By: Chris Dagonas
I don’t watch “Game of Thrones”, but I’ve been told that what the Bruins just did to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals is similar to some “Red Wedding“. Whatever that means. By sweeping the heavily favoured Penguins, the Bruins have cemented their place in the Finals. To recap, the Bruins squeezed past our Toronto Maple Leafs in 7 games in Round 1 (I’m sorry for bringing that up again) and then rolled past the New York Rangers in 5 games in Round 2 before sweeping the Penguins.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece suggesting that the Chicago Blackhawks might be the greatest hockey team ever. Their stats have held up very well. They finished the regular season as the best defensive team, and the second best offensive team in the NHL. They have had very little trouble through these playoffs, either. In the Western Finals, the Hawks were able to eliminate the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in 5 short games. Earlier this spring, Chicago sent the Minnesota Wild packing in 5 games (Wow, that seems like years ago) and then were pushed to the limit against the Detroit Red Wings in the Conference Semi-Finals.
So we have a finals matchup that has never happened before, despite the fact that both teams are part of the Original Six. Bruins vs. Blackhawks, East Coast vs. Midwest, New England Clam Chowder vs. Deep-Dish Pizza.
Let’s break down our Stanley Cup Finals by position.
BETWEEN THE PIPES
Boston features Tuukka Rask, former Toronto Maple Leaf (that still hurts to say too). He brings with him a 1.75 GAA and .943 save percentage in these playoffs, stats which compare favourably even to Chicago’s Corey Crawford. Simply put, he has been the best goaltender on Earth this spring. Teams can ride a hot goalie to a Stanley Cup win, and have done so often in the past (See Quick, Jonathan; 2012).
Crawford is no slouch either, of course. His playoff stats are just slightly worse than Tuukka Rask (1.74 GAA, .935 save percentage). His hot play in 2011 helped Chicago lift Lord Stanley in June. This one is hard to pick; Rask might be playing better, but Crawford will have more help from his defense.
THE THICK BLUE LINE
Boston’s defense begins and ends with big Z, Zdeno Chara, and whoever else is healthy enough to play a few shifts a game. Chara has played almost 30 minutes a game during the playoffs, and he’s not exactly into taking it easy while out on the ice. He battles in the corners, battles in front of the net, battles in front of the other team’s net…you get the idea. How much longer can he keep it up? Does he fall into an ice tub after every game? Can he really make it through 6 or 7 more games against a fast-skating team like Chicago?
The Blackhawks have the upper hand on defense, by far. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are both All-Stars and lead the pack, but there are no weak links on this chain. Chicago’s defensive corps, compared to Boston’s, is younger, healthier, and haven’t had as much physical wear and tear as Chara and company. The Hawks’ top d-man, Keith, has only played 25 minutes a game by contrast. Less wear and tear + more energy = a very strong Chicago defense.
David Krejci has been fantastic in these playoffs, and is another big reason why Boston has advanced this far. He leads the league in playoff points (21), with teammate Nathan Horton right behind with 17. Boston’s forwards have been outstanding, even the role players have done their share. Jaromir Jagr, who was my favourite player in NHL ’95, has somehow been useful in 2013, by controlling the puck in the offensive zone and setting up chances for his line-mates. OK, sure, Tyler Seguin has disappointed Bruins fans (and made Leafs fans very satisfied with a certain trade), but other than that, these guys can score in bunches. They’re also not afraid to mix it up and play a little dirty, which can be a benefit, or a downfall, depending on whether they are able to keep their cool. The series against Toronto showed that Boston can be vulnerable to small, quick teams. Like Chicago.
The Blackhawks, offensive juggernauts throughout the regular season, have been humbled throughout the spring. Their big three scorers have only managed 14 points each (Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane), and captain Jonathan Toews has been practically missing in action. They spread out their scoring through three lines, and they focus a lot of attention on the defensive end. The Hawks also play a more disciplined, finesse type of game than Boston, and can be outmuscled by tough, smart teams. Detroit almost did it, and Boston might be able to pull it off.
Who will put the team on their back and carry them to victory, a la Mark Messier (or, if you prefer, Marshawn Lynch and Greg Jennings). Chicago’s candidate is obvious – captain Jonathan Toews. Toews has struggled through three rounds, but has the potential to serve as an inspirational leader with some solid defensive effort in shutting down Krejci and company, or by flying into the corners against Chara, or maybe by throwing some fists a la Vinny Lecavalier. Whatever path he chooses, Toews can be a difference maker in more ways than just his (lacklustre) scoring.
Boston’s Messier candidate is Jaromir Jagr. I know he’s not really the difference maker that he used to be, but he has been a leader for three rounds already through his physical play and mentorship of younger forwards like Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. Particularly Horton who, after averaging half a point per game during the regular season, has managed a point per game pace in the playoffs. Plus, while most of the Bruins are young enough to only remember watching Messier on TV, Jagr has been around long enough to have actually skated on the same ice as the legendary leader.
HOW’S SHE GOING?
So, what does all of this add up to? If you’re a bettor, perhaps you’re waiting for my predictions, since, you know, I’ve been so accurate all year [Ed. Note: No, you haven’t]. Fine, I’ll end the suspense. Based largely on a belief that this Chicago team is the best ever, I would be nothing short of cowardly if I didn’t stand behind that belief, even when the going gets tough. While I would not be surprised to see the Bruins win, and I know that this series will probably be one of the best in recent memory, I’m going with the Blackhawks in 7.
Enjoy the show!