Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron (37) celebrates his team's 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs, in Boston on Friday, June 7, 2013. The Bruins advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
CHICAGO - It's been 20 months since Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks took on Zdeno Chara and the Boston Bruins.
Two of the NHL's marquee franchises sure picked a perfect time to renew acquaintances.
The Stanley Cup series kicks off Wednesday night when the Blackhawks host the Bruins in the first finals matchup of Original Six franchises since Montreal beat the New York Rangers in five games way back in 1979.
The mighty Blackhawks, winners of seven of the last eight games, feature a deep roster that really found its identity when pushed to the limit by the Detroit Red Wings in the second round. Then there are the playoff-tested Bruins, who rolled over favoured Pittsburgh during an impressive sweep that gave them a chance for a second NHL title in three seasons.
It's a gift wrapped in a bow for a league still trying to recover from a bitter lockout that wiped out 510 games and pushed the start of the season back to Jan. 19.
"It's a special couple places, the tradition of the Bruins and the Hawks is special," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "I'm sure, you know, the rivalry could return instantly come Game 1. I think it's good for the league. It's good for hockey. Two great hockey markets. We're very excited to be a part of it."
Chicago advanced with a 4-3 double-overtime victory over Los Angeles on Saturday night, using a hat trick from Patrick Kane to eliminate the defending champion Kings in five games in the Western Conference finals. Back in the title series for the first time since 2010, the Blackhawks are in search of another Stanley Cup to pair with their six-game victory over the Philadelphia Flyers three years ago.
"These opportunities don't come back all the time," Chicago defenceman Duncan Keith said. "I think we want to make the best of it."
Boston is rolling again after losing its spot atop the Northeast Division in the final days of the regular season. The Bruins have won five in a row and nine of 10, boosted by a familiar group of stars who led the way when they won it all in 2011. David Krejci scored four times in the Pittsburgh sweep and leads Boston with nine goals and 12 assists in the playoffs.
"The excitement is there," Bruins coach Claude Julien said Sunday. "You've heard people say, 'Once you've been there, you want to go back.' It's true, we really want to go back; we made it happen. We're excited about it and we also know what kind of challenge lies ahead for us. It's about acknowledging that and being ready for it."
While Boston and Chicago have kept an eye on each other for a while now, there's no way for either team to grab a real hold on what to expect at the very beginning of the series. That's because the abbreviated 48-game schedule due to the lockout included no games against teams from the other conference.
That's right, the Bruins and Blackhawks haven't played since Oct. 15, 2011, when Boston won 3-2 in a shootout in Chicago. There are no mutual opponents this year, not even an All-Star game to compare the players from each conference.
"The only advantage you have sometimes is that you know from going head to head with them what's worked and what hasn't worked," Julien said. "When it comes to that, it's the same for both teams.
"I think we've done a lot of pre-scout and watched them play enough, have an idea of how they've played, just like I'm sure they do with us."
The Bruins were on the brink of elimination when they trailed Toronto 4-1 with less than 11 minutes left in the third period of Game 7 in the first round. But they managed to beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime.
The Blackhawks had their own great escape in the second round, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the rival Red Wings in seven games. The comeback included a three-goal flurry in Game 6 that erased a 2-1 deficit heading into the final period.
The twin comebacks for Boston and Chicago increase the potential for a compelling series when the sides face off for the title. Now mix in a couple of the NHL's best all-around forwards in Toews and Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins, plus a slew of talented players on each side, and there are convincing arguments to be made for either side to win the title.
"Here we are again," Toews said. "We got a great chance to go back to where we want to be. We know there's going to be some more tough moments that we'll have to battle through. We're confident we can do that as a team."
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap