In case you've missed them (yeah, right!), here are five reasons the Stanley Cup playoffs have been must-see entertainment:
Zdeno Chara versus Jonathan Toews
Chara is a former Norris Trophy winner. Toews was just named Selke winner as the game’s best two-way forward. Until Game 4, Chara had won the battle -- both physically and psychologically -- as Chicago coach Joel Quenneville was reluctant to reunite Toews with Patrick Kane because he knew that would put pretty much all his offensive eggs in one basket against Chara.
Neither had scored through the first three games. But even though Chara continues to try to goad Toews into some extracurricular activity, it was Toews and the Blackhawks who earned a crucial 6-5 victory in Game 4. Toews and Kane, reunited on the top line, both scored. Toews respectfully but forcefully reinforced postgame that the Hawks wouldn’t be intimidated by Chara, and further that the Hawks could exploit the big defender with their speed and skill.
In short: “We’re going to be coming after you again, big boy.”
The Bruins, meanwhile, seem nonplussed by the challenge to their captain.
“Z’s one of the best defensemen in the league, and a guy that big and that strong you don’t really want to play around with a lot,” forward Brad Marchand said Thursday. “They’re welcome to say whatever they want. We’re just worried about how we have to play. Z steps up every night and plays his best.”
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The Bruins blew a 3-1 lead in Game 1 and lost in triple overtime. The Blackhawks scored first and dominated the first period in Game 2 yet wound up losing in overtime on Daniel Paille’s OT winner.
Game 4? The Blackhawks did their level best to cough up every lead they had before Brent Seabrook evened the series with his overtime blast in a 6-5 game.
The bottom line is that nothing is over ‘til it’s over. The past two springs, the team that scored first in the finals went 13-0, and the Elias Sports Bureau tells us that from 2008 to 2012 the team that scored first recorded an amazing 29-3 record.
The fact that both Chicago and Boston have wellsprings of resiliency has made for a compelling series. There is no give in either team, and the fact each squad knows the other will not take a knee has driven the competitive level in this series through the roof.
“I think it’s two confident teams, two teams that have been in the postseason, and both won championships and know how to play,” Bruins forward Chris Kelly said. “The first goal’s nice to score, but there’s still lots of hockey to be played, and both teams take that approach.”
The Jagr factor
Yeah, we know: Jagr hasn’t scored in the playoffs. But really, who cares? The five-time regular-season scoring champ is logging important minutes for the Bruins, and in Game 4 his hard work deep in the Chicago zone (including being knocked down and bouncing up to regain possession of the puck before feeding it to Patrice Bergeron in the slot for a goal) was exemplary.
More than that, his presence simply enriches the series, as it does the league. We saw Jagr with the Philadelphia Flyers last season and how beloved he was there after just a short period of time. The same was true with the Dallas Stars this season before his trade to Boston. His midnight jaunts on the ice after games and his sometimes meandering postgame conversations (we personally loved the suggestion after Game 3 that frail people shouldn’t watch this series because it’s too exciting and they might have a heart attack) have been a revelation. When a player as great as Jagr so obviously loves the game at this stage of his life and career, it’s intoxicating.
He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer after he retires. This series has taught us to hope that doesn’t happen anytime soon.
Speed versus grinding opportunism
One of the great storylines at the outset of this series was which of the competing styles and visions behind the building of these two teams would prevail. Both teams had won championships, with the Bruins grinding down a more skilled Vancouver team after dropping the first two games of the ’11 finals in Vancouver, and Chicago using its superior skill and speed to best Philadelphia in ’10 in a six-game set.
We have seen each team’s style prevail at times during this series, have seen each team look like it would take over the series -- starting with the Blackhawks’ stunning comeback in Game 1, followed by two tight-checking affairs that went the Bruins’ way, followed by Wednesday’s wild and woolly affair that saw Chicago even the series.
Boston coach Claude Julien seemed to take some offense to this characterization Thursday.
“I'm talking about our team's game because people construed, again, Bruins hockey as being rough and tumble and not much else,” Julien said. “But I talk about not playing our game, and our game was more, as I mentioned, getting our transition game going in a better direction.”
This isn’t to suggest the Bruins need to win every game 2-1 or match up in the skill department with Chicago. As Julien pointed out, they did score five times against Corey Crawford, who’s had an outstanding playoffs for the Blackhawks.
But the fact of the matter is that the Bruins’ five goals weren’t enough because the Blackhawks used their speed and desire to stretch the ice with long passes, which created several odd-man rushes.
In the end, both teams are capable of winning 6-5 or 2-1. It’s just that the Blackhawks are built to win more 6-5 games than they are 2-1 games -- at least, that’s the theory.
The hero/goat factor
How about Michal Rozsival? Two assists in Game 4 plus the shot that became the winner in triple overtime in Game 1 after it caromed off Dave Bolland and Andrew Shaw. The veteran Czech, who has never won the Cup, has just four assists this spring, but three have been in the finals. We call that clutch.
What about Rich Peverley? His role has been dramatically reduced since the Bruins last won the Cup in ’11, but there he was in Game 4 producing his best game of the postseason, scoring the Bruins’ second goal and sending the puck to a wide-open Chris Kelly late in regulation with the game tied, only to have Kelly fail to deposit the puck in the open net.
“I thought Rich had a great game last night,” Kelly said with a rueful grin. “I think he could have had a few and definitely could have had an assist if someone would have scored for him.”
Through four games we’ve had four players score winning goals. Brandon Saad is playing his best hockey of the playoffs, this after a difficult start for the rookie-of-the-year nominee. He set up the Blackhawks’ first goal Wednesday with a brilliant short-handed effort. Daniel Paille, Kelly and Tyler Seguin were the heroes in Games 2 and 3. Patrice Bergeron has been a dynamo all over the ice in pretty much every game.
But there have also been questions asked about top players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who answered the bell with strong Game 4s. David Krejci and linemates Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton have had some dry spells, thanks in large part to strong defensive play from Toews.
With two wins separating these teams from glory, the hero/goat storyline will take on even more drama.