This gripping Stanley Cup final has gone five games -- with Game 6 set for Monday night in Boston -- and there remains great uncertainty about what lies ahead.
Saturday's 3-1 Blackhawks win -- essentially a one-goal game with an empty netter -- was like almost all of the other games in this series, with the 'Hawks and Bruins each dominating for long stretches.
A good part of what's not known has to do with each team's top two-way center, Patrice Bergeron of Boston and Jonathan Toews of Chicago. Each is a leader on and off the ice, a major presence in everything his team does, a huge part of his club's identity. To have one of them unable to play would be a big blow to his team; to have both missing might, as Bruins coach Claude Julien suggested after Game 5, cancel out that impact. Or it might not, depending on who fills their respective spots and how well they play.
Some things do seem clear about how we have gotten to this point as we head into Monday night's potential clinching game on Causeway Street.
Chicago's speed kills
First, the B's continue to have trouble handling the Blackhawks' speed. Time after time, especially during the first two periods of Game 5, Chicago was quicker to loose pucks, quicker through the neutral zone, quicker on the attack, and quicker on the cycle. The Bruins as a team just can't match that pace and it's really taken some of the starch out of their game. It's very evident when Boston attempts to hunt for pucks in its offensive zone and the highly mobile 'Hawks defensemen arrive first and advance it quickly to prevent the Bruins from establishing their forechecking game. Simply put, since Game 3, the Bruins have been unable to grind their way to victory and are forced to play the Blackhawks' game. If that continues, it's questionable whether they can win playing that way.
And in their own zone, the Bruins are unable to contain the quicker 'Hawks forwards, especially Toews's line with Patrick Kane and Brian Bickell. Kane's two goals were evidence of that.
On the first one, the 'Hawks transition game after a Corey Crawford save got the puck into the offensive zone where Toews used his body to shield it from Boston's Milan Lucic. Kane skated by along the boards, grabbed the puck, sped by Lucic, scooted to the corner and -- before Zdeno Chara could react -- passed it out from behind the goal line to Johnny Oduya at the far point. His shot broke Dennis Seidenberg's stick and dribbled past Tuukka Rask toward the crease where Kane zoomed for the tap-in. You can see below that while Toews' sacrificing his body was essential to the play, Kane's outside speed to beat Lucic and Charra also made it happen.
On the second, a three-on-two rush by Toews's line led to a give-and-go play between the 'Hawks captain and Bickell, who got Toews's return pass and sped past Seidenberg to fire on Rask, then picked up his own rebound and circled the goal. Kane darted to the net, beating David Krejci. Unchecked by Chara or Seidenberg who were watching the puck, Kane got Bickell's pass and backhanded it behind Rask. Chara has been on the ice for eight of the last nine 'Hawks' goals and seemed slower as the series goes on.
You can credit coach Joel Quenneville for reuniting that line for Game 4 and playing it against Boston's top players instead of avoiding that matchup. It's a good move as long as his players have the puck and keep it away from the best Bruins, which they did. And you can praise that trio's determination to crash the net despite the threat of physical abuse by the Bruins -- and in the case of Toews, it was more than a threat. (The hit he took from Johnny Boychuk in the second period that kept him stapled to the bench in the third may have been considered legal by the NHL, but if so, it was borderline.) In the end, it was Chicago's speed and quickness that produced the goals.
Boston's hit parade
The way the Bruins counteract Chicago's speed is by taking the body at every opportunity -- and, boy, did they do that in Game 5. They outhit the 'Hawks by a stunning margin of 53-23. You can expect that they'll continue their bruising play on Monday, cheered on by their home crowd as they skate in the shadow of elimination. Of course, if you play "all hits all the time" hockey, you can put yourself in jeopardy by chasing hits and forgetting about the game. It's what Lucic did on the second 'Hawks goal, going for the smash on Oduya, who took the hit behind his own net in order to make the pass that started the three-on-two. By the time Lucic arrived back in his own zone, the 'Hawks were beginning their celebration. That's the speed factor negating the physical factor, so Boston has to be smarter employing their edgy game.
One can make the case that Boston came on in the third period because the cumulative effect of all those hits wore Chicago down. But there were other reasons for the B's third period surge. It actually started late in the second period, after Boston killed Chicago's second power play of the night. A third goal there would have built a mountain too high for Boston to climb, but keeping the score at 2-0 gave the Bruins belief and momentum. That had less to do with their physical play than Chicago's continuing struggles with the man advantage. Also, the surge was assisted by a tactical tweak from Bruins coach Claude Julien, who had his defensemen more active on the attack in the third stanza, jumping into the play rather than staying back to safely defend. And of course, there's the desperation factor: the Bruins turning it up a notch in an attempt to tie the game.
But the banging B's were relentless and they do play better when they are engaged. So early in the third, Chara brought them to within one on this cannon-like shot:
Apart from the discrepancy in hits, however, the Blackhawks are beating Boston at their own game, winning some other grinding areas that usually favor the Bruins. Shot-blocking is one. Watching that video above, you can see how hard it is for Boston to get a clear chance on goal. For a good part of the game, the 'Hawks did a magnificent job of getting into the shooting lanes. It's causing the Bruins to move the puck around the perimeter and not get good looks at Crawford. Chicago has gotten better at it as the final has gone on. In the last two games, the Hawks actually blocked more shots than the B's, a total of 30 to Boston's 25. In each of the first three games, Boston had blocked more than Chicago, including a valiant 40-block effort in Game 1, which compared to 23 by Chicago.
This speaks to Chicago's defensive posture. After the Game 4 goal-fest, many were predicting dire consequences for the Blackhawks after the Bruins exposed Crawford's catching glove malfunction. Hey, just shoot high to his left. Everyone had visions of red lights galore. But wait, what happened on Saturday? The Bruins got very few chances to do that, almost none until the third period (and it's questionable how many NHL netminders would have gloved Chara's shot). Why? Because the 'Hawks defended so well, providing the kind of puck support in their own zone tjhat the Bruins have brought to the party all spring. They kept the B's shooters at a safe distance for much of the game, not often allowing them the space to take aim. Not only did they block shots, they denied rebound and deflection opportunities. The Bruins didn't -- or couldn't -- crash the net as they like to do. Instead, it was Chicago that swarmed when on the attack, buzzing around Rask for the second straight game.
The circle game
Another area in which the 'Hawks trumped the Bruins is face-offs. Quenneville admitted watching how the B's dominated the circle early on, noting how their wingers jumped in to help out after the puck-drop. His team has adjusted. In the first three games, Boston won 56 percent of the face-offs, 137 compared to 105 by the 'Hawks. A lot of that gap was due to the Bruins' ridiculous Game 3 stats: winning 40 and losing only 16, with Bergeron going 24 for 28. In each of the first three games, they won more than 50 percent of the draws. But in the last two, Chicago turned it around, winning 52.9 percent: 71 of 134. Not having Bergeron for most of Game 5 may account for some of the difference, but he was subpar in the circle before he left, having won only four of nine. (Perhaps he entered the game with his injury). For a puck possession team like Chicago, winning face-offs is a big boost to performance.
So, going into Game 6, can the Blackhawks maintain an edge in these areas and again win the Cup on the road as they did in 2010? Or can the Bruins' physicality on home ice break down Chicago, get their mojo working again, and force a Game 7 that requires them to win on the road, as they did in 2011?
Well, let's first ask what happens for these teams if their big players don't play, if their engines are missing a piston.
Toews was in the middle of both Kane's goals. How good will that line be if Toews can't go Monday? Kane was still pretty good without him, but had to freelance more. Andrew Shaw may take Toews' spot, as he eventually did in the third period on Saturday after Quenneville had tried Marcus Kruger there. Shaw is stronger defensively than Kruger, and if Coach Q is going to use that line against Krejci, Lucic and Nathan Horton, he'll need someone who can plug the middle. But Shaw isn't the dynamic puck mover that Toews is. Some combination of his talents and Kruger's are needed, and the only answer for that is Toews himself.
And what happens to the Bruins if the mystery ailment that removed Bergeron in the second period and brought him to the hospital keeps him out on Monday night? Like Toews, he plays in every situation -- even strength, power play, penalty killing, late in periods and games when Julien wants shutdown guys on the ice. His chemistry with Brad Marchand and Jaromir Jagr makes that line go. Carl Soderberg, playing his first postseason game, was bumped up from the fourth line, and if Julien wasn't overjoyed with the result, he wasn't dismayed, either.
"He showed me enough to be able to move into Bergy's spot," the Bruins coach said after the game. "I thought he played well. Although there wasn't the chemistry that you see with that line usually because it's his first time, I'm certainly not disappointed in the way he played tonight."
Soderberg just came over from Sweden in April, got into six games, and had two assists. He put up nearly a point per game -- very good numbers -- playing in the Elitserien, has good all-around talent like Bergeron, is just as big, and skates decently. But he's no speedster. He's also no kid at 27 years old, but he lacks NHL experience, that's for sure. Julien may not have a better option.
On Monday morning, both coaches were saying that they were optimistic that their star centers will play, and Toews pronounced himself fit, but how effective these two key players will be remains a big question. That could have a profound effect on whether the Stanley Cup is presented on Monday night or gets put back in its carrying case for a trip to Chicago.