The two best teams in the NHL will meet in the Stanley Cup Final, and you could make the argument that the Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks were the two best teams in the league the entire season.
While the Bruins faltered toward the end of the regular season, we could instead look at how they started the season — when they were playing a somewhat regular schedule — and realize how good they were when they were rested. Now that they’re back to that sort of workload, the B’s are flourishing. After going 2-4-2 to end the season, the Bruins have gone 12-4 in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
On the other side of the ice, the Blackhawks have been sensational all season long. They’re not running on the same pace they began the season (more on that in a bit), but here they are, playing for their first Stanley Cup since 2010.
Some are expecting this year’s Bruins-Blackhawks Stanley Cup Final to be one of the best in recent memory. Before the series gets rolling Wednesday in Chicago, let’s take a look at some of the most intriguing storylines.
It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish — but…
Way back in January, these were the two best teams in the NHL, and everyone else was in a different field. The Blackhawks set a record earning at least a point in their first 24 games, going 21-0-3 before finally losing in regulation on March 6. The Bruins were no slouches in the early going, as they went 14-2-2 to start the season.
Goals might be at a premium
Brace yourself, offensive enthusiasts. This may be a low-scoring Cup Final. Nobody has given up fewer goals per game in the playoffs than the Bruins, with Boston allowing just 1.88 goals per game. That’s helped by the fact that they slowed the supposedly high-powered Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals, allowing just two goals over four games. Chicago enters having allowed just 1.94 goals per game, good for third in the postseason. That was flip-flopped in the regular season when the Blackhawks allowed a league-best 2.02 goals per game, while the Bruins were third in the league with 2.21 goals allowed per game.
Power-play goals? Don’t count on it
Quite simply, these are two teams with great penalty kills and ineffective power plays. So, if you’re expecting a bunch of power-play goals, don’t hold your breath.
Chicago power play in the regular season: 16.7 percent (19th in NHL)
Boston power play in the regular season: 14.8 percent (26th in NHL)
Chicago power play in the playoffs: 13.7 percent
Boston power play in the playoffs: 15.6 percent
Chicago penalty kill in the regular season: 87.2 percent (2nd in NHL)
Boston penalty kill in the regular season: 87.1 (4th in NHL)
Chicago penalty kill in the playoffs: 94.8 percent
Boston penalty kill in the playoffs: 86.5 percent
It’s also worth noting that the Bruins’ penalty killing is as effective as it’s been all year right now. They killed off all 15 Pittsburgh power plays, the best man-advantage unit in the business, at least entering the conference finals.
In a somewhat-related note, if this series is decided during 5-on-5 play, it’s going to be quite the battle. The Bruins and Blackhawks have been by far the best 5-on-5 teams in the playoffs, and Chicago ranked first in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio in the regular season (1.52) while Boston finished fourth (1.28).
The goalies are red-hot
There were question marks surrounding both goalies entering the season. For the Bruins, some wondered if Tuukka Rask could replace Tim Thomas as the franchise goalie and win in the playoffs. For the Hawks, some wondered if Corey Crawford was a legitimate No. 1 that could stop enough pucks to help this team achieve sky-high expectations.
Sometimes, the stats just speak for themselves. Here’s what Rask and Crawford have done in the playoffs to this point.
Rask: 12-4, 1.75 goals against average, .943 save percentage
Crawford: 12-5, 1.74 goals against average, .935 save percentage
Who steps up?
The Blackhawks, much like the Penguins, have some world-class talent at the top of their roster. However, they haven’t exactly received a ton of production out of players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, their top two scores in the regular season. Through 34 playoff games (17 games each), however, that duo has combined for just 23 points, a far cry from the better than a point-per-game pace. While Kane came alive in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals with a hat trick, he and Toews have yet to hit their stride completely. Luckily for Chicago, players like Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa have stepped up. Those guys are no slouches, of course, and you also have to give credit to players like Bryan Bickell and Michal Handzus for their offensive contributions. However, if the Hawks are going to topple the Bruins, they’re probably going to need more out of their top talent — just ask the Penguins.
On the other side, maybe this is the time someone like Tyler Seguin or Jaromir Jagr finally breaks through. They’re expected to contribute offensively, yet they’ve combined for just one goal in the postseason. If they get going, along with the David Krejci line, the Bruins could be looking at something special. Who knows, maybe someone like Kaspars Daugavins gets going as well in place of the injured Gregory Campbell.
Let’s get physical
There doesn’t seem to be much hatred between these two teams, but that might not make much of a difference — see the 2011 Stanley Cup Final for more on that. However, there are reasons to believe things could get pretty chippy. These are two teams that are evenly matched all the way down to average size. The Blackhawks have a team average height of 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds, while the B’s also stand an average of 6-foot-1, weighing in at 202 pounds. They’re unafraid to take the body and get physical, and we might not take long to see that develop. That will be especially prudent if Andrew Shaw or Brad Marchand have anything to do with it. Those two are two of the best agitators in the entire league, and if a hatred between these two clubs develops early in the series, it’s likely that one or both will have a lot to do with that.
Blue line battle
This series will pit two of the best defense corps against each other. We already talked about how the two teams are extremely stingy defensively, but both teams feature blue liners who can play both ways, in addition to shutting players down. The Bruins’ defensemen have already combined for 35 points in the postseason, including 15 of Boston’s 50 goals in the playoffs. The Blackhawks’ blue liners have 27 points in their 17 playoff games.
Both teams look to their D-men to help generate and kick-start the offense. With the emergence of Torey Krug the B’s have someone who can skate the puck out of the zone to help kick the offense into gear, which goes a long way in generating breakout offense. On the Chicago side, the Blackhawks have a stable of blue liners who can move the puck up the ice through the neutral zone. Watch for them to try to hit on something through center ice at some point starting with long passes out of their own end from the defensemen.
Boston and Chicago meet
These are the best two cities in the world. That’s all, really.
Finally, here are the team’s projected lines.
Patrick Sharp — Jonathan Toews — Marian Hossa
Bryan Bickell — Michael Handzus — Patrick Kane
Brandon Saad — Dave Bolland — Andrew Shaw
Brandon Bollig — Marcus Kruger — Michael Frolik
Duncan Keith — Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya — Niklas Hjalmarsson
Nick Leddy — Michal Rozsival
Milan Lucic — David Krejci — Nathan Horton
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — Jaromir Jagr
Kaspars Daugavins — Rich Peverley — Tyler Seguin
Daniel Paille — Chris Kelly — Shawn Thornton
Zdeno Chara — Dennis Seidenberg
Andrew Ference — Johnny Boychuk
Torey Krug — Adam McQuaid