The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins will battle for the early lead in the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday, as the clubs clash in Game 1 at United Center.
The Blackhawks, who won the Presidents' Trophy this season, hold home-ice advantage to begin this best-of-seven series and will also host Game 2 on Saturday. Chicago has built a 9-1 record as the home team during these playoffs and has won five straight in the Windy City since losing Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against Detroit.
Boston, the fourth seed in the East, is 5-2 as the road team in this postseason.
This Stanley Cup Finals matchup is the first one featuring Original Six franchises since 1979, when Montreal defeated the New York Rangers in five games for the title. It also marks the first time the Bruins and Blackhawks have ever faced off with Lord Stanley's Cup on the line.
Both of the teams also are recent Cup winners, with Chicago having won it all in 2010 before Boston claimed the title the following year. The Blackhawks' win three years ago marked the club's first championship since 1961, while the Bruins won in 2011 for the first time since 1972.
The Blackhawks and Bruins enter this series coming off relatively easy encounters in their respective conference final matchups. Boston swept Pittsburgh, the East's top seed, in four games, while the Blackhawks took out the Los Angeles Kings -- last year's Stanley Cup winners -- in five games out West.
Chicago and the Bruins are extremely deep teams, but the clubs use that depth in different ways. The Blackhawks are known for team speed and puck possession, while Boston utilizes size and defensive responsibility to wear down the opposition.
"Well, I don't think it's necessarily about slowing them down and sitting back, trying to take away their ice," said Bruins head coach Claude Julien. "It's more about making sure we close quickly. I think that's what we did against Pittsburgh, we tried to close quickly."
Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville has a similar core group to the one he led to the franchise's first title in nearly half a century. Forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland and defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson all helped Chicago lift the Cup three years ago and Quenneville has leaned heavily on that postseason experience this spring.
"Certainly the core group has matured to a nice level over the last four years," said Quenneville. "I think their experience is going to be beneficial for the guys who haven't been there."
Chicago hasn't been a prolific scoring team in these playoffs, but the club still boasts one of the deepest offenses in the NHL. Chicago has dropped from 3.10 goals per game during the regular season to 2.76 GPG in the postseason, but Quenneville has been getting goals from everybody, including his defensemen.
All told, Chicago has 12 players with a goal during the playoffs and 11 of those guys have scored twice. Four Blackhawks have more than five goals, including Kane, who was relatively quiet until the end of the conference finals. Sharp and Brian Bickell are leading Chicago with eight goals apiece and are only behind Boston's David Krejci for the NHL lead this spring. Marian Hossa also has seven goals for the Blackhawks.
Boston outscored the Pens by a combined 12-2 margin in the last round and enters the Cup Finals averaging 3.12 GPG on offense while holding the opposition to just 1.88 GPG. The Bruins are No. 1 this postseason in team defense and only Pittsburgh has averaged more goals on offense this spring.
The Bruins have been led on offense this spring by David Krejci, who is the centerman on the club's top line and a leading candidate for this year's Conn Smythe Trophy. Krejci is leading all NHLers in goals (9) and points (21) this spring and his linemates Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic have added their share of offense as well. Horton has seven goals and 10 assists, while Lucic has 13 points on three goals and 10 helpers.
The second line consists of valuable two-way centerman Patrice Bergeron and wingers Brad Marchand and Jaromir Jagr. The 41-year-old Jagr, who was acquired by Boston at this year's trade deadline, will be making his first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1992, when he helped Pittsburgh beat Chicago to claim the second of back-to-back titles. With 196 career playoff points (78G, 118A), Jagr is the NHL's active leader in postseason scoring and he is tied with Paul Coffey for fifth place on the all-time list.
Both teams' blue lines are led by former Norris Trophy winners. Duncan Keith is the top guy at Chicago's back end, while Zdeno Chara still logs big minutes for the Boston defense.
Neither club's starting goaltender has ever played in the Stanley Cup Finals, but both backstops enter this series with excellent numbers this spring.
Between the pipes for Chicago is Corey Crawford, who at 28 years of age is settling into the club's No. 1 goaltending position. Crawford posted a 2.58 goals against average and .892 save percentage in six games during last year's opening-round loss to Phoenix, but he has been at the top of his game this spring.
Through 17 games in this postseason Crawford has compiled a 1.74 GAA and .935 save percentage, allaying any fears that arose during his poor run in the 2012 playoffs.
Meanwhile, Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask has played better with each successive round. He posted a .923 save percentage in the opening series against Toronto, then recorded save percentages of .936 and .985, respectively, against the Rangers and Penguins.
All told, Rask has a 1.75 GAA and .943 save percentage in the 2013 postseason and is making everybody in Boston forget about Tim Thomas, who led the Bruins to their last Stanley Cup title in 2011. After the Bruins bowed out in the first round last spring, Thomas announced he'd be sitting out the 2012-13 campaign due to personal reasons, but, thanks to Rask, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner's absence hasn't hurt Boston at all so far.
The Blackhawks and Bruins are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 1978, when Boston earned a sweep in the opening round.
Of course, since Eastern and Western Conference teams did not face each other during the lockout-shortened regular season, it also has been a while since the Bruins and Blackhawks have played each other at all. The clubs last met on Oct. 15, 2011, when Boston earned a 3-2 shootout victory.
Boston has claimed six of the last eight meetings against the Blackhawks in the regular season. The Bruins also have taken three of the last four encounters at United Center.