Key questions for Bruins-Blackhawks Stanley Cup Final
If this Stanley Cup Final lives up to the expectations many people have for it, we could witness a series that we'll remember for years to come. It has all the ingredients of a true classic. But great ingredients don't guarantee a great meal. It will be up to the chefs to whip up something that stays in our minds and doesn't fade over time.
How these questions are answered could determine the outcome:
Can Boston handle Chicago's speed and mobile defense?
There's no question that as good as the Bruins have played this spring -- and they've played very well -- they had the most trouble with the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose faster forwards made things difficult for them. Well, the Blackhawks are even more of a skating club than Toronto and they have a significantly higher skill level.
Boston has yet to face a defense corps as deep, quick or strong as Chicago's, which is probably the NHL's best at moving the puck to the team's forwards. As we've noted all season, the Hawks' blueliners combine swift puck movement -- they are all capable of making a sharp first pass -- with a strong physical edge. They steal time and space from attackers, don't fold under a hard forecheck, and don't hesitate to join the rush. The Bruins love to crash the net, but now they'll be doing it against a group, including highly underrated goalie Corey Crawford, that fared very well in the last round against the Kings, whose offensive game thrives on dominating the slot.
Up front, coach Joel Quenneville has juggled his units during each series, depending on the situation. Against Detroit, he put together a big line of Bryan Bickell, Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa to bull through the Red Wings' stubborn defense and push them back. Against the Kings, he distributed six speedy forwards, all of whom were given time on the first line this season, over three different lines. If Quennville sees the Bruins as being similar to L.A., his forwards will come at Boston in waves: First, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Bickell (the trio -- led by a revived Kane -- that carried Chicago in its final two wins over L.A.), then Patrick Sharp and Hossa playing the wings for Handzus. After that, Brandon Saad, who played much of the season on the top line with Toews and Hossa, will say hello to Andrew Shaw (a pest to rival Brad Marchand) and Viktor Stalberg. Then, for a fourth line, Dave Bolland, the second-line center for much of the season, will come out with Marcus Kruger and the deceptively fast Michael Frolik. It's not just the world-class skill players who bear watching, as Bickell has proven with his sudden rise to prominence. They are all truly a lot to handle.
The Blackhawks don't forecheck as much as other clubs, preferring instead to attack with speed on the rush, so Boston may elect to make its stand by either trying to bottle up the Hawks in their own zone, as they did to the Rangers, or in the neutral zone, as they did to the Penguins, frustrating the forwards of both teams when they tried to advance the puck. The problem for Boston however, is that the Hawks know how to combine their speed and the great puck skills of their defensemen to defeat an opponent's forecheck. Against Detroit, Chicago's d-men would flip the puck high down the ice as the forwards raced the Wings' defensemen to recover it. Since the Hawks have more speed than either New York or Pittsburgh, Bruins coach Claude Julien may need to devise something different to keep the Blackhawks contained -- if that is even possible.
One interesting tidbit that emerged from the three previous rounds is that league stats show Chicago leads the playoffs in takeaways and the Bruins lead the playoffs in giveaways. The NHL's Real-Time stats can sometimes be questionable, but these numbers could indicate a potential problem area for Boston that might result in additional odd man rushes for the Hawks. The Bruins won't get an overabundance of gifts from Chicago's defense and they'll have to make the most of the opportunities they do get.
Can Chicago handle Boston's defense and four-line attack?
Boston is coming off an extraordinarily impressive showing against the Penguins, a high-octane club they limited to only two goals in their four-game sweep. Every member of the B's displayed formidable defensive instincts, from goalie Tuukka Rask on out, and, as everyone knows, defense wins championships.
There is much more to Boston's game than brute physicality. The Bruins possess greater skill than many credit them with having and they play with real intelligence. They are easily the best face-off team in the postseason (56 percent, led by Patrice Bergeron's 61, compared to Chicago's 47 and Toews' 53.1), they also get in front of a ton of shots -- none of their blocks more famous this year than Gregory Campbell's -- and know how to antagonize and distract the opposition. Most importantly, the Bruins possess the type of team chemistry that creates a winner. With their huge captain, Zdeno Chara, leading the way, they understand how to stifle another club.
The Bruins' defend by not getting outnumbered and by providing excellent puck support. They try to be in position to make the opposition go through what Julien calls "layers" of defense. That way, if one man is beaten, there's another one there to beat, and another after that. It's a highly effective approach and the B's have executed it to near perfection. It works especially well in the defensive zone against teams that are trying to establish a forechecking game, and Boston combines it with its own hard forecheck, which can keep teams from even getting an attack started.
As for Boston's attack, you can expect rugged Milan Lucic, who has rebounded from a poor regular season, to be a physical force. He's also strong offensively on the Bruins' top line with David Krejci and Nathan Horton, who are 1-2 in playoff scoring. The Hawks could decide to deploy Keith and Seabrook against them, with Seabrook and Lucic going head to head, one of many intriguing potential matchups in this series. If he wants his top duo to skate with the Toews line to provide more offensive punch, Quenneville could use it against the Bergeron-Marchand-Jaromir Jagr line. That Boston threesome can be very effective with the antagonistic Marchand. He's having a strong postseason and loves to distract foes with his taunts and stick it to them with his considerable, underappreciated skills. Playing Jagr against the speed of that top Chicago line could concern Julien, but, on the other hand, it would mean that the Krejci line would skate against the Hawks' second duo of Johnny Oduya and Nicklas Hjarmarlsson, which might benefit Boston.
The Bruins' reconfigured third line has Kaspars Daugavins joining Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley. Daugavins, like Campbell, is a good penalty killer and can agitate, so there will probably be little drop-off in the effectiveness of the depth forwards.
Boston's crashing fourth line can play a dominant role, as it did during the Rangers series when New York had no answer for it. Campbell's broken leg has removed him from the equation and Julien now has Chris Kelly moving from the third line to skate between swift Dan Paille and tough Shawn Thornton. However, the Hawks are deep up front, too, and the Bolland line could cancel that trio's effectiveness.
Which team is tougher?
Toughness is -- as it has long been -- a major part of the Bruins' identity. While the Kings, who the Hawks dethroned, lead the postseason by a huge margin with 755 hits, the Bruins' 571 ranks second. Boston's bruising forecheck is among its major weapons and you can expect the Bruins will do their best to dent that Blackhawks' defense corps. Chicago's top six is exceptional, but the Hawks might have problems if one of those defenders gets injured. That's what we saw when Duncan Keith was suspended for a game during the last round. Sheldon Brookbank, who had not played since the regular season, struggled in Game 4 against the Kings.
But the Blackhawks are probably as tough as the Bruins, with guys like Bickell, Shaw, Seabrook, Hjarmalsson, Handzus, Bolland, Saad and even Toews and Hossa able to play a rugged game. They can be as aggravating as Marchand, Thornton and other Bruins. Shaw, Bickell and Bolland can play that role for the other team. And the Hawks just got past a similarly heavy team, although the Kings were not fully healthy. There's really little average size difference between these rosters. The average Hawk is 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds, the average Bruin (and Chara boosts that number) is 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds. So if the Bruins are able to thwart the Blackhawks' speed game, Quenneville won't hesitate to shuffle his lines as he did against Detroit and try a more muscular approach.
What are some of the intangibles in this series?
Both teams have had excellent penalty killing in the playoffs and neither has what you would call a lethal power play. If that trend continues, the series will be decided five-on-five, and both clubs like their full strength game, with good reason. Five-on-five, Boston is scoring 1.77 goals for every goal it allows, the best differential in the playoffs. Chicago is second best at 1.44, so we may find out which one is better head-to-head.
Home ice advantage has been very pronounced in this year's playoffs. Home teams have won 56 of the 80 games played so far, a .700 winning percentage and one win shy of the record for most home victories in a playoff year. This would seem to favor Chicago, which has home ice advantage and has won eight of 10 at the United Center so far, and three of seven away. The Bruins have been exceptional on the road, winning five of seven. They are 7-2 at the TD Garden.
How tired are the Blackhawks?
The Hawks have traveled a physical road to the final, with tough series against the Red Wings and the Kings. They've come out on top, but how worn down are they compared to Boston? Chicago has had the more difficult travel, having to play in Los Angeles as well as Minnesota and Detroit compared to the Bruins traveling to Toronto, New York and Pittsburgh. But the Hawks had to make only one trip to California, so things could have been much worse had they not finished the Kings off in Game 5.
Is history a factor here?
Much has been made of this Original Six matchup (hockey historians cringe at the use of the term "Original Six" because both of these clubs entered the NHL in the 1920s, not in 1917 when the NHL began), but these clubs have never faced each other for the Stanley Cup, largely because they have infrequently been strong at the same time. (Just as a side note, the Bruins and Blackhawks of most recent vintage have not played a regular season game against each other since Oct. 15, 2011.)
Forgotten has been the only real comparable Cup final, played after the 48-game season of 1995 in which there was no regular season play between conferences. The trap-happy Devils of coach Jacques Lemaire shocked the heavily favored high-flying Red Wings of Scotty Bowman, Lemaire's former coach, in a sweep that year.
Does that Devils Cup win have any meaning for this series? Probably as much as the other factoids above, which is to say, not very much.