Ruminations on the Blackhawks-Bruins Stanley Cup Final
The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins will meet in the Stanley Cup Final. As with any Finals berth, the road here has been long for both teams. The Blackhawks have perhaps gotten more expected pushback; meanwhile, the Bruins are here because of a series of surprises. The match-up has tension written all over it if you look at all the signs.
Chicago has a powerful offense backed by role-players and dangerous defensemen. The entire team excels not only at delivering the kill shot, but working hard to get the opportunity to take it. They defeated teams in every round so far that had been lauded for their smart defensive hockey: the Wild, the Red Wings, and the Kings. The Bruins have learned to make a mess of their opponent’s offense and have succeeded in creating their own offense from nearly impeccable defense, such as they had against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference final. Boston doesn’t need star power to score goals; it has its team-based system down pat.
But this playoffs is making stars of some of the Bruins’ workhorses in their own right. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have been absolutely phenomenal in the postseason, winning faceoffs and creating turnovers in every area of the ice. The best forwards for Chicago have had to be their stars. The success of their forwards, such as Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, comes from a strong transition game and cycling in the offensive zone. Chicago’s style is similar to that of the Penguins, which the Bruins easily frustrated in the Eastern Conference Final.
The Bruins are unparalleled this playoffs in their neutral zone play, often employing a 2-3 trap when they manage to score first, as was outlined brilliantly by Penguins blogger Jesse Marshall at faceoff-factor.com. The only team that truly threatened them was the Toronto Maple Leafs, a speedy team that was able to break down the Bruins’ puck retrieval system and neutral zone play. It took the Bruins heart and luck to get past the Leafs, otherwise, they’re not sitting in the Stanley Cup Finals berth today.
Every team wants to score first, but Chicago is a team that boasts a pretty good .500 winning percentage when they trail after the first period. They are used to comebacks. The only team more used to comebacks this postseason is the Boston Bruins, who have a .667 win percentage when trailing after the first period. Chicago, like the Pittsburgh Penguins, will have the underlying instinct that their offense can bail them out of tough situations. They will have to abandon this assumption and adjust their playing style accordingly. The Bruins know how to play 40 minutes without allowing a goal.
Both teams are stacked at the blue line with defensemen who could be the X-factor. The Hawks’ defensemen have struggled at times, but all are capable of scoring goals, contributing on the power play, and shutting down a productive line when they are on their game. The Bruins have gotten an unprecedented 15 goals from the blue line this season, and they came not just from rookie sensation Torey Krug, but hard-hitting Adam McQuaid. However, Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are sensational leaders on the blue line who can compete with the Bruins D-men. They will be the difference makers even if they aren’t finding the back of the net for the Blackhawks.
In net, Tuukka Rask is benefiting from the overwhelming success of the Bruins’ system through three rounds, not to mention having a breakout year of his own. Chicago’s netminder, Corey Crawford, has continually outperformed his competitors as well. Both are solid goaltenders enjoying career years. Although Rask was brilliant in the Eastern Conference Finals, his stats may be inflated by the outstanding defensive performance the Bruins had in round 3, keeping many shots to the perimeter and minimizing second chances even when the Penguins were throwing many shots towards the net.
Chicago has the benefit of experience and the knowledge of the Penguins’ failure to get past the Bruins as it prepares for the Final. The President’s Trophy-winning team, when viewing team momentum, is by no means doing badly, but they might be the underdog in this situation. Still, the team is more cohesive and capable of making adjustments than the Penguins, as they proved against the Detroit Red Wings.
The series was a seven-game thriller that saw Chicago’s transition game repeatedly thrown into disarray by the Red Wings’ ability to create turnovers and disrupt their breakout. Eventually, however, the Blackhawks found cracks in Jimmy Howard’s armor and slowly wore the Red Wings down, facing elimination in three straight games but coming out on top in overtime in Game 7. The Blackhawks were lucky to win that one, too, when Red Wing Niklas Kronwall’s desperate effort to block a shot from Brent Seabrook actually ended the Red Wings’ season. But the goal further boosted Seabrook’s confidence heading into the conference finals, where he scored yet another goal and continued to log big minutes while making few mistakes. The Hawks’ series with the Kings further proved that they could find ways to win in tight games–something a series with the Bruins will all but guarantee.
The Bruins and Blackhawks are two teams we’ve watched all year with interest. The Hawks and their meteoric rise as “the franchise that brought hockey back” (per a very hyperbolic Sports Illustrated cover) has thrilled all year, and the mercurial Bruins, who are finally clicking at all cylinders, are fun to watch. How to predict a Stanley Cup Final between two teams that are so different and so talented?
The bottom line is, perhaps, that you can’t. The Bruins proved that they weren’t going to lie down and roll over for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had been pegged as a Cup Finals favorite all season, but particularly after the trade deadline, when they added the likes of Jarome Iginla to an already potent offense. And the Blackhawks proved that they weren’t fazed at all by being frustrated, even when they went down 3-1 to the 7th seed Red Wings.
Ultimately, though, the Bruins come into this series ready to play the right kind of game and with all the momentum in the world. The Blackhawks are good, but whether they have the willpower and mental fortitude to crack the Bruins’ system remains to be seen. Clearly, my prediction about teams like the Penguins being able to outscore the Bruins was sorely misplaced, so I have a new prediction for the Cup Finals.