The battle for Lord Stanley’s coveted cup has now been set, pairing the President Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks against a hard-nosed Boston Bruins club. This series has the making for one of the better Stanley Cup finals we have had in a few years. One of the more compelling features of this series is its completeness. What I mean about “completeness” is, if you were to choose your favorite part about the game of hockey, you are bound to see it in this series. If you are in to goaltending, Tuukka Rask and Corey Crawford are both playing at a high level. In fact, they are the top two in goals against average for the playoffs, with Crawford registering a 1.74 GAA, and Rask with a 1.75. If you are more into offense, both teams have plenty of superstar firepower. You will see the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp for the Blackhawks going up against David Krejci, Nathan Horton, Milan Luccic, and Patrice Bergeron. David Krejci is the leading scorer for the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, putting up 21 points (9 G-12 A). Second in scoring is linemate Nathan Horton with 17 points (7 G-10 A). For those of you looking for more of a physical game, both teams blue liners play with plenty of intensity. The Bruins will pair Zdeno Chara with Johnny Boychuk, which has worked out quite well throughout the playoffs. This pairing has been almost impenetrable. With the exception of Boychuk, every single Bruin on the first line has over a +10 rating. On the other side, Niklas Hjalmarsson is the only Blackhawk with a +10. But all stats aside, the most compelling part of the series is that both teams are Original Six. Anything could happen.
For today’s post I will be breaking down the Boston Bruins and give a little insight on how they were able to overcome the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins. As with most good hockey teams, it all starts with solid goaltending. If you will recall, Boston was still trying to replace Tim Thomas, who had been suspended for not reporting to training camp. They knew they had a capable net minder in Tuukka Rask, but they were not sure he was ready to be the number one goalie. Tuukka Rask not only answered the bell throughout the regular season, posting 5 shutouts in 36 starts, but he also proved he could play in the big games. If you look at his line during the playoffs, he has gone 12-4-1 with 1.75 GAA and 2 shutouts, one of the two coming against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In fact, Tuukka was solid throughout the series with the Penguins. Rask shutout the Penguins in Game 1, making 29 saves. In Game 2, he only allowed a single goal, saving 26 out of 27 shots. He really shined in the double overtime Game 3, where he stopped 53 of 54 shots. The Penguins made a great offensive push, but Rask was nothing short of impeccable. It seemed that no matter what the Penguins tried to do offensively, Rask had an answer. In Game 4, he was once again perfect, shutting out the Penguins making 26 saves. Doing the math, Rask gave up only two goals and made 134 saves out of 136. That’s stopping 98.5% of pucks. With that kind of goaltending, you will win about 98.5% of the time, as well, regardless of the team’s offensive prowess.
Offense was not a problem for the Bruins during the Penguins series either. As a mentioned earlier the top scorers for the playoffs both are on the Boston Bruins. The Bruins first line has been incredible. They have had offensive production form every player on the line and have been stingy on defense, which is why they lead the playoffs in +/-. After making a tweak to the second line, swapping out Tyler Seguin in favor of Jaromir Jagr, they too have been producing. In fact, all four lines have been producing, which makes Boston a scary opponent for any team. Regardless if the Penguins did not show up for Game 2 of the series, the Bruins still put up 6 goals on a reeling Penguins club that was still seeking stability after Game 1, hence the move to try Fleury again in net after Vokoun gave up three first period goals in Game 2. As you see from the results, Fleury fared no better than Tomas Vokoun against the Bruins, and they are not alone in this regard.
The Bruins defense can shut down any opponent. When you have the physically imposing force known as Zdeno Chara anchoring the blue line, you tend not to shy away from physical confrontation. Although the Penguins did their best to play physical in Game 1, they soon came to realize that this was not their style of play, and they paid for their decisions. If you are the Penguins, you do not want to see your captain getting in the face of Chara. You also don’t want to see Malkin dropping the gloves. Both instances only intensified Boston and caused Pittsburgh to attempt to play their physical game. However, it was not only the physical defensive play that helped Boston get to the Stanley Cup finals, the defensive positioning has been spot on, mystifying opponents. Head coach Claude Julien likes to call their defensive style “layered defense.” This seems to be a fitting term for their style of play. As the Penguins found out, they may have been able to penetrate the first line of defense, but then they would have to contend with the second wave. And at times, they would penetrate the second wave, and they would still have a Bruin looking them square in the eye on the other side. And, of course, if all lines of defense happened to get beat, then the Penguins had to try to get a puck past Tuukka Rask, but he was a brick wall in and of himself. With all these layers of defense, it would seem that the Blackhawks will have a tough journey to put pucks in the net, but it’s a new series.
The bottom line is if the Bruins keep playing with their layers of defense, and if the top line can continue putting up points at the same pace, and if Tuukka Rask can continue his dominance in the net, the Blackhawks will have their hands full. The flip side of all this is that the Blackhawks really have no matchup problems against Boston, their goaltender is playing nearly equally as well, and they have the skill to create their own offensive chances. Both teams have been in Stanley Cup finals in recent years, so experience, or lack thereof, will not be a factor for either side. As a fan of hockey, I am excited to get this series underway and see hockey played at its highest level.