|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2013||[Print without images]|
|David Krejci and Bryan Bickell have been key players in these playoffs.|
The clash between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals will mean a lot for history buffs -- these two Original Six teams haven't met in the playoffs since the 1978 quarterfinals. But make no mistake, both teams are built for the here and now. The Blackhawks earned another trip to the finals after winning the Cup in 2010 with a dramatic double-overtime win over the defending Cup champs from Los Angeles on Saturday night. The Bruins, meanwhile, have been resting since Friday after their shocking sweep of the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins. Game 1 is set for Chicago on Wednesday night. There are loads of similarities between these two teams, which should make for an entertaining tilt, starting with the depth up front and along the blue line, terrific goaltending and a veteran coaching staff whose calm amid the turbulence of playoff hockey has helped define the identities of both teams. Both teams are also fully aware of the fleeting nature of glory. The Blackhawks were bounced in the first round the past two years and the Bruins were one-and-done a year after in their Cup defense, losing in seven games to Washington. Although lots of people will suggest this is a clash of two divergent styles, the two teams are actually a lot closer to being mirror images.
1. In The Groove
These teams are hitting the finals on an absolute tear. The Bruins flirted with disaster in the first round, blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Toronto Maple Leafs and then mounting a historic comeback in Game 7 after falling behind 4-1 in the third period before moving on, thanks to an overtime goal by Patrice Bergeron. Starting with their overtime win in Game 7 in the first round, the Bruins are 9-1 after dusting the New York Rangers in five games and sweeping the Pens in the conference finals. The Blackhawks fell behind Detroit 3-1 in the second round but won three straight and are now 7-1 after eliminating the Kings at home. Those kinds of records suggest that home ice shouldn't mean all that much, especially for two teams that like to roll four lines, although the Blackhawks will have the last change in Games 1, 2, 5, and 7 by virtue of being the NHL's top regular-season team.
2. The Big Boys
On first blush it would seem the Blackhawks would have an edge in the skill department with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, et al. But the Bruins have been a deceptively dangerous team on offense, led by playoff points leader David Krejci. He and linemates Milan Lucic -- who has shaken off a disappointing regular season to become an absolute beast in the postseason -- and Nathan Horton have combined for 51 points, including 19 goals and five game winners, this spring. Bergeron has found great chemistry with longtime linemate Brad Marchand and the rejuvenated Jaromir Jagr, who is in the finals for the first time since 1992. Bergeron was the hero in Game 7 against Toronto, tying the game in the last minute and then scoring the overtime winner. He also scored the winner in double-overtime in Game 3 against the Penguins. The story on offense for the Blackhawks has really been the slow start to the postseason for Toews, who has just one goal, and Kane. The good news for the Blackhawks is that they are starting to click at the best possible moment. Kane, of course, delivered a virtuoso performance in Game 5 against the Kings, scoring a hat trick, including the winner in double-overtime off a terrific feed from Toews on an odd-man break. Kane now has four goals in his past two games. And while Toews might not be scoring goals at his usual pace, he remains a pivotal fixture on both sides of the puck for the Blackhawks, and that will only be magnified in the finals.
3. Power Outage
One of the reasons many people believed the Penguins would outlast the Bruins in the East finals was the fact their power play was cooking through the first two rounds. But that top unit was denied a single goal on all 15 opportunities in the East finals. Edge to the Bruins, then, on the penalty kill? Hang on a second. The Blackhawks have been even better, allowing three paltry goals on 58 man-advantage opportunities for a playoff-best success rate of 94.8 percent. The fact these two teams are dominant when killing penalties isn't all that surprising, given that they were ranked third and fourth during the regular season. Needless to say, the team that is able to crack the penalty-killing armor in this series is going to have a significant advantage. Of course, the chances of that happening aren't good. The Blackhawks scored just one power-play goal in five games against Los Angeles, while the Bruins somehow managed their sweep of the Penguins without scoring a power-play goal.
4. Unsung Heroes
Since this is a series that's almost certainly going to be won at even strength, the importance of both teams' depth will be crucial. As both teams have advanced, they have relied on different players to make a statement and contribute in ways that perhaps most wouldn't have expected. You need look no further than the NHL's surprise of the spring, Bryan Bickell, to see what we're talking about. Bickell has been a force physically, and his eight goals are tied for the team lead and have him tied for second in the postseason. Two of those goals have been game winners. Michal Handzus appeared to be a meaningless depth pickup at the trade deadline, but the veteran center has provided yeoman's service and moved up the lineup while chipping in nine points in 17 games. Andrew Shaw has scored four goals, and overall, 12 different Blackhawks have scored this playoff season. The Bruins, meanwhile, have received unexpected offensive support from their blue line. Adam McQuaid scored the winner in Game 4 against the Penguins, and in total, Bruins defenders have supplied 15 goals. That number includes four from rookie Torey Krug and five from Johnny Boychuk.
5. The Guys Playing Between The Pipes
Interesting to note that while the Blackhawks and Bruins are returning to the finals after recent Cup wins, they both boast different starting goaltenders. And Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask have more than seized the moment. There were more than a few questions about Crawford's playoff worthiness after a disappointing turn against Phoenix last spring, but he has rarely wobbled this spring and boasts a 1.74 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. Crawford has allowed two or fewer goals in 12 games this postseason. Rask? All he's done is turn in an eye-popping .943 save percentage. He shut out the NHL's top offense twice in four games and since the start of the second round has allowed more than two goals in just one game. Both teams will be looking to jam up the front of the net as much as possible and create as much havoc in hopes of finding loose pucks and rebounds. The bottom line for both netminders is that if they can see it, they're going to stop it.
• This might be the most difficult series to predict of the playoffs. Both teams boast similar attributes, including patience and experience, and have great depth. In the end, you have to give a slight edge to the Bruins in physicality, and that might be enough to wear down the Blackhawks' defense enough for the series victory. Bruins in 7