Like most people, I picked the Bruins to beat the Maple Leafs. From there, it was basically believe-it-when-I-see-it time. I reluctantly chose the Rangers, and then star power forced me into selecting the Penguins.
That’s it; enough of the skepticism. I’m a believer, baby. Bruins in six!
The puck drops on the first Original Six Stanley Cup Final matchup since 1979 tonight with Boston at the United Center for Game 1 against President’s Trophy winner Chicago.
Make no mistake, the Blackhawks are the favorites. They’re the popular pick by record (36-7-5 vs. 28-14-6), seed (first overall vs. fifth), Las Vegas odds (-140), and most “experts.” People fell in love with Da Hawks when they reeled off points in an NHL-record 24 straight contests to start the 48-game lockout-shortened year and, save for that pesky 3-1 series deficit to the Red Wings in round two, they haven’t looked back.
The Bruins, in many ways, are the flavor of the month. In fact, it was almost exactly one month ago on May 13 that the B’s shocked the Leafs with four goals in the game’s final 17 minutes to mount a Game 7 comeback never before seen in league history. On that night, the Black and Gold saved a few jobs and started a string of nine wins in 10 games, during which time they overmatched the Blue Shirts and positively punished the consensus-superior Pens. Was it easy? No. But it sure looked it.
Now it’s a new challenge for both teams. Thanks to a work stoppage that no one can remember, the regular season was East against East, and West against West. To view the opposing conference, teams needed the Center Ice package. The B’s and Hawks last faced off some 20 months ago, with nothing but video scouting since.
The Bruins have triumphed over the Blackhawks in five of six playoff series all-time, the last coming in the quarterfinal round in 1978. Also, just for fun, it’s the rubber match between cities. Boston has only faced Chicago for two other championships: a World Series win over the Cubs in 1918, and a Super Bowl thrashing by the Bears in 1986.
Fast-forward to today, here’s what we know:
These teams are remarkably similar, and each has hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in the last four years. Both are deep, work hard, skate well, roll four lines, get production from everywhere, and have blueliners who like to get involved offensively. Defensively, they can shut you down, their penalty killers thrive, and there is little room for complaint in net. The word “complete” comes to mind.
The Bruins are more physically aggressive by nature, which is fortunate because a game plan similar in that regard to what was employed in the conference finals may prove vital to earn four wins in this round. As for the numbers, the B’s are out-hitting the Hawks this postseason, 571 to 458, and blocking a few more shots, 256 to 217.
When considering offensive firepower, the names – as was the case with the Penguins – favor the Blackhawks. On paper, David Krejci (despite his NHL points-lead), Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and (gulp) Tyler Seguin, are no Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Bryan Bickell. Of course, ask Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Jarome Iginla, Pascal Dupuis, Kris Letang or James Neal if games are played on paper. And…BROOM goes the dynamite.
You’ve probably heard about how Chicago possesses better mobility and transition from the back end. Maybe, but it’s Boston’s defensemen who have chipped in more on offense with 15 goals and 35 points in the postseason to the opposition’s six and 27 totals.
Overall, the goal-scoring edge goes to the Bruins. They rank second in the postseason with 3.12 goals-per-game to the Hawks’ 2.76, good for sixth. Neither team has proven to be too powerful on the man-advantage, which was the case during the regular season as well. Each squad currently sits at less than a 16 percent success rate. Despite all the star power, their preference is 5-on-5 play, where the clubs rank 1-2 in goals for/against ratio. Boston’s at 1.77 to Chicago’s 1.44. Both were top four in the regular campaign as well. If power plays continue to have outages and penalty killers still block, clear, change and chase – something the Hawks do a ridiculous 94.8 percent of the time to date – 5-on-5 play may very well be a difference-maker.
This series, like any series ultimately, will be won on defense, and that edge goes to the Bruins.
Don’t get me wrong, both squads are stingy in this area. The B’s pace the NHL in goals-against-per-game at 1.88, a hair and two spots ahead of the Hawks at 1.94, but they’ve taken very different roads to get to this point.
Tuukka Rask has earned every dollar he's got coming to him as he and the Bruins have ousted three top-15 regular season offenses in the Leafs, Rangers and Penguins, including two ranking in the top six. Along the way, the Conn Smythe candidate has only gotten better. Rask allowed 18 goals to Toronto, 10 to New York (nine, if you’d prefer to ignore the one he watched from his butt) and, against arguably one of the best offenses ever, just two in a four-game sweep. He’s rarely been out of position, is technically sound, and is making it look far easier – if less impressive – than when Tim Thomas was swimming around the crease two years ago. Rask has a certain swagger that makes you wonder if he just expects this all to be happening.
On the other side, Corey Crawford has been equally solid statistically. While Rask boasts a 12-4 mark, two shutouts, a 1.75 goals-against average and .943 save percentage, Crawford’s right there at 12-5 with one whitewash, a 1.74 GAA and .935 save rate. You might argue this area’s a draw, but not if you’ve watched them play. Crawford is said to be playing with more focus than ever before, and his defenders deserve a lot of credit for constantly clearing the crease, but he also hasn’t had to steal a game the way Rask twice had to against the Pens. Moreover, his series wins have come over two offensively-challenged teams in the Red Wings and Wild, to whom he surrendered a combined 21 goals, and he gave up another 10 scores to the defending-champion Kings, a team that sat 10th in the regular season in goals-per-game and generally wins on defense.
It’ll have to be all about team defense and relentless forechecking for the Bruins, listed on your menus as the Claude Julien Special. Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and company must parry the Blackhawks’ speed and offensive threats with physicality, neutral zone traffic, and an overall stuck-on-you demeanor. The B’s did this to the Penguins constantly, helping them to go 15-for-15 on the penalty kill. Crosby et al, had so little room to move, you’d think they were just other guys in Bruins sweaters.
Chicago’s Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya are no slouches, mind you, but Boston holds the advantage here and it’s going to result in a second Duck Boat Parade in three years. For Julien, lifetime fame in New England. His club simply – okay, not simply – must establish its game plan early and execute against a team that is rarely outcompeted and, oh yeah, has won nine of 10 at home in the playoffs. Again, it won’t be easy.
No one said the Bruins could beat the Penguins last round or the Canucks in the finals two years ago, me included. Call them underdogs again if you’d like, but that’s not how I see it anymore.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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