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The Stanley Cup finals begin Wednesday. Which team will win it all? The Boston Bruins or the Chicago Blackhawks? Sarah Spain and Katie Strang face off in the W Debate.
Katie Strang: So, here we are, with the Bruins and Blackhawks as the last two teams standing in what has been a whirlwind NHL postseason. And it has brought us the first Original Six matchup in the Stanley Cup finals since 1979.
After a dominant regular-season run, the Hawks dispatched the Kings after Patrick Kane's series-clinching, double-overtime winner in Game 5; but the Bruins may be the team with a more dramatic postseason march. After white-knuckling its way past the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round and knocking off the New York Rangers with ease in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Boston swept a star-studded, offensively loaded Pittsburgh Penguins team in stunning fashion.
As the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings proved last spring, playoff success is all about peaking at the right time, which is why my money is on the Bruins to take home their second Stanley Cup in three seasons. A deep, balanced and physical Bruins team that is getting production from all four lines and tremendous goaltending from Tuukka Rask is tough to beat. David Krejci is a stone-cold playoff producer. Brad Marchand is both a wildly effective antagonist and dynamic offensive catalyst. And Patrice Bergeron? Well, he just continues to do it all.
If any team can match up with the Bruins' depth, it is most certainly the Hawks; but as amazing as Chicago's season has been, I think Boston bruises its way past the Hawks in seven games. Sarah?
|Tuukka Rask's two goals allowed against the Pens in the East finals were the second-lowest in a best-of-seven series, behind only Jean-Sebastien Giguere's one goal against Minnesota in 2003.|
Sarah Spain: What a dream matchup for commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL. Two Original Six teams with rich histories, rabid fan bases and big-name superstars. Fans in Boston and Chicago can still taste the beer from the teams' last Cup victories, making their thirst for another win all the more palpable. Both teams survived early postseason scares -- the Bruins battled back after a bad start against the Leafs and the Blackhawks needed three straight wins to rally from a 3-1 deficit against the Detroit Red Wings. Those series were wake-up calls for both clubs, but the Bruins haven't needed an alarm clock since.
Katie, you mentioned Boston's easy dispatches of the Rangers and Penguins as a plus, but the Blackhawks' dramatic win Saturday night may have them better prepared for the finals. Battling against adversity against the Wings and Kings has prepared Chicago to bring it right from the opening puck drop, so the Hawks may come out with more intensity and desperation Wednesday.
Kane, M.I.A. in the first two rounds, finally found his stride against the Kings, and his confidence is at an all-time high. The Hawks are dangerous enough without No. 88, getting goals from all four lines; but with Kane creating space and making plays, Chicago's offense takes on a whole new look.
The Bruins will have their hands full on the other side of the ice, too. The smothering Blackhawks defense rarely makes mistakes in their own zone and is the best in quickly transitioning to the attack. In net, Rask boasts a better save percentage (.943 to .935), but Chicago netminder Corey Crawford has a slight edge in goals-against average (1.74 to 1.75).
The difference in the series might be the Bruins' physicality. When the Red Wings put constant pressure on Jonathan Toews and gave him countless bumps after the whistle, he got frustrated and was taken out of his game. If the Bruins can force the Hawks' captain into his head again, they stand a good chance of taking this series. If the Blackhawks can avoid bad penalties in retaliation (and resist the urge to deck the always-irritating Marchand), their depth, defense and unbelievable penalty-killing unit (a postseason-best 94.8 penalty-killing percentage) will lead them to their second Cup in four seasons. It won't be easy -- I'm predicting a seven-game series -- but I think the Hawks will raise the Cup when all is said and done.
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, last season's playoff MVP, fell apart against the Hawks' offensive onslaught. Can the relatively inexperienced Rask bounce back from a bad game if the Hawks get to him early?
Strang: That is a great question, Sarah. Though the Bruins remain largely intact from their 2011 Cup championship, it is 26-year-old Rask in goal instead of Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas. And as much as Rask has proven he can hang with the best -- holding Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins to a paltry two goals over four games -- he won't fully shake those questions until he has won the big prize.
Trust me, if there is anything that can make paranoid Bruins fans shudder right now, it is the memory of Rask's mind-boggling and mortifying gaffe against the Rangers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. In the freak moment, Rask got his skate caught in a rut and took a tumble onto his backside, allowing Carl Hagelin's feeble backhanded attempt to dribble across the goal line. It has to be a sobering reminder that there is little to no margin for error when a team comes this far. If the Bruins make a mistake, Chicago will have no problem exploiting and capitalizing.
|The Blackhawks' depth will be one of their strengths heading into the Cup finals versus the Bruins.|
This series may come down to key role players for each squad. Shawn Thornton, Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell have been an effective fourth line for the Bruins, but Campbell will miss the rest of the postseason after the gritty forward broke his leg while blocking a shot against Pittsburgh (it should be noted that he finished his shift even with a fractured fibula). Boston rookie defenseman Torey Krug has had a stunning playoff debut (and I'm not just pointing this out as a fellow Michigan State grad, I promise), chipping in four goals and six points since bursting onto the scene in the semis.
The Blackhawks have to be encouraged by the impressive play of rugged forward Bryan Bickell, whose playoff performance surely has captured the attention of some GMs as he heads into unrestricted free agency this summer. With his ability to battle in the dirty areas of the ice, Bickell has eight goals and 13 points. Michal Handzus' solid veteran presence at center has also proven to be a savvy trade-deadline acquisition for Chicago.
And to think, I haven't even mentioned Jaromir Jagr yet. Whether it's some mysterious mojo from those unsightly mutton chops he unveiled this spring or simply a playoff rejuvenation, the old man has proved he still has some gas left in the tank (three points in his past three games).
Spain: Jagr certainly does seem to have found the fountain of youth, and while his point production is looking good, I'll admit I miss the flowing mulleted locks from his last Cup finals appearance back in 1992. As for Krug, who was born just a year before Jagr's '92 Cup run, he is definitely one the Hawks will have their eyes on. Young kids who don't yet grasp the magnitude of the situation are often the most dangerous, and Krug is no exception.
The same can be said for some of the young Hawks who have stepped up this postseason. Brandon Saad, 20, hasn't put up gaudy numbers like Krug, but he has done the dirty work to help his team succeed, stripping pucks and slowing down the opposition's attack. Andrew Shaw, just a year older, has taken on a big role with this finesse-first Hawks team, putting a body on the enemy and keeping teams honest when they try to bump around stars like Kane and Toews.
You mentioned the Bruins roster hasn't changed much since their recent Cup win, but the Blackhawks have a very different look this time around. Cap issues forced some big changes after their 2010 run, leaving this roster with many players still searching for their first ring.
One last wrinkle makes this series especially scintillating: the fact that the two teams didn't meet in the regular season. In fact, they haven't met since October 2011. The lack of familiarity sets up an intriguing Game 1, one in which both teams will be doing their fair share of feeling out the opposition and looking for holes. With loads of tape to watch and no actual experience to work from, both squads have said the focus will be on their own game, not the opponent. With the way these two teams have played so far, I don't think there's any doubt this will be a series for the ages.