Those of you who read THN regularly might recall that a mere 10 days ago, I wrote about how great the conference finals were going to be and how both were pick ‘em affairs.
Well, never mind about that. The fact that we’re previewing the Stanley Cup final so early is a clear indication that the Eastern and Western Conference finals were the biggest letdowns since Back to the Future Part II. Did anybody see that coming? There’s no way anybody could have predicted that two of the best players in the world would come up so limp at such a crucial time. And the Los Angeles Kings, while valiant in effort, could not overcome their lack of offensive flair and their fatigue from playing through two very difficult, very physical series.
Actually, though, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins are playing in the Stanley Cup final for the first time ever and giving us the first Original Six championship series since the Montreal Canadiens defeated the New York Rangers in 1979. The Blackhawks have clearly been the class of the league all season and have a unique ability to play it any way you’d like. You want to trade offensive chances? Sure. Want to lock it down and make every inch of the ice a battlefield? OK. Want to get down and dirty and pound each other into submission? Bring it on.
The Bruins, on the other hand, are riding their playoff success on the fact that they are built to excel at a time of year when the league is clearly governed by another rulebook. It makes the team-building thing a little more difficult when the referees call it one way during the regular season, then pretty much ignore 90 percent of the obstruction fouls in the playoffs, but the Bruins have found a way. They are clearly willing to take their lumps during the regular season in exchange for playoff glory.
On paper, this series has the makings of a classic, but so did the Eastern and Western Conference finals. But we promise, this one will not disappoint. Unless it does. With that in mind, we preview the 2013 Stanley Cup final:
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (No. 1 in West) vs. BOSTON BRUINS (No. 4 in East)
How Chicago got here: Well, having guys such as Bryan Bickell channel their inner Cam Neely certainly helps. Any team that gets to a Stanley Cup final needs some of its lesser lights to step up and shine and Bickell has done exactly that, even before he was moved to the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. And like their opponent in the final, the Blackhawks have gotten better as the playoffs have progressed. None of the Blackhawks is a point-per-game player in the post-season, but they have been getting contributions from a wide variety of sources and Corey Crawford is providing the kind of goaltending that Stanley Cup winners need.
How Boston got here: By overcoming an enormous scare in the first round, then steamrolling their way through the next two rounds of the playoffs in one game more than the minimum. The Bruins successfully shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and reduced a team that was averaging 4.3 goals per game going into the series to just two goals in four games in the Eastern Conference final. Defenseman Zdeno Chara is looking very much like a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate after a so-so season by his standards and David Krejci and Nathan Horton are providing goals both in terms of quantity and timeliness. Tuukka Rask has made everyone in Boston forget about Tim Thomas with his play, particularly in the second and third rounds.
OFFENSE: The Bruins have the league’s two leading scorers in Krejci and Horton going into the final and outscored the powerful Penguins 12-2 in the Eastern Conference final. Boston can generate offense from every line and from the blueline. The Blackhawks have two of the league’s top playoff goal-scorers in Bickell and Patrick Sharp and had some of their star players begin to emerge from their slumber in the Western Conference final. EDGE: Boston
DEFENSE: The Blackhawks have given up only 28 shots per game throughout the playoffs and while they’re slightly behind the Bruins in goals-against, they have the ability to play strong defense embedded in their DNA coming from the much tighter Western Conference. The top defense pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook might not be classic defensive defenders, but their ability to get to pucks and move them up the ice gets the Blackhawks out of all kinds of trouble. The Bruins have their shutdown anchor of Chara and Dennis Seidenberg and one of the top defensive forwards in the league in Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins developed their defensive game, while the Blackhawks have been playing it all year. EDGE: Chicago
GOALTENDING: The problem with assessing goaltending going into the Stanley Cup final is that there’s no way you even get that far without having a prime stopper playing at the top of his game. And that’s what both teams are receiving at the moment. Rask was spectacular at times against the Penguins and has been very good at handling the first shot and snuffing out any chance for a second opportunity with good puck and rebound control. Crawford is playing at the level the Blackhawks hoped he would and while he has a penchant for allowing the odd questionable goal, he has been incredibly solid. EDGE: Boston
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Bruins held the Penguins scoreless on 15 power play opportunities in the Eastern Conference final, but the Blackhawks penalty killing has been nearly impenetrable since the beginning of the post-season. Consider this: The Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild are the only teams that have allowed fewer power play goals (two) than the Blackhawks (three), but all three of those teams were first-round fodder. Neither team’s power play has been particularly effective in the post-season. EDGE: Chicago
PREDICTION: Both teams managed to dispatch their opponents quickly and relatively easily in the conference finals, so fatigue should not be a huge factor in the series. The best news the Blackhawks could have hoped for is that Patrick Kane has come alive and is back to being a threat almost every time he touches the puck in the offensive zone. Both teams are very difficult to beat on home ice, which favors the Blackhawks since they have home-ice advantage. Chicago’s ability to adapt to any kind of game will serve them well in the final. Both teams have all kinds of big-game experience and are impressive throughout their lineups. We picked the Blackhawks, though, to win the Cup at the start of the post-season and we’re not straying from that prediction. BLACKHAWKS IN 6.