The Bruins have been through this before. They went through it in 2011 against the Vancouver Canucks, and more recently, they went through it against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals. They’ll have to do it again to beat the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final.
As Ric Flair has been known to say, “To be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man,” and there’s no denying that the Bruins’ road to two Cup Finals in three years has seen them have to go through some of the game’s best.
The B’s did it in 2011 when they cut down the favored Canucks in the Cup Final, a team that had won the Presidents’ Trophy and also featured one of the highest-powered offenses in the NHL. That’s been a theme for the B’s in their trips to the Final. In order to just get that far in 2011, Boston had to go through teams like Philadelphia (third in the league in goals per game) and Tampa Bay (seventh in goals per game). Then in the Final, they were able to slow a Vancouver offense that led the league that year in goals per game with 3.15.
Boston was supposedly up against it this season as well, especially in the Eastern Conference finals. However, the Penguins’ supposedly high-powered offense was no match for Tuukka Rask and a stingy B’s defense. After leading the league with 3.38 goals per game in the regular season, the Pens scored just two goals in four games for the entire series. It’s worth noting that the Bruins had to go through Toronto, the sixth-ranked offense in terms of goals per game to (barely) get out of the first round.
The work is far from done for the Bruins, though. While they may have sliced through the Penguins with seemingly relative ease, the law of averages says the Bruins won’t have the same level of success (or to put it another way, luck) against the Blackhawks.
Chicago was the consensus pick as the best team in the NHL all season long, and they backed that notion up by winning the Presidents’ Trophy. They did that, in large part, thanks to an explosive offense, a unit that finished second in the league (behind Pittsburgh) in goals per game with 3.10.
A quick look at the Blackhawks’ roster will explain most of that. Chicago, while being ripped apart by salary cap restraints following its 2010 Stanley Cup win, has rebuilt and retooled its core. That’s a core that now features some of the league’s best, most dynamic players. That starts with Selke Trophy nominee Jonathan Toews, extends to the wonderful offensive talents of Patrick Kane. Throw Marian Hossa in there and you’ve got 11 combined All-Star appearances among the three of them. Then you also have other complementary players like Patrick Sharp, Michal Handzus, Bryan Bickell and Duncan Keith.
Of course, like the Penguins with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Blackhawks’ offensive attack starts with the high-end offensive talent atop the roster in Toews and Kane. Both averaged more than a point per game in the regular season, with Kane leading the way with 23-32-55 totals. Toews, meanwhile, was a plus-28 in addition to his 23 goals and 25 assists. Now we’ll get to see what Kane can do against a defenseman like Zdeno Chara, who will likely follow the youngster everywhere he goes. The job of checking Toews may go to another Selke candidate in Patrice Bergeron, giving us arguably the series’ most intriguing matchup.
Getting both of them going will be crucial for the Blackhawks to find success. They’ve gotten by so far without much of anything from that duo, but they’re starting to come around. Kane registered a hat trick including the double-overtime series-winner in Game 5 against Chicago and now has four goals, an assist and 17 shots on goal in his last four games. Toews has three assists in his last four games.
The Bruins will also have a different battle of sorts against the Chicago blue line. Blackhawks defensemen have combined for six goals and 21 assists through the first two rounds, and they could be poised to do even more damage.
“When you look at the mobility that they have back there, it’s certainly a strength of theirs,” Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters after practice Sunday. “The transition game is extremely good because of their back end and how they move that puck quickly, so you’ve got to respect that part of it, there’s no doubt. They built their team that way and they’ve had success that way.”
Where the Bruins have had success is in slowing these potent offenses. It’s something they’ve had plenty of experience doing, and it will likely be the key to them bringing the Stanley Cup back to Boston for the second time in three seasons.