Stanley Cup Preview: Hawks-Bruins
Two Original Six teams. Two of the four biggest sports markets in America. Two of the deepest teams in the NHL with two of the hottest goaltenders to date. The 2013 Stanley Cup finals has all the makings of something truly historical, containing two teams who know a thing or two about winning a championship. This will be the first playoff meeting between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins since 1978 and the first time they even share the ice together since October 2011. The roller coaster ride to get to this point has been a hell of a lot bumpier than your typical fan would prefer. There have been flashes of dominance: Boston’s shocking sweep of The Golden Boy and his Penguins, Chicago’s comfortable 4-1 series win over the former champs; there have been flashes of desperation: Boston’s unforgettable come-from-behind Game 7 win to stun the Toronto Maple Leafs after suffering a 4-1 deficit in the third period, Chicago’s ability to win three straight elimination games over the Detroit Red Wings. But in another 35 years, most hockey fans will look back on the 2013 season and only remember the best-of-seven ride that lies ahead – a ride that will inevitably end in thrill for one team and nausea for the other.
Nearly every major contributor on this Bruins team was a part of their 2011 Stanley Cup run. David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Nathan Horton make up one of the, if not the, strongest first line in all of hockey. Krejci recorded 23 points 12 goals, 11 assists) en rout to the Cup two years ago; he already has 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists) this postseason. Him, Lucic and Horton lead all playoff qualifiers with a +/- of +14, +13 and +21, respectively. The chemistry between those three is as good as chemistry can possibly get (somewhere Carmelo Anthony is shrugging upon hearing such a word), so one can only hope that the Blackhawk defense can find a way to slow the trio down. Patrice Bergeron (two game-winning goals in OT) and his little bitch side kick, Brad Marchand, the 5’9 pest who opposing players and fans looove to hate, round out a very formidable and threatening offfense. 87-year-old Jaromir Jagr is playing in his first Stanley Cup since 1992 but has probably had somewhat of an affect on Boston’s improvement from 2.65 GF/G during the regular season (13th) to 3.13 GF/G during the postseason (2nd).
As for the Hawks, we all know the story by now: incredible depth and star power. Patrick Kane, whose head was being called for by many irrational fans for not scoring a goal in seven consecutive playoff games, came through in a monstrous way with a goal in Game 4 against LA and a hat trick in Game 5 to punch Chicago’s ticket to the Cup. But while Jonathan Toews has struggled mightily and has yet to score his second playoff goal, it’s been the play of unsung heroes that can’t be overshadowed. Bryan Bickell has officially earned himself a massive pay day come July with his unpredicatble eight playoff goals; veteran center Michal Handzus has chipped in nine points in 17 playoff games; and lightning rod Andrew Shaw has provided an emotional and physical spark that this team has seemed to lack at various points throughout the postseason. Overall, 12 different Blackhawks have scored goals during this playoff run. Hopefully, those very unsung heroes can rise to the occasion for one last series.
The Bruin defense is headlined by the three-headed monster of Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid. Chara, who stands at a relatively large 6’9 255 pounds, is a straight-up behemoth. He is literally 7’0 tall on skates, which would make shit seep through the pants and leak down the inner thigh of most normal people were he to ever come at anyone at full speed on ice. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would drop dead immediately after receiving a forecheck from a man of that size – I would probably suffer a heart attack just from the sight of his approach – which makes me think that breaking an opponent’s bone or two from a simple check into the boards isn’t all that uncommon for Chara.
All joking aside, given his size, Chara is as good a defenseman as there is in this league. As expected, he leads all Bruin defensemen with 53 hits to go along with 11 points and a +/- rating of +12. He makes a huge impact on the power play as well with his deadly slap shot, his knack for effectively screening the opposing goaltender with his girthy frame, and his ability to successfully move the puck from the point.
Boychuk comes into the Cup with a league-leading 55 blocked shots (it’s not even close), and his 48 hits ranks him third amongst defensemen (behind Seabrook and Chara). 6’5 Adam McQuaid, fresh off his game-winning goal in Boston’s Game 4 shutout of Pittsburgh, has been solid as well with 36 hits and 27 blocked shots.
The Niklas Hjalmarsson/Johnny Oduya blue-line combo has been arguably as good as, if not better than, the more popular Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook combo. The former two quietly lead the team in both +/- rating at +10 and +9, respectively, and blocked shots with 32 apiece. Keith is undoubtedly the best defenseman on the roster, and the fact that Chicago was able to steal Game 4 in LA without him will forever be beyond my comprehension. But given the second line’s current level of play, I shouldn’t have been as worried heading into that game. Hjalmarsson and Oduya may not be as big and physical as the Boston blue-liners (leave that to Seabrook and his 58 hits), but their under-appreciated chemistry and finesse have made them as valuable as a second defensive line can be. The extreme difference in style of play between these two opposing defenses is one of the more intriguing story lines out there.
Two summers ago, it was difficult to imagine a goaltender performing at a higher level than the one that Tim Thomas displayed for Boston during their Stanley Cup run. Thomas recorded an astounding 1.98 goals against average (GAA) and .940 save percentage (SV%) and earned himself the Conn Smythe Trophy award. Outside of the shockingly mortal Jonathan Quick (who blew those numbers away last year), no net-minder in recent memory has risen to that level… until Tuuka Rask came along this spring. Behind his 1.75 GAA and .943 SV%, Rask is coming off a series in which he completely stonewalled the Beasts of the East, allowing just two goals in four games and turning in an outrageous 53 saves in Boston’s thrilling double overtime win in Game 3. He’s got the hot hand, and it’s downright scary.
Corey Crawford, however, comes in with a hot hand of his own. After a couple of fairly mediocre postseasons between the pipes (2.21 GAA, .927 SV% against Vancouver in ’11; 2.58 GAA, .893 SV% against Phoenix in ’12), he leads all playoff goaltenders with a 1.74 GAA and ranks second behind Rask with a .935 SV%. The former second-round draft pick has come into his own and become the man we all hoped to see him become – a man we can finally feel comfortable riding for many springs to come – and has yet to ride even a sliver of pine (save for empty net situations) throughout this entire postseason run. If Crawford can improve upon his weakness of occasionally allowing a soft goal slip through the pipes and figure out a way to corral more pucks to avoid second-chance opportunities for the opponent, he will surely come to be known as one of best goalies in the league. Period.
At this juncture of the season, all hope for Chicago’s power play is pretty much lost. After a 1-for-14 showing against LA, the Hawks are now chillin’ at a 13.7% conversion rate on the PP. Boston’s penalty killing unit, on the other hand, has gone from middle of the pack amongst playoff teams to more lethal than one could’ve imagined, holding Pittsburgh and their godly PP unit (28.3% before the series) scoreless (yes – scoreless) in 15 tries during their four-game sweep. Boston and its PK unit are playing some inspired hockey at the most opportune time. Needless to say, this clash does not bode well for Chicago.
The good news, though? Boston’s power play is nearly just as bad, having gone 7-for-45 (15.6%) in one-man advantages thus far. Chicago may have given up two surprising power play goals in the conference finals, but their PK unit, as always, remains deadlier than “The Night Stalker” (too soon?) with a league-leading 94.8% PK%. In a series where both teams simply refuse to give in during shorthanded situations, one measly power play goal could be the overriding difference in a game which, in turn, could end up being the difference in the series as a whole. Let’s just hope that one measly puck finds a way to scoot past Tuuka Rask’s crease and not that of Corey Crawford.
I picked the Hawks in five over Detroit; they won in seven. I picked the Hawks in seven over LA; they won in five. What’s the median between the two? Six.
Your 2013 Stanley Cup Champion? The Chicago Blackhawks. In 6.
Posted on June 12, 2013, in Blackhawks and tagged adam mcquaid, boston bruins, brad marchand, bryan bickell, corey crawford, david krejci, duncan keith, jaromir jagr, johnny boychuk, johnny douya, michal handzus, milan lucic, nathan horton, niklas hjalmarsson, original six, patrice bergeron, Patrick Kane, penalty kill, power play, stanley cup, tuuka rask, zdeno chara. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.