joe McDonald and ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers recently chatted about last year's unforgettable series and how the teams have fared this season.
SP: Hey, Joe. Hope all is well in Boston. Certainly hope your winter has been more forgiving than ours in Chicago. Of course, Bruins versus Blackhawks around the corner. It's crazy to think it's already been six-plus months since they met in the Stanley Cup finals. I know we both recently wrote year-in-review stories. For me, going back, watching game videos, looking through those stories and box scores, it just reminded me how incredible that series was from that memorable Game 1 to how Game 6 played out. So many of those games could have gone either way. The series had a bit of everything for everyone.
JM: Scott, my friend. Things are going well here in Boston. Despite the heartbreaking loss to the Blackhawks last June, fans around these parts enjoyed a World Series victory by the Red Sox, so that helped ease the pain a bit. I can't believe it's already been six months since that exciting series between Chicago and Boston. You're right, it could have gone either way. Imagine the intensity if there had been a Game 7. The Blackhawks won the ultimate prize last spring, and deservedly so, but I'm sure the Bruins have had Jan. 19 circled on their calendar. I'm sure it's going to be an exciting game, a nice precursor for the AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos.
SP: Let's not talk about football. Whether the Bears were going to keep their defensive coordinator was the meatiest story here in recent few weeks. Back to the ice, I know one of the major topics leading into this season for the Blackhawks was how they would respond to a short offseason and if there would be the so-called Stanley Cup hangover. It was part of the reason they felt their last Cup defense was rocky. Ultimately, they didn't endure that this season. They have gone through a bit of a rough patch in the last few weeks, but they put themselves in a comfortable position with a positive start. Did the Bruins have to deal with any effects this season from that same long run and short offseason?
JM: For the record: I'm picking the Patriots this weekend. The Bruins certainly dealt with that "hangover" after winning the Cup in 2011. This time around, however, that hasn't been the case. It was a short summer for the Bruins, but they weren't partying as the runner-up. Like the Blackhawks, the Bruins have hit a bit of a lull the last few weeks, but the Bruins are used to such ebbs and flows in their game during recent seasons. The top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Jarome Iginla has cooled off a bit, but it won't be long before it gets going again.
SP: OK, I've got you down for the Patriots. The Blackhawks' top line of Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa seems to be the one constant with the team now. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has toyed with the other lines this past week. Their depth was so key to their success last season and even earlier this year, but they haven't been able to get those four lines rolling as of late. Bryan Bickell, who the Bruins will remember as one of the two 17-second goal scorers, hasn't been able to find that same groove he had in the playoffs last season. He and Michal Handzus, who also had a strong playoff run, are two players the Blackhawks are looking to get more from. For the most part, the Blackhawks do look a lot like they did last season. Their one major addition was Kris Versteeg in a trade earlier this year. How have the Bruins' offseason moves worked for them this season?
JM: I was actually happy for both the Blackhawks and Versteeg when that deal was completed to bring him back to Chicago. I covered Versteeg when he played for the Providence Bruins, the AHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins, and have always been impressed with him as a person and player. He obviously fits well with the Blackhawks. Speaking of fitting in well, the Bruins' offseason additions of Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith and Jarome Iginla have all made significant contributions this season. Smith has really proved to be a solid player in Boston after some considered him as the throw-in as part of the Eriksson-for-Tyler Seguin trade last summer. Unfortunately, Eriksson has missed a total of 20 games because of a pair of concussions, but he recently returned to the lineup and has been easing his way back on the Bruins' third line, along with Ryan Spooner and Carl Soderberg. Iginla has been a nice complement on the team's top line, along with David Krejci and Milan Lucic. Iginla's veteran presence both on and off the ice has helped, too. His contributions on the power-play unit have been huge. From a goaltending standpoint, I know how Rask has handled being the player with a huge new contract, how has Crawford dealt with all his new experiences since winning the Cup?
SP: Crawford has had a so-so season. He's been brilliant at times and ordinary in others. He hasn't possessed that same consistency that made him an elite goaltender last season and really a difference-maker in the playoffs. He may have been overworked early in the year, and that dreaded lower-body injury forced him to sit out a month recently. The Blackhawks likely will lean more on rookie goaltender Antti Raanta after the Olympic break and make sure Crawford is fresh for the playoffs. We obviously have a lot of hockey still to be played and two regular-season meetings between these teams, but do you think we could see a Blackhawks-Bruins Cup rematch? The Blues and Ducks seem to be the biggest obstacles in the Blackhawks' way in the Western Conference.
JM: We know how difficult it is to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, or even enjoy another deep run in the playoffs, but both teams have legit chances to return to the finals. In fact, I would love to see it happen, only because of the great hockey we witnessed between these two clubs last spring. What the Ducks have been able to accomplish this season, you'd have to think they would be the favorites out of the Western Conference, but as we all know, anything can happen in the playoffs. As far as the Eastern Conference, it's going to be a fun battle to watch down the stretch and into the playoffs. It wouldn't surprise me if the Penguins and Bruins also have a rematch this spring. Either way, both conferences are setting up nicely for exciting hockey for the fans. Personally, I can't wait for puck drop on Sunday between the Bruins and Blackhawks.