For the first time since 1979, there will be an Original Six Stanley Cup finals, as the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins will battle for the right to hoist Lord Stanley. Games 1 and 2 are slated for Wednesday and Saturday in Chicago.
The Blackhawks got off to a record start this season, earning a point in each of their first 24 games, and are looking to become the first team since the 2007-08 Red Wings to win the President’s Trophy (league's best record) and the Stanley Cup. They also are trying to win their second Cup in four seasons. The Bruins are looking for their second Cup in three seasons.
Both the Blackhawks and Bruins can score and play strong defense. They also have the best two goalies (statistically) in the playoffs and both teams will play physical hockey if needed. It promises to be a classic series. Here’s a scouting report:
Blackhawks: 12-5 in playoffs. 36-7-5, 77 points, first in NHL, first in Western Conference and first in Central Division.
Head-to-head: As a result of the lockout, the Bruins and Blackhawks did not play this season. The teams last met on Oct. 15, 2011, with the Bruins winning 3-2 in a shootout. The teams have never met in the Stanley Cup finals.
Bruins: David Krejci is leading the NHL in postseason points with 21 and goals with nine. But it's the Bruins' depth and balance up front that have gotten them back to the Stanley Cup finals. Krejci’s linemates continue to elevate their games as Nathan Horton has lit the lamp seven times and has 17 points and Milan Lucic has 13 points with three goals and 10 assists. The players below the top trio have stepped up as well, specifically Brad Marchand (9 assists, 13 points) and Patrice Bergeron, who has two overtime winners and 11 points. The Bruins showed in the four-game sweep of the Penguins that their forwards were the better two-way group as they outscored the NHL’s best offense 12-2. The Bruins are second in goals scored entering this series with 50, an average of 3.12 goals per game.
Blackhawks: The Blackhawks also have a well-balanced group up front and bring plenty of scoring threats. Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane all have 14 points, with Sharp right behind Krejci in the playoff-goal race with eight. But keep an eye on Bryan Bickell, who also has eight goals and is making a name for himself as an emerging power forward. He just happens to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and his payday seems to get better every game.
Edge: Even. Both teams have so much skill up front; the only differences might be the Blackhawks are faster and the Bruins are more physical. These two forward groups are a main reason this could be a long, grueling series.
Bruins: When the Bruins' defense corps is discussed, most immediately think of captain Zdeno Chara, who, along with Dennis Seidenberg, is doing his usual postseason shutdown of the opposition. But besides limiting opponents to a league-best 1.88 goals per game, the Bruins defense is creating offense. Chara has been his usual self, eating up minutes and suffocating opposing stars, and has 11 points thus far. But with the emergence of Torey Krug (four goals) and Johnny Boychuk catching fire with five goals, the Bruins defensemen have provided a strong transition game and have 35 points entering the finals.
Blackhawks: The Blackhawks also sport a very solid blue line, with plenty of depth. Duncan Keith has 11 points and leads the way offensively, but this group as a whole moves the puck very well and can burn you if you let up on the forecheck. The Blackhawks defense has 26 points thus far and has helped limit opponents to 1.94 goals per game.
Edge: Bruins. The Bruins' slightly better offense from the blue line gives them the edge here. So much for those who say Claude Julien’s system can’t score.
Bruins: If you didn’t consider Tuukka Rask an elite goalie already, his performance in shutting down the Penguins' high-powered offense should have convinced you. "Tuukka Time" has arrived, and with his performance in the Eastern Conference finals, Rask (12-4, 1.75 GAA, .943 save percentage) has not only entered that elite group, but he is a Conn Smythe favorite as well.
Blackhawks: Corey Crawford enters the series with a slightly better goals-against average at 1.74 with a solid save percentage at .935. And while Crawford certainly stood tall in the series-clinching double overtime win over the Kings, it seems he's not as reliable as Rask when things in front of him collapse. If the Bruins can get the Blackhawks off their game or veer them away from their system, they should be able to rattle Crawford.
Edge: Bruins. Rask is in a Tim Thomas-type zone right now, and we all saw what happened in 2011 when Thomas was in that zone.
Bruins: While the Bruins enter the series with the 10th-best power play in the playoffs, going 7-for-45, their power play actually has gotten a little better. That’s hard to believe considering they didn’t get a power-play goal in the Eastern Conference finals, but the improvement has been the puck movement of the power play and how when the play goes back to 5-on-5, the Bruins have fed off that momentum and continued to move the puck better.
Blackhawks: The Blackhawks' power play statistically hasn’t been anything special either as it has gone just 7-for-51. But like the Bruins, they can move the puck well and translate it into offense at even strength.
Edge: Even. This series will be won in 5-on-5 play.
Bruins: The Bruins' penalty kill was simply amazing in the Eastern Conference finals, shutting down the league’s best power play, as the Penguins went 0-for-15 in four games. The Bruins enter the finals with the sixth-best penalty kill, but that number is skewed by their struggles in the first round. Boston’s penalty kill is back to normal now and should be ready for the Blackhawks' power play.
Blackhawks: The Blackhawks have the best penalty kill in the playoffs thus far with a 94.7 success rate, having allowed just three power-play goals in 57 chances. Much like the Bruins, the Hawks’ penalty kill is aggressive and can strike for short-handed goals, too. The Bruins' power play will need to be careful with the puck.
Edge: Blackhawks. While the Bruins’ penalty kill is on the rise, the Blackhawks have been more consistent and get a slight edge.
Bruins: Claude Julien continues to prove the naysayers wrong, and if there were a "coach of the playoffs" award, he’d get this scribe’s vote for sure. What he was able to do to the Penguins offense, specifically Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Jarome Iginla (I don’t mention Evgeni Malkin because if not for Rask, he would have had plenty of points) was simply amazing. Julien's ability to adapt to opponents’ systems series to series, game to game and in-game has been a key to the Bruins' success.
Blackhawks: Joel Quenneville is a candidate for the Jack Adams Award and rightfully so, as the Blackhawks had a historical season and were the best team in the NHL. Quenneville uses his puck smarts and emotions to rally his troops but knows when to pull back those emotions. He did an amazing job of regrouping his team when it had the go-ahead goal waived off late in Game 7 against the Red Wings, and the Blackhawks responded by winning in overtime.
Bruins in 6. This should be one heck of a series and could easily go the distance with either team winning. The teams are very evenly matched, but in the end, their roads to the finals might be the difference. Yes, the Blackhawks beat the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Western Conference finals, but the Bruins completely shut down one of the best offenses in recent memory in the Penguins and also blitzed the team many picked to win the Stanley Cup in the Rangers. The Bruins will get a split in Chicago to start the series and win the Cup in Game 6 back in Boston.