Another season, all be it a shortened one, has come and gone in the NHL once again. In January, 30 teams took to the ice with the same goal in mind: to be the last team standing and lay claim to the Stanley Cup. After 48 games and three grueling playoff series', we’re down to the final two who will leave it all on the ice for a chance to life the Cup.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins will be renewing original six rivalries when they square off in game one of the Stanley Cup Finals. The powerhouses’ of the West squaring off against the underdogs of the East; it’s bound to be one heck of a series.
Before we dive into the Stanley Cup Preview, let’s take a look at each teams journey to the Stanley Cup Finals.
After a late start to the season the Blackhawks stormed out of the gate getting points in their first 24 games before a single regulation loss. The Blackhawks were the kings of the hockey world and finished first in the West and also taking home the Presidents.
The Hawks disposed of the Minnesota Wild fairly easily in the first round, winning the series in 5 games. But in round two they ran into the 7th seeded Red Wings, who proved the only thing that matters is what happens in the playoffs. The Red Wings gave the Blackhawks everything they could handle and looked to have the Blackhawks on the ropes, but a resilient Blackhawks team not wanting their regular season effort to be for not, battled back and forced a game 7.
In game 7 the Blackhawks outlasted the Wings as Brent Seabrook scored the OT winner that sent the Wings packing. After narrowly defeating the Red Wings, the Blackhawks had a date with the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Once again the Blackhawks made fairly easy work of their opponents taking the series in 5 games to win the West.
The Boston Bruins narrowly escaped their first round match with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs forced a game 7 and had the Bruins on the ropes up 4-1 with 10 minutes left in the third period. Cue Milan Lucic. Lucic put the team on his back and helped them mount a comeback that will go down in history as not only one of the greatest comebacks in NHL history but also as one of the worst collapses in NHL history. The Bruins tied the game to force OT and Patrice Bergeron scored the OT winner that drove the dagger into the hearts of Leaf fans everywhere.
The second round proved to be much easier for the Bruins as they disposed of King Henrik and the New York Rangers in 5 games. If not for a rough outing from Tuukka Rask a sweep may have been order in the second round.
In round three the Bruins met up with the talented Pittsburgh Penguins. At first glance this series seems like a talent mismatch but the Bruins proved that depth and character can beat talent and no leadership any day. The Bruins finally earned their sweep as they easily dismantled the Penguins in 4 games.
Teeing up the series
Due to the shortened 48 game season the Blackhawks and Bruins didn’t meet in the regular season. This is the first time since 1979, the Stanley Cup final will be between two original 6 teams. Despite their rich history, this is only the 7th time the Blackhawks and Bruins have met in the postseason and the first time since 1978. The Blackhawks finished first in the West and want to prove their historic start wasn’t just a fluke and bring home the Cup to validate their effort. The Bruins came into the playoffs in 4th place and since clawing back from the ropes of defeat in round one, have picked up steam each round appearing nearly unstoppable.
Statistically speaking Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask have been the two best goalies throughout the playoffs. Perhaps that’s the reason the Blackhawks and Bruins are the final two-left standing.
Earlier this postseason I wrote about how I hadn’t been impressed with Tuukka Rask through he first 2.5 rounds. He barely outdueled James Reimer and his team was more responsible for the wins than he was. But in round three he proved just how good he is and why he is an elite goaltender. Through the first 3 rounds Rask is 12-4 with a 1.75 Goals Against Average and a .948 Save Percentage, those numbers are even better than Tim Thomas’ after the first 3 rounds in 2011.
Corey Crawford is a goalie that always seems to fly under the radar. No one gives him any credit and no one is sure if he’s good enough to win the Blackhawks the Cup. Heck before the playoffs started people were hoping Ray Emery would get the nod. The Finals could be a breakout for Crawford, a chance to prove that he can perform in the playoffs. He’s outdueled Jimmy Howard and arguably the best goalie in the world in Jonathan Quick, so Crawford isn’t off to a bad start.
Can the Bruins continue to shutdown stars?
It’s no easy task to shutdown the offence the Pittsburgh Penguins boast. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal coming full tilt that’s enough power to make a team run and hide until the onslaught is over. But the Bruins managed to stop the Penguins big three as all three were held without a point in the series. Jonathan Toews has been rather quiet so far in the playoffs scoring just 1 goal. Now would be a good time for Toews to step up and join Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp in scoring goals. Can the Blackhawks big players step up and beat Tuukka Rask? Or atleast score a goal?
Not only did the Bruins do the unthinkable by keeping Crosby, Neal and Malkin off the scoreboard, they also kept the lethal Penguins powerplay from scoring. The Bruins killed off all 15 penalties they took against the Penguins and have an amazing 86.5% penalty kill through the playoffs.
The Blackhawks also haven’t done too poorly while down a man. They have a near perfect 94.8% penalty kill and the defence blocks almost everything making life on Crawford pretty easy.
One of these teams will let their penalty killing guard down, even a little, and it may well cost them.
Players to Watch
Since being reunited with Duncan Keith, Seabrook has been on fire on the blueline. The Blackhawks will need him to match the Bruins physical play but also to help spark the offence.
The reason the Blackhawks are having success without Toews scoring is in large part due to Brian Bickell. The upcoming free agent has 13 goals through 17 games and is looking to cash in on a major payday. If Bickell can keep up his play the Blackhawks should be just fine on offence, even without Toews.
Heading into the season all eyes were on rookie defenceman Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton showed flashes of brilliance and had times were he certainly looked like a rookie. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs the Bruins have been getting production from a young defenceman, but his name isn’t Hamilton, it’s Torey Krug.
Krug has 6 points in 9 playoff games and has become a key member of the Bruins blueline as he’s climbed up the depth charts. Krug isn’t the type of player who carries a team but it the type of player that all championship teams have. He finds a way to contribute while flying under the radar and steps up when his team needs him. Torey Krug is the biggest X-factor in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Has there been a player throughout the playoffs who has elevated his play more than David Krejci? In 47 regular season games Krejci recorded 10 goals and added 23 assists. In the first 16-playoff games Krejci already has 9 goals and 12 assists.
He’s become a key component for the Bruins offencive success. If Krejci can keep scoring and helping Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton find the back of the net, the Bruins offence will be nearly unstoppable.
The Blackhawks and Bruins have arguably the two best coaches in the NHL in Joel Quenneville and Claude Julien. Both coaches have a Stanley Cup to their names and have been put through the paces in the NHL and despite both coaches remaining with their teams for at least 5 years, neither coach has lost his players respect or attention. Just ask John Tortorella how well that works.
The two best goalies in the playoffs, two of the best and most respected coaches and arguably two of the best-built hockey teams in the league. From the first line scorers to the fourth line role players, everyone knows their role and they work together to fill any holes.
The Blackhawks and Bruins will kick off their battle on Wednesday night and this may turn into one of the closest Stanley Cup Finals we’ve seen. Both teams match up so evenly.
Prediction: These teams are so evenly matched it’s difficult to give a leg up to either team. It will likely come down to whichever goalie can remain hot or make that key save. My Pick- Chicago Blackhawks in 7 games. Remember what happened last time the Blackhawks finished 1st in the central?