For the first time in NHL history, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks will face each other in the Stanley Cup Final.
Hard to believe these Original Six franchises never clashed for the Cup before, but since the Blackhawks joined the league in 1926-27, the two clubs have tangled only six times in the playoffs before, and never in the Final.
The Blackhawks record against the Bruins in the playoffs isn’t good, winning only one series (a best-of-three preliminary round) in 1975. It’s been 35 years since the two last met, back when Hall of Famers Tony Esposito and Stan Mikita were still key players for the Blackhawks, and Don Cherry was in the midst of his tenure as Bruins head coach. Obviously, their previous playoff record has no bearing upon this series.
Though both clubs have had eras where they were perennial playoff contenders, and even Cup champions, there was also many years where one or the other was among the NHL’s worst teams. Indeed, as recently as 2007, both clubs missed the playoffs and their attendance was among the worst in the league.
Things have certainly changed for the better since then. The Blackhawks and Bruins since 2009 have consistently been among the league’s tops teams in the standings, attendance and TV ratings.
Both clubs also enter this series with recent prior championship experience; the Blackhawks having won in 2010, the Bruins in 2011. Much of the core talent from those championship teams remains intact.
Entering this year’s Final, the Blackhawks were the best team in the league during the regular season, while the Bruins finished fourth overall in the Eastern Conference.
The Blackhawks rolled over the Minnesota Wild, were pushed to the limit by the underdog Detroit Red Wings, and dominated the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings in five games.
A last-minute Game Seven rally saved the Bruins from an opening round elimination by the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs. They went on to dominate the New York Rangers in five games, and swept the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins in the Conference Final.
The two teams boast plenty of star talent. The Blackhawks have plenty of big name scoring punch in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, while the Bruins counter with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton.
They both have a physical, agitating scorer; the Blackhawks with Bryan Bickell, the Bruins with Brad Marchand.
The ‘Hawks possess two star defensemen in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, while the Bruins counter with hulking captain Zdeno Chara. Both clubs aren’t lacking for defensive depth. The Bruins have stalwarts Johnny Boychuk and Dennis Seidenberg, while the Blackhawks counter with Niklas Hjarlmarsson and Michal Rozsival. Both also have some promising young defensemen. Bruins rookie Torey Krug earned himself a regular spot in their lineup this spring, while third-year blueliner Nick Leddy has become a reliable member of the Blackhawks defense corps.
Both clubs also rode two young goaltenders throughout the playoffs. Tuukka Rask (12-4, 1.75 GAA, .943 SP, 2 shutouts) has been outstanding for the Bruins, while Corey Crawford (12-5. 1.74 GAA, .935 SP, 1 shutout) has played very well for the Blackhawks.
On special teams, both clubs struggled on the power-play. The Bruins are currently tenth out of sixteen playoff teams (15.6%), while the Blackhawks (13.7%) are 12th. The Blackhawks, however, enters this series with the best penalty kill (94.8%) while the Bruins (86.5%) were sixth.
Overall, the Bruins were second overall in goals-per-game (3.12) while the Blackhawks (2.76) were sixth. The Bruins enter this series with a clear advantage in the faceoff circle. Their playoff-leading 56% faceoff rating is superior to Chicago’s 47.0 %, placing the Blackhawks 14th overall in that category.
So, on paper the two clubs seem evenly matched, with notable similarities, as well as strengths and weaknesses in different areas.
Where this series could be decided is in goal, in physical play and in the faceoff circle, all of which favor the Bruins.
While Crawford’s numbers are identical to Rask’s, the Blackhawks netminder struggled at times with his rebound control, which wasn’t an issue for Rask, especially in the Conference Final against the vaunted Penguins offense.
The scorers on both clubs are very opportunistic, quick to pounce on rebounds and defensive mistakes. The netminder who does a better job of rebound control could make the difference in this series.
Both clubs don’t shy away from agitating physical play, but the Red Wings nearly upset the Blackhawks by frustrating their best players, especially their top forwards, including captain Jonathan Toews.
To their credit, the Blackhawks rallied back and overcame the Wings tactics, but they’re now going up against a team which is the NHL’s most physical, irritating team. If the Bruins dictate the tone of this series, it could spell trouble for the ‘Hawks.
Winning faceoffs is always important, especially in the playoffs. The Bruins dominance in the faceoff circle gave them an edge over their previous opponents, while the Blackhawks struggled with their consistency in that category.
Ultimately, Rask’s goaltending, the Bruins physical, agitating style and their faceoff skills should give them the edge in this series, which could go the distance. Bruins in Seven.