Like two heavyweight boxers who can throw and absorb a big punch, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks will answer the bell on Saturday night in what is now a best-of-three for the Stanley Cup. The teams returned to Chicago for Game 5, and don't be surprised if this final continues to look like a Rocky film, with marathon bouts that somehow don't end even though the fighters trade heavy roundhouse blows that in real life would knock out the other guy.
Much of the pre-series speculation held that this Original Six encounter looked like a pick 'em affair that would go the distance, and that increasingly seems like the way it will play out. Plus, with three of the four games having gone into overtime, this final has tied the mark for the second most OTs in a Cup championship series and there's no reason to think we won't see at least one remaining game go an additional frame.
Only the legendary 1951 Cup final between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens had more extra hockey, with all five games extended beyond 60 minutes. Toronto won Game 5 on the last goal ever scored by Leafs defenseman Bill Barilko, who perished a few months later in a plane crash. That final -- intertwined with Barilko's fate -- has been the subject of books, websites, and songs, and the Maple Leafs still honor it.
It's very premature to declare this year's final a classic, but it recaptured its roar in Wednesday night's Game 4, a furious 6-5 OT win for the Blackhawks. That followed a desultory Game 3 last Monday, a 2-0 Boston victory in which the exhaustion factor from the first pair of overtimes conspired with bad ice and excellent defense by the Bruins to rob the Blackhawks of a needed higher gear and the competition of any ferocity. Boston pretty much had its way in that one, the only game so far that has been settled in regulation time. The lasting image of that contest, repeated over and over, is of the Hawks unloading 30-foot shots that stuck to untroubled B's goalie Tuukka Rask like Velcro. Then Boston's Patrice Bergeron glided on to take the face-offs, won them, and his team skated the puck out of danger. It happened all night and although it was great for one team -- Boston coach Claude Julien justifiably crowed, "We're playing the best hockey of the season right now" -- it made for lousy theater.
It also was the cause of predictions that this series was essentially over, that the Bruins were in the process of shutting down the Blackhawks the way they had shut down the Rangers and Penguins before them. Instead, Game 4 contained only one fewer goal that the previous three games combined, and once again proved the futility of forecasting the outcome of Stanley Cup hockey.
But here are some important factors from Game 4 that are worth keeping in mind on Saturday night:
A game of mistakes
From the opening face-off, the Hawks played with the verve and sock they lacked in Game 3, skating with purpose, taking the body, flying through the neutral zone, waiting for traffic to gather in front of the net before shooting, and charging hard after rebounds and loose pucks. Boston was forced to respond and did in nearly equal measure, although Julien had to admit that it wasn't "Bruins hockey."
The result was long stretches of high-tempo, pulsating action, much of which resulted from mistakes by both clubs, and while neither Julien nor his Windy City counterpart Joel Quenneville may have liked it -- coaches don't have the same perspective as fans in these things -- at least it showed that Boston can play more than one style and be competitive. Chicago dictated the terms in this one but, unlike the one-sided nature of the previous game, Boston was not outclassed at all and Julien admitted as much.
After having it vanish on them in Games 2 and 3, the Hawks relocated their transition game and it forced the Bruins to uncharacteristically surrender numerous odd-man rushes, especially in the second period, which featured this goal by Marcus Kruger, who finished off a 2-on-1 with Michael Frolik that put Chicago up 4-2. Boston's Dennis Seidenberg had pinched too deeply into the offensive zone after the Hawks got the puck in their own end, only to have Dave Bolland chip it past him to Kruger, leaving Zdeno Chara and Rask to fend for themselves.
Rask had entered this game with a save percentage that rivaled the one posted by Kings goalie Jonathan Quick's record-setting mark from last season -- .9463 for Rask compared to Quick's .9461 -- but he had no chance on that one, nor some others, which will command the attention of Julien and his staff. The Bruins' mobile positioning and puck support -- "layering" is now the fashionable term for it -- went missing on Wednesday and Julien will want to see less standing around by his club in Game 5 when it is defending and when it has the puck.
Preying on Crawford
On the other hand, the B's can still tout their trademark resilience, the quality they rode to the 2011 Cup and their stunning first-round comeback against Toronto. For the first time since that series with the Leafs, Boston trailed in a playoff game by two goals, but battled back to tie it three separate times and, in doing so, further exposed Corey Crawford's difficulty with shots aimed at his glove-hand side.
By the count of Glenn Healey on the Hockey Night in Canada telecast, Crawford has surrendered 10 goals during this playoff season on shots high to his glove side. Four came on Wednesday and the fifth in that game flew beneath his glove as Crawford perhaps anticipated that the shot would be another high one. It happened on the second tally of the evening by Patrice Bergeron, the end product of a great cycle job in the corner between the Boston center and winger Jaromir Jagr, that tied the game at 4-4. Their persistence along the wall is typical of how the B's like to play the game.
Getting the jump
Yet, the Hawks open ice play trumped Boston's board play and it started at the opening face-off, with Chicago the better, speedier team right off the hop. Even while killing a penalty early on, the Hawks responded with a shorthanded goal by Michal Handzus, all rooted in their speed and determination
On a TSN's SportsCentre segment, Aaron Ward pointed out that every time a Hawk got the puck in his own zone, he took three hard strides before even thinking about passing, thus ramping up the team speed and putting Boston on its heels. Once again, Joel Quenneville juggled his lines, reuniting Jonathan Toews with Patrick Kane and rugged Bryan Bickell on the top line. It resulted in goals for both Toews and Kane while Bickell, with two assists, was a plus-3. This trio was also on for Brent Seabrook's overtime winner.
That line was a slump-buster for Chicago's gold dust twins and it clicked in ways that the Hawks needed. Kane's goal, his first of the final, was on a rebound with traffic in front of the net and it should serve as a reminder to Chicago that this is one of the very few ways that Rask can be beaten; Toews' tally, his first since -- incredibly -- May 25, began with a long stretch pass from deep in the Hawks' zone. Chicago also got secondary scoring on this night but, for the first time this round, the Hawks' best players were truly their best players
Taking it to Tuukka
Going hard to the net was another element in Chicago's win, a more aggressive physicality that included getting in Rask's face and even laying the body on big Chara, even though no single Hawks approaches his size. Bickell hit him early and managed to knock him down. "He doesn't like getting hit," Bickell said on Thursday. "Not a lot of guys attempt it, but to get a hit on him and to see him fall down, it's rare, but I just needed to keep it going."
Toews led the charge to Rask's crease and, as a consequence, had to deal with Chara ...
... and again:
On Seabrook's OT goal, Toews was again in front, battling with Chara and Seidenberg and distracting Rask, who wasn't screened but seemed bugged by the white sweaters on top of him much of the night. After Kruger's goal, he lifted his hands in despair -- a sight no teammate likes to see from their goaler -- and fired the puck in the general direction of the celebrating enemy. The Bruins will probably be less polite to Blackhawk trespassers on Saturday.
Still, you can't hit what you can't catch, and on that game winner, two quick bursts made the difference. First, Kane darted to a loose puck, took a few strides and fired a sharp-angled shot at Rask. Then Seabrook, who got the puck from Bickell, pulled away from the slower Jagr high in the offensive zone, moved to some favorable real estate where no Bruin could reach him, and blasted away.
But big questions remain for Game 5.
• How does Boston respond? It's hard to imagine the Bruins doing anything but upping their play and executing better. Effort is rarely a problem with this team, but it didn't seem prepared for what Chicago threw at it. Don't expect that to be the case on Saturday.
• What is the status of Marian Hossa? He was not the dominant player we're used to seeing, and he left the bench a few times during play for some reason. It's one of those mysterious playoff injuries that we'll only learn about when it's all over, but it seemed that just having him in the lineup was beneficial for linemate Patrick Sharp, who scored a big goal and was a threat all night. From the Hawks perspective, they'll be better with a partially effective Hossa in the lineup than with no Hossa.
• Will Rask rebound from his strangely average game, or have the Hawks figured out how to get to him? As in Game 2, Rask was all that kept the Hawks from running away with this one early on, but later on he was less than the superhuman netminder we've seen for most of this postseason.
• Do the Blackhawks defensemen now gather off in a corner and agree to block more shots, fearful that if they don't, those pucks will elude Corey Crawford's catching glove? And does Quenneville continue to go with fewer defensemen, as he did in Game 4, benching Nick Leddy for much of the game?
• Have the Hawks resolved the big discrepancy between their and Boston's success on face-offs? Chicago studied how the B's were winning so many and realized that the Boston wingers were playing a big role after the puck was dropped, so they've become more engaged in those battles.
And finally, will it once again take more than 60 minutes to figure out which team goes up 3-2 and has a chance to win the Cup on Monday night? If Bill Barilko is somewhere watching, even he is probably cheering for a couple more overtime games.