Today, From the Pressbox:
The theme of these playoffs could be a nod to the Original Six, fueled by a pair of goalies who were in the system of their respective teams, yet they were non-factors, even though both Boston and Chicago have won the Stanley Cup in the last four years. It is now their time to shine.
First, we look at the Bruins, who finished fourth in the Eastern Conference. Boston was cruising along near the top of the East during the first half of the NHL regular season, playing a light schedule, certainly less daunting than most other teams as they held a few games in hand on most of their competition, by the halfway point. That schedule got much busier in the second half and, as was predicted in this space, they met with adversity and injury troubles in the face of that tougher schedule, almost limping over the finish line.
That's one big reason why their opening series against the Leafs was such a huge trial. Boston had to find their legs to push back against a speedy Toronto team. The conclusion was in doubt right up to the end, fueled by an improbable Game 7 comeback against the first of three Original Six teams they would face in this post-season. By the latter stages of that series, we started to see the Bruins play that physical style that is their trademark.
They pounced on the New York Rangers, with that same recipe and got on a roll that the Blueshirts could not match. The top scorers among the Rangers, during the regular season, were rendered ineffective by the stout defense of Zdeno Chara and company, while Tuukka Rask, almost surprisingly, outdueled the Rangers' centerpiece, Henrik Lundqvist. That edge proved to be decisive in a quick five game triumph in Round 2.
Then, came the first matchup that would see the Bruins open as an underdog against the Pittsburgh Penguins. One of the main subplots here would be the Jarome Iginla decision to spurn Boston, in favor of a trade to Pittsburgh. Indeed, the wide perception was that the Penguins did a lot more to bolster their roster at the trade deadline and would likely further the gap between the top-seeded Pens and Boston.
The Bruins would have none of that and they made a quick and emphatic statement in administering a pair of decisive beatings as the series opened in Pittsburgh. From that point on, the Pens seemed dispirited and broken, with their starting goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, a benchwarmer for most of this series, they were at a severe disadvantage in the netminding department, as they could not solve Rask, scoring only two goals in the entire series.
Boston's checking game silenced the explosive Penguins top players, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, among a host of key players who were absent from the scoring column in this series.
For the Hawks, the road to the Finals was a similar trek. They set league records with their long, season opening undefeated streak of 24 games (21-0-3) before they "slowed" to a 15-7-2 pace in a second half that they closed out in cruise control.
Their opening round matchup against the Minnesota Wild proved to be little more than a five-game formality before they faced their major obstacle, in yet another Original Six rival, the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings. This series lived up to the advance hype, which underscored the notion that you can throw out all the regular season records when they face off against one another. In fact, their weren't too many shocked onlookers when the Wings took three of the first four games to build a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 series lead.
Undeterred, the Hawks battled back and squeezed out a dramatic seventh-game overtime win of their own to gain entry into the semi-finals.
That set up a semi-final between the defending Champs from Los Angeles and the top team during this regular season. One key that has emerged in this post-season is the Hawks ability to defend home ice and that trend continued against the Kings, who found themselves down 0-2 when the series shifted for Games 3 and 4. The Kings, however, had a long string of success on their own home ice and they parlayed that to a 2-1 win in Game 3, which left many people thinking that a long series was inevitable.
When Los Angeles built a similar 2-1 edge in Game 4, it sure looked like the series would soon be tied. Again, Chicago provided a surprise ending as they scored a late second-period goal (Patrick Kane) and an early third period tally (by Marian Hossa, while Corey Crawford was left to turn aside only two L.A. shots in the final frame.
Even though the series went back to Chicago for Game 5, the Kings refused to go quietly. They looked to be done for the count when Kane broke a 2-2 tie with less than four minutes left. Mike Richards provided one final shocking twist by tipping in a desperation shot from Anze Kopitar shot with only ten seconds on the clock to postpone a possible Chicago celebration until overtime. These two talent-laden clubs would play almost 32 minutes of extra time as Crawford and Quick would take turns at prolonging the outcome. The end would come suddenly and fittingly as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane would parlay a change of possession in the Hawks' zone into a long 2 on 1 break and Toews put the puck in Kane's sights for the decisive shot.
These results have led us to this historic matchup---historic because the Bruins and Hawks have never met in the Cup Final despite their long histories in the NHL. In fact, they have only met in the post-season on six prior occasions, with Boston holding a 5-1 edge. None of these facts matter in this instance, but they are surprisingly small sample sizes.
What do we expect from this series? It is a matchup that has several compelling angles. The goalies, as has been implied, are both relatively inexperienced, yet they have both moved to the front of the line in discussions about the 2013 playoff MVP. They have also both outdueled other top goalies in the league in earlier series.
The Hawks have a very experienced and diversely talented defense, led by Duncan Keith who can play any style of game that is necessary, whether offensive, defense or toughness is required. He is supported by five more mobile, tough and solid puck-movers who routinely limit defensive-zone time. As a group, they may have no equal, one through six in the whole league.
The Bruins may boast the league's second best defensive group, led by the imposing Zdeno Chara, who may be the most disruptive force in the whole league. He is supported by lesser-known names on the Boston blueline, who are equally adept at clearing their zone and have stepped up their offensive contribution in this post-season. The B's defense may be more adept at punishing their opposition, but slightly less skilled than their Chicago counterparts.
Chicago's offense, led by Kane, Toews and Hossa, again seems to have unmatched depth through fours lines which they can roll against all comers on a nightly basis. It seems that a surprise scorer usually emerges in a successful playoff run and the Hawks have seem that output fro Bryan Bickel, who has eight goals and five assists in the Hawks' 17 playoff games to date. They have also gotten plenty of mileage from the strong defensive work of Michal Handzus and David Bolland, pivots who will be called upon to neutralize Boston's depth at center ice. Look for them to match up against David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron as the hawks look for a physical edge there.
The Bruins will look to the strong play of Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton and Jaromir Jagr as a continuing signature part of their offensive and defensive success in these playoffs. Brad Marchand is going to have to be at his "pesky" best to neutralize some of the Hawks' offensive weapons.
This is a marquee matchup that should be TV-ratings bonanza for the NHL. I think the series will eventually tilt in favor of the Hawks, who have shown the ability to overwhelm their opponents with speed. That quickness in their game is something that has troubled the Bruins, whereas Boston's usual edge in the physical game should not be as pronounced in this series. I expect we'll crown Chicago as the 2013 Stanley Cup Champs in a spirited six-game series.
Paul Bruno has been writing about the fantasy sports scene for several years and is an accredited member of the sports media in Toronto for over 20 years. You are invited to send your feedback and you can follow him on Twitter (statsman22).