Published January 13, 2015
Chicago breezed through the regular season with such ease, it would've been a tremendous disappointment if the club wasn't sitting here as a Stanley Cup finalist.
However, the Blackhawks nearly didn't make it this far, as they needed to overcome a three-games-to-one deficit in a second-round series against Detroit. The seventh-seeded Red Wings even pushed Chicago to overtime in Game 7, but the West's top seed was able to survive and advance.
Chicago helped put the rough series against the Red Wings further in the rearview mirror by taking down the Los Angeles Kings -- last year's Stanley Cup winners -- in five games. Having vanquished the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Blackhawks have one more opponent to defeat to win the franchise's second title in four years.
Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville has a similar core group to the one he led to the franchise's first title since 1961. 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.
Chicago began the 2012-13 campaign on a 24-game point streak (21-0-3), and outside of the conference semifinal battle against Detroit, the Blackhawks have encountered few bumps in the road. In fact, the only time Chicago was dealt three straight losses since the start of this lockout-shortened campaign was from Games 2 through 4 against the Red Wings.
The Blackhawks haven'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.
Kane, who tied for the team lead with 23 markers during the regular season, only had two goals through the first 15 games of the postseason before tallying four times in the final two tilts against L.A. The winger notched a hat trick to help the Blackhawks clinch in Game 5 and scored the game-winner in double overtime.
"He stepped up," Quenneville said of Kane. "He took on the responsibility of leading the team. (He's) proven he's a top player in the game."
Kane's speed could be a key to beating the formidable defense of the Bruins in the Cup Finals, but Chicago's firepower doesn't end with him.
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.
Toews, the Conn Smythe winner when Chicago took the Cup in 2010, has nine points this spring, but only one goal. The team captain is capable of helping out in other ways, as evidenced by his inclusion among the three finalists for this year's Selke Trophy, which is awarded to the league's best defensive forward.
Despite his goal-scoring drought, Toews is still leading all Blackhawks forwards in ice time this spring, averaging just over 21 minutes of action per game.
Chicago's blue line corps is not quite as loaded as the forward group, but it's still one of the deepest units in the league. Led by Keith, a former Norris Trophy winner, the Blackhawks have received six goals from the back end this spring -- two each from Keith, Seabrook and Johnny Oduya.
Keith is leading the Chicago blue line with 11 points (2G, 9A), while Oduya and Hjalmarsson have five points apiece.
Chicago has used the same six defensemen in every game of these playoffs, except for Game 4 against Los Angeles when Keith was serving a one-game suspension. Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival round out the steady group of blueliners.
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.
Crawford has done everything expected of him this spring, but he'll certainly be tested again during his first trip to the Cup Finals.
The Blackhawks have been dominant on the penalty kill in the playoffs, which is a testament to both Chicago's depth and Crawford's play in the crease. Chicago has killed off 55-of-58 penalties this spring for a simply stunning success rate of 94.8 percent.
Chicago has struggled when on the man advantage itself, scoring seven times on 51 power-play opportunities (13.7 percent).
BOSTON BRUINS (4th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 28-14-6
2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Toronto 4-3 in conference quarterfinals, defeated NY Rangers 4-1 in conference semifinals, defeated Pittsburgh 4-0 in conference finals
Considering how easy the Bruins made their win over Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals look, it's hard to believe how close Boston was to a first- round exit this spring.
Although Boston systematically shut down the top-seeded Penguins in the last round, the club was nearly ousted a few weeks ago against the Toronto Maple Leafs if not for a ferocious comeback in the closing minutes of a classic Game 7.
The Bruins nearly blew a 3-1 series lead to the Maple Leafs in Round 1, losing Games 5 and 6 before falling behind 4-1 in the third period of Game 7. However, Boston scored three unanswered goals and tied the game on Patrice Bergeron's marker with 50.2 seconds left in regulation. Bergeron then netted the game-winner 6:05 into overtime to cap a 5-4 comeback win.
From there, things have become progressively easier for Claude Julien's club, which eliminated the New York Rangers in five games during the conference semifinals before sweeping Pittsburgh in four tilts.
"I definitely think it was a driving force going forward," Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said of the comeback against Toronto. "I think the fact that we did that certainly catapulted us into our level of play and performance, definitely. You could see the team pick itself up."
The Bruins silenced the vaunted Pittsburgh offense in the conference finals, holding a team that had averaged 4.27 GPG through the first two rounds to a total of two goals over the four contests. Boston also stopped Pittsburgh superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin from gaining a single point in what turned out to be a surprisingly easy series for the Bruins.
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 boast a stellar blue line led by Zdeno Chara and head coach Claude Julien also has his forwards buying into a system that relies heavily on team defense. Still, even with the system working in his favor, what Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask has done in this postseason has been no small feat.
Right in line with his team's trajectory this spring, 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.
Julien was able to roll four lines at Pittsburgh in the conference finals, as his Bruins wore down the Pens little by little. Chicago is definitely better equipped to handle Boston's forwards, but that doesn't mean it won't prove to be a difficult task.
Boston has 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.
Bergeron, who played a big defensive role against Crosby and the Pens in the conference finals, also has five goals and six assists this spring. Like Toews, Bergeron is also a finalist for this year's Selke Trophy after winning the award in 2011-12.
Marchand is leading the line with 13 points on four goals and nine assists, while the 41-year-old Jagr has seven assists, but has yet to score a goal in this postseason.
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.
The Bruins did suffer a loss up front against the Pens, as winger Gregory Campbell, a key component of the team's penalty kill unit, broke his leg in Game 3 of the East finals. Campbell, who will miss the rest of the playoffs, was replaced by Kaspars Daugavins in Game 4 and Boston killed off all three Pittsburgh power plays in the clincher.
Boston has been lighting it up from the back end in these playoffs, as defensemen have accounted for 15 goals in this postseason. Johnny Boychuk is leading the way with five tallies and rookie Torey Krug has come out of nowhere to notch five goals of his own.
Krug, an undrafted free agent, had played in three career NHL games -- none in the playoffs -- heading into this postseason and had never scored a goal.
Chara is still the anchor on the blue line and is leading Boston's defensemen with 11 points on two goals and nine assists. The big Slovakian is also a workhorse, averaging nearly 30 minutes (29:21) of ice time per game this postseason.
Dennis Seidenberg logs big minutes along with Chara and has played solidly this spring despite notching just one assist in 12 games.
After starting slowly against the man advantage this spring, Boston heads into the final round having killed off a respectable 86.5 percent of its penalties in this postseason.
The Bruins have scored on 15.6 percent of their power-play chances in this year's playoffs, easily beating the club's pace from 2011, when Boston won it all despite scoring just 10 times on 88 chances (11.4 percent) with the man advantage.
This is the first Stanley Cup Finals featuring Original Six combatants since 1979, when Montreal defeated the New York Rangers in five games for the title. It also marks the first time Boston and Chicago has ever faced off with Lord Stanley's Cup on the line.
Of course, since Eastern and Western Conference teams did not face each other during the lockout-shortened regular season, it has been a while since the Bruins and Blackhawks have faced each other. 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.
This figures to be a close battle between a couple of franchises who recently have won Stanley Cup titles and are hungry to add another. Neither team has allowed much in the way of offense this spring and that shouldn't change much in this matchup. Goals will likely be difficult to come by and it wouldn't be a surprise to see more than a couple of these games go past regulation.
While the Blackhawks rely on their tremendous team speed to wear down the opposition, Boston uses its size to shut the other team down. If styles make fights, then we could have a classic battle between speed and muscle on our hands.
Boston heads into the final round after playing its best hockey of the season in Round 3 against Pittsburgh, but Chicago has been at a high level since the second this season began.
The Blackhawks haven't racked up many style points this spring, but Chicago has proven to be a tough out every step of the way and it's earned a slight edge over the Bruins in this battle for the Cup.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Blackhawks in 7