By Sidney Brown, WARR contributor
For Chicago Blackhawks fans, Boston Bruins fans and hockey fans the world over — the moment that you’ve have waited for all year (and by that I literally mean since January) has arrived.
The most prized possession in hockey is now on the line and its an Original Six clash for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1979 (Montreal Canadians versus the New York Rangers) and it is the first all American Original Six final since 1972 (Boston vs. New York). Given their Original Six pedigree, both Boston and Chicago can claim legends that fans should remember from the past. For the Hawks there’s the likes of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Chris Chelios, Denis Savard and Jeremy Roenick. For Bruins how about Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr (a one time Blackhawk from 1976-79), Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, Boston’s current team president, along with former head coaches Mike Milbury and the ever-colorful Don Cherry who represent the black and gold.
Two rich histories and two great franchises will square off for this year’s crown for the first time ever and from the current talent pool on both rosters, it promises to be a series for the ages.
How They Got Here
The Hawks dominated the early story lines of the NHL with their historic 24-game point streak without a regulation loss, but that wound up being just a tip of the iceberg as they cruised through the regular season, winning the President’s Trophy with a 36-7-5 record and finishing first in the Western Conference and first in the NHL with 77 points. Expectations throughout the season have been high and the playoffs would give this team a much-needed test as the Hawks pretty much escaped the regular season without facing any adversity. The Hawks disposed the Minnesota Wild in the first round (4-1) without a hitch.
The second round would bring a matchup for the ages as the Detroit Red Wings wanted to make a statement before heading to the Eastern Conference next season and they wound up pushing the Hawks to the brink of elimination by building a 3-1 series lead in their semifinal series. As the biggest test of the season came upon them, the Hawks responded like champions, becoming the first team in franchise history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series (4-3). Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook would put the Red Wings to bed for good in Game 7 in Chicago with a game-winning goal in overtime. The Hawks’ final challenge before reaching the Stanley Cup Finals would come against the defending cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
The Hawks superstars woke up in this series, with the likes of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane scoring consistently after an initial two series where we didn’t hear much from them. The Kings were dispatched in five games (4-1) but Game 5 turned out to be another mountain to climb as the two teams fought into double overtime and Kane would show his true colors by netting his second career hat trick to put the Hawks in the finals.
Boston’s story dates back to the 2012 season after losing in the first round of that year’s playoffs to the Washington Capitals. Then the defending cup champions, the Bruins felt compelled to trade disgruntled goalie Tim Thomas before the start of this season, so there were questions as to whether this team was a Cup contender or not. As well as would new starting goaltender Tuukka Rask adapt to being the number one guy? The answers to both questions were YES as the Bruins finished the regular season with a 28-14-6 record and finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, collecting 62 points. The playoffs got off to a shaky start for the Bruins, as they eliminated the young and upstart Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games (4-3).
Adding to what was already a thrilling series, in Game 7 the Bruins trailed 4-1 on their home ice and rallied to tie the game late. Patrice Bergeron would conclude matters with a game-winning goal in overtime. The second round would be a piece of cake for Boston as they put the New York Strangers….oops, I mean Rangers… out of their misery in five games (4-1). With a lack of offense from the Rangers, the Bruins clamped down defensively, taking away any scoring chances and scoring just enough goals to win.
Playing strong defense is how the Bruins get things done and this strategy would be used again in eliminating the number one-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in a four game sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals. You have to give credit to the players and coaching staff for Boston for shutting down Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, leaving the goal scoring duo with no points in the series and frustrating them to the point that their play was clearly out of sync.
The Hawks are led by their studs lineup Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marion Hossa. While that foursome is starting to heat up at the right time, it’s Conn Smythe Trophy (Playoff MVP) candidate Bryan Bickell who’s tied for second in the NHL in goals scored with eight this postseason. Bickell’s presence in front of the net has been one of the reasons why the Hawks are in the Finals. After scoring just nine goals in the regular season, Bickell’s play has come of age lately, taking pressure off Chicago’s stars. This year’s tough guy has sparked reminders of former Hawk Dustin Byfuglien from the 2010 run.
While Bickell doesn’t have the same physical frame as Byfuglien does, his on-ice impact has been similar and it should continue if the Hawks are going to win the Cup. Other forwards Andrew Shaw, Michal Handzus, Marcus Kruger, Michael Frolik and Dave Bolland must continue to win face offs, play strong defense and shut down the Bruins top scoring lines to give Chicago a chance to win.
The Bruins, they’re led by playoff scoring leader David Krejci (nine goals and 12 assists), Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr, who is playing in his first Cup Finals since 1992 with Pittsburgh. The Bruins top scoring line — Krejci, Horton and Lucic — must put pressure on the Hawks defense and put pucks in front of the net to create scoring chances. For the second line — Bergeron, Marchand and Jagr — they must control the puck in their offensive zone.
Even though these forwards don’t score as much as their opponent, they must make Hawks goalie Corey Crawford work for everything he gets by creating traffic in front of him. Other forwards such as Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverly, Chris Kelly, Daniel Pallie and enforcer Shawn Thornton must help out Rask by shutting down the Hawks top scoring lines to have a chance in this series.
Chicago’s top defensive pair includes Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. After being reunited in the latter stages in the Detroit series, this tandem has taken off, shutting down down the opposition’s top scoring lines and this was evident in the Western Conference Finals against the L.A. Kings. The likes of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter for the Kings were left shaking their heads after being out-hit and just simply outplayed by the Hawks defenders. Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy and Michal Rosival must help out Crawford by being physical and clearing out pucks and not allowing multiple scoring chances for the Bruins.
Boston is led by their top defensive pairing in the 6’9″ statue that is Zdeno Chara along with Dennis Seidenberg. After struggling against the Maple Leafs in the opening round, this top paring has responded with a bang by helping shut down the likes of New York’s Rick Nash in the second round and frustrating the superstars of the Pittsburgh Penguins — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Jerome Iginla — in the Eastern Conference Finals. Other defenseman for Boston include Andrew Ferrence, Adam McQuaid, Johnny Boychuck and rookie sensation Torey Krug, they must be physical and create chaos for the Hawks high-powered offense by creating turnovers and taking away any space for the Hawks to operate.
For the Hawks, Corey Crawford has been stellar and should be the front runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy (Playoff MVP). Without Crawford’s performance and his ability to rebound from last year’s nightmare postseason series against Phoenix, the Hawks would be sitting home watching the Finals right now. Crawford has a 12-5 record with a goals against average of 1.74 along with a save percentage of .935% in this year’s playoffs. On the other side, Bruins goalender Tukkaa Rask has inserted himself into the number one spot with ease during these playoffs.
Rask was under different cirucumstances in 2010 as the backup when then starter Tim Thomas was injured and was part of the historic collapse the team had, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games after blowing a 3-0 series lead. Rask wasn’t the lone reason why the Bruins lost three years ago but he has grown since then and he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder for playing time.
Already with one Stanley Cup as a backup to Thomas again in 2011, Rask is looking forward to proving himself on the biggest stage as a top dog who can lead his team to the Cup. Rask has a 12-4 record with a 1.75 goals against average along with a .943% save percentage. To beat both goalies, it is just this simple: you must create traffic in front of them, creating second and third chances around the net. Which team will be more consistent in that department?
The Hawks’ penalty kill unit is tops in the NHL in the playoffs with a 94.8% kill percentage, giving up just three goals thus far. Chicago’s power play MUST improve if they’re going to have any chance of winning this series. For the Bruins, their penalty kill unit has been excellent and it was displayed well against Pittsburgh, blanking the Penguins on their man advantage 0-15. The Bruins’ power play was silenced against Pittsburgh but has been okay in the previous rounds.
Hawks head coach Joel Quenneville is a master in changing lines when necessary and his method has gotten them this far. Rolling out talent on all four lines should be commended and Coach Q will have no problems changing players if they’re not doing they’re job. Boston head coach Claude Julien has a calm and cool personality which trickles down to his players which explains why the Bruins are one of the best teams in the NHL in crunch time. Coach Julien’s style of playing strong defense while scoring just enough goals to win has worked in the past, including a Cup win in 2011, and wins in seven of the last eight playoff series Boston has been in. With talent all through the Bruins roster, their commitment to defense is second to none and their greatest challenge is in front of them now trying to stop the high-powered Hawks offense.
This series will come down to whose style will out last the other. Can the Hawks dictate tempo from start to finish? Will the power play for either team heat up? Will the physical play of the Bruins frustrate the Hawks? And which goalie will stand on its head to lead their team to the Cup? The answers to these questions will be answered starting with Game 1 tonight at the United Center in Chicago at 7 pm central time on NBC with Mike “Doc” Emrick, Eddie Olcyk and Pierre McGuire.
My prediction: Hawks in six!
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