If the final four of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs consisted of the NHL’s four best teams – and I believe it did – then the last two standing are certainly the circuit’s two hottest. The only question left now is which team will be able to cool off the other in the Stanley Cup final, which gets underway tomorrow night.
The Chicago Blackhawks are just three springs removed from their most recent Stanley Cup title. They’ve advanced to the final this year with the same coach (Joel Quenneville) but a different netminder (Corey Crawford) than they had in 2010. Antti Niemi, the Hawks’ Cup-winning goaltender in 2010, is now employed by the San Jose Sharks.
After splitting the netminding duties with Ray Emery during the 2012 regular season, Crawford has manned the crease for every minute of Chicago’s 17 playoff games to date in 2013. Crawford is 12-5 with a shutout, a 1.75 GAA and a .935 save pct. in those 17 contests.
Crawford struggled in the middle of the conference semi-final set against Detroit, allowing a combined total of seven goals in Games 2 and 3. Since then, he has been a shade better than his overall postseason numbers. Crawford is 7-2 with a 1.68 GAA and a .937 save pct. in Chicago’s last nine games.
Boston won the Cup in 2011, also doing so with the same coach (Claude Julien) but with a different goaltender (Tim Thomas). With Tuukka Rask in goal this spring, the Bruins have one of a handful of possible Conn Smythe Trophy winners at their end of the ice.
And like Crawford, Rask has done his best work recently.
In his last nine games, Rask is 8-1 with two shutouts, a 1.18 GAA and a .959 save pct. He has allowed one or zero goals in six of his last seven games.
Chicago has won seven of its last eight games and is 9-1 in its own building this spring. Boston has won nine of its last 10 games and is 7-2 at home. The Bruins have won six straight on home ice and they’ve surrendered just two goals in their last three games in Boston. Goaltending on both sides has been a big part of the current hot streaks on both sides.
Special teams scoring wasn’t much of a factor in either of the conference final series. Both the Hawks and the Bruins boast strong penalty-killing outfits and mediocre power play units. All of this leads me to believe that this series will – for the most part – be decided at even strength.
Boston has scored 1.77 five-on-five goals for each five-on-five goal it surrenders, the best ratio of any of the 16 playoff teams this spring. Chicago is second but at a distant 1.44. The Bruins have won 56% of their face-offs this spring, tops in the NHL. Boston also led the league in face-off prowess during the regular season.
Chicago and Boston both boast four players among the NHL’s top 15 playoff scorers. Somewhat surprisingly, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews is not among the top 30 playoff scorers; he has a goal and nine points to show for 17 games of postseason work so far.
Patrick Kane came alive for the Hawks in the Western Conference final against the Kings, scoring four of his six playoff goals this spring in the final two games of that set. Prior to that, he had two goals in 15 games and he and Toews had combined for three goals in 30 man-games. Fortunately for the Hawks, the likes of Bryan Bickell and Patrick Sharp were also contributing consistently.
Teams whose top players failed to produce along the way are the teams who are no longer playing in the playoffs, so now it comes down to which team can slam the door on the other team’s most effective offensive players.
Both teams can roll four lines, Boston will have an edge in the face-off dots and in the physical game, and I believe that will translate into an edge in territory and puck possession as well.
Boston’s best offensive players have been more consistent than Chicago’s this spring. The Bruins have advantages in goaltending, face-offs and physical play. And they’ve also got Zdeno Chara.
The behemoth Boston blueliner effectively bottled up (especially) Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, James Neal and their Pittsburgh mates in the Eastern Conference final. The Penguins managed two goals in the four-game series, none by any of the aforementioned stars and none while Chara was on the ice.
Chara has averaged 29:21 a night in ice time during these playoffs, more than any skater who has played past the first round. He is averaging 23:10 per night in even-strength ice time, and has been on the ice for just 11 even-strength goals against in 16 games despite all of his five-on-five exposure.
In his last five games, Chara has skated a total of 110 minutes and 14 seconds of spotless even-strength ice time. Boston foes have not scored a goal of any kind with Chara on the ice since Chris Kreider’s overtime goal for the Rangers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semi-final series on May 23.
The Hawks are going to have their hands full with Chara. While Chicago boasts a solid No. 1 defender of its own in Duncan Keith, and while the Blackhawks boast a blueline corps that has played well through the playoffs, I believe the size and strength of the Bruins forwards will have an erosive effect on Chicago’s backline in this series.
Both the Bruins and the Blackhawks have been members of the NHL for the better part of nine decades, but this is the first time the two Original Six clubs have faced one another in a Stanley Cup final series. Both have recently won Cups under their current coaches, and both were dominant teams for long stretches of the lockout-shortened regular season.
The Bruins come in just a little bit hotter than the Hawks, and are more capable of cooling off Chicago.
It should be a great series, but it might not be. And to me, Chara is the reason why.
Before the two conference final series started, I figured them both to go at least six games. Neither did. The Cup final series doesn’t figure to be a short one, either, but it could be. I’m going with the Bruins in six, but I could see it getting done in five.