After all of their trials and tribulations in the 2013 NHL playoffs, the Boston Bruins can see a gleaming silver light at the end of the tunnel. Just two years removed from the franchises first championship in close to forty years, the Bruins find themselves back in the finals for another chance at hockey immortality. So far Boston has been pushed to the brink (by the Maple Leafs), taken care of business against an inferior opponent (the Rangers), and toppled a wildly talented team (the Penguins) that many experts considered to be the favorite to hoist the Cup coming into the playoffs.
After nearly blowing a three games to one series lead against the Maple Leafs in round one, the Bruins rallied from three goals down to win game seven at the Garden. From the moment Patrice Bergeron scored the game winner in overtime, the B’s haven’t looked back.
Since that improbably miraculous comeback, the Bruins have gone 8-1 in their last nine games, while leading the league in both shots on goal and goals scored. Whether they were playing against the defensive muck of John Tortarella, or the league’s most potent offense, the Bruins pulverized their opponents with a profound sense of discipline, physicality, and determination that is required of a team that is hungry to hoist the Cup.
On Wednesday, the Bruins will once again be underdogs as they travel to Chicago to face the Western Conference champion Blackhawks. Although the two squads didn’t face each other in the regular season as a result of the lockout, it was hard for teams as far east as the Bruins to ignore that the Hawks started the season by picking up at least a point in twenty-four straight games.
Chicago has the edge in the talent department, but as the Bruins showed against the Penguins, talent isn’t the only factor in deciding what teams advance in the playoffs. The Blackhawks and the Bruins have been the better team in all of the series’ that they’ve played in, so when the puck drops at the United Center on Wednesday, all eyes will be on watching a Stanley Cup Finals contest that couldn't possibly fail to deliver.
1) Which team’s predominant style of play is going to prevail?
For the Bruins, there is no need to fix what isn’t broken. Physicality, effort, persistence are oft-used clichés, but never has there been a team that embodies these standards better than the Bruins. Boston’s primary objective is to make their opponents work tirelessly for every little thing they get in all three zones. Can this defensive minded system that is built upon forchecking, goaltending, and timely scoring be boring? Maybe in the regular season, but if you need evidence of its success in the playoffs, go ask the Pittsburgh Penguins how hard it was to overcome.
As for the Blackhawks, anyone who believes that they are less talented then the Penguins must not have caught any of those late time zone games out west. Chicago has two certified superstars in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Their best forwards in these playoffs (Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa) will put up more of a fight James Neal and Jarome Iginla. Finally, their two world-class defensemen (Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith) are not only defensive stalwarts, but can provide significant contributions on offense. These are by and large the same guys who won the Cup in 2010, and this season, no team (save for the maybe the Bruins) has been better at imposing their will against any adversary they have faced.
2) How will Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien shuffle his bottom two lines?
Even though the Bruins were able to shuffle the lines in their series clinching win against the Penguins, the injury to fourth line center Gregory Campbell looms large.
In that game four, Kaspars Daugavins and Shawn Thornton saw the short end of the bench as each received around seven minutes of ice time. On the flip side of that equation was Daniel Paille, who saw roughly the same amount of time as the traditional third line of Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, and Chris Kelly.
Even though Kelly and Peverley are both above sixty percent in the faceoff circle, both skaters have been abhorrent offensively. This series will provide a chance for the two veterans (as well as the struggling Tyler Seguin) to finally prove their worth to the Bruins, because against the Blackhawks, Boston is going to need all hands on deck.
Much like the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Blackhawks have two superstar forwards in winger Patrick Kane, and center Jonathan Toews. Unlike Pittsburgh however, Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville has been more than willing to put them on the ice together.
Since game four of the Western Conference Finals, Quenneville has paired Kane and the Hawks captain on the same line (as well as Bryan Bickell), while at the same time having Michal Handzus center the Hawks two leading scorers (Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharpe).
Let’s just say the moved worked out just fine. In game four each of those lines produced a goal. In game five, Kane managed to net a hatrick that included the game-winning goal in overtime. As for Toews and Bickell, they had two assists apiece in that game, and were able to give Chicago the production it needed overcome a last minute Kings goal.
All of this brings us to the dilemma facing head coach Claude Julien. Given how hot that line has been for Chicago, logic would dictate that the Bruins use Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg as their deterrent.
The problem is that that Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp have been just as effective in the scoring department. In the 2013 playoffs Hossa has put up seven goals and seven assists in seventeen games. Sharp has been equally impressive as he has tallied eight goals and six assists over that span.
If and when Kane and Toews stay together, the Bruins will likely target them with their best defensive pairing, but if Hossa and Sharp come out aggressive in game one, things could be subject to change. In the Conference Finals Chara and Seidenberg did an outstanding job on Evgeni Malkin, as well as Sidney Crosby, holding both players without a point for the entirety of their series. With the stakes being even higher in this final round, expect a similar effort against Chicago.
4) How significant is the Bruins advantage in net?
Other than Chicago Tribune writer Steve Rosenbloom, who currently holds the tittle of worlds biggest twitter troll, there really shouldn’t be any questions left about Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. In the Eastern Conference Finals Rask allowed just two goals in four games, including a fifty-three save performance in a thrilling game three win. In that game Rask repeatedly bailed out the Bruins in spectacular fashion, and finally proved that he can steal a game when his team needed it most.
The Blackhawks are going to bring a more consistent effort than a disappointing Penguins team, but Rask knows what he has to do, and if he plays like he did throughout the Conference Finals, then it won’t matter what the Blackhawks do on offense.
Corey Crawford hasn’t played quite as well as his counterpart, but teams don’t make the Stanley Cup without consistent goaltending. In seventeen games Crawford has put out very strong numbers coming in with a .935 save percentage and a 1.74 goals against average. Still, in the Hawks series with Detroit, the Quebec native gave up nine goals in three straight losses. The Bruins also lead the NHL playoffs in shots on net as well as goals, so chances are Crawford will be facing more pressure then he has up to this point.
5) So how does it all play out?
As far as Stanley Cup matchups go, it just doesn’t get any better then this. The last time two original six teams met in the finals was 1979, back when the league only had twenty-one teams. Each of the cities respective fan bases is as rapid a group as your going to find, and even though both teams have won the Cup in the past four years (Chicago in 2010, Boston in 2011), nobody associated with either of these two organizations wants to settle for second place.
In the post-2005 lockout era only one team that has won the President’s trophy (the 2008 Red Wings) has gone on to win the Stanley Cup, but this Blackhawks team certainly has the pedigree to take home the title, and will absolutely give the Bruins their toughest test of these playoffs.
Chicago has a little more talent, and has emerged from what is a deeper conference, but after watching the Bruins dismantle a Pittsburgh team that was thought to be the favorites for the Stanley Cup, it’s very hard to pick against Boston.
Boston has superior goaltending, a greater commitment to the defensive zone, and most importantly, are riding a wave of momentum that stems back to game five against the Rangers. Since Tuukka Rask’s butt flopping goal, The B’s are 5-0 over a span in which they have allowed just three goals.
This series will have fans of both teams have running for the liquor cabinet, covering their faces, and letting out screams of agony and elation. In the end, the Bruins have just an inch more of persistence that will allow them to outlast the worthiest of opponents and give the city of Boston another parade. Bruins in seven.
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