If you are old enough to have watched the 1979 Stanley Cup Final, then you witnessed the last time two Original Six teams faced off for championship glory. Not only do we have a matchup of two clubs with storied histories, but we have two teams that are riding in as high as can be.
The Boston Bruins are 9-1 in their last 10 games and the Chicago Blackhawks are 7-1 in their last 8. That is quite the feat when you considered who they took out. Let's dig into this matchup and find out where the value lies.
Usually when you make it all the way to the finals you do it on the backs of great special teams play. The question for both of these teams is whether the glass is half full or half empty. The mind-blowing aspect to the Bruins last round was not that they swept the titans of East in the Pittsburgh Penguins, but that they shut down the scariest power play unit we've seen on the ice since the Edmonton Oilers of the 80's.
Ok that might be a bit of a stretch, but the Penguins didn't score a single goal in 15 attempts vs the Bruins. A ton of credit goes to the likes of Tuukka Rask and Zdeno Chara, but when you have a penalty killer who finishes a shift on a broken leg you know the guys up front are making the necessary sacrifices to get it done.
On the flip side, the Blackhawks have only allowed three goals in 58 short-handed situations this post-season. Three! Guys like Frolik and Kruger might not contribute much in 5 on 5 play, but they deserve some unsung hero awards for their work on the power play. The downside is that neither of these teams could do much on the power play in the last round. Combined, they managed to score once with the man advantage.
I don't see a clear edge for either team in this area, so let's turn our attention to 5 on 5.
Even Strength Play
At first glance, you'd have to give the edge to the Blackhawks. They dominate the puck like no other team in the league. Of course you have superstar players in Kane, Toews, Hossa, and Sharp, but what makes this forward group truly great is how responsible they are in their own end. When you have this many quality two-way players, they can pretty much roll out the lines against whoever they want. The versatility in this lineup is flat out scary, and when you have guys like Bickell and Handzus putting up points on a regular basis, you're in trouble.
Yet, when we take a closer look at what the Bruins are cookin' on their top lines, there's no reason for Boston fans to be intimidated. Krejci might not have a superstar name on the back of his jersey, but he's been dynamite this post-season and leads the league in playoff points. His wingers Lucic and Horton are producing at a great clip and the Hawks defenders will have all they can handle with this trio.
Backing them up could be even better. Bergeron is a perrenial Selke Trophy candidate for his elite two-way play. On one wing he has one of the best pests in the entire league with Marchand, and on the other side he has one of the best players to ever play the game in Jagr. Granted, he's not what he once was, but put him in space or get him clicking with the right linemates and he can be ever-dangerous with the puck. My main concern with the 5 on 5 matchup for Boston is what comes after that.
Kelly, Peverley, Paille, and Thorton need to have the series of their lives to hang with Chicago's depth. Last round they played an aggressive, but controlled style and it worked in spades. If they can remain patient, defensively responsible, and disciplined, the Bruins can pull off the upset. These players are too one-dimensional to be hurting their team with blunders or penalties.
Will Anyone Score?
This question is usually reserved for the goaltending matchup, but for these teams it's just as applicable to their defenses. Is there a better pairing in the NHL than Keith and Seabrook? When these two got paired together in the second round, they both elevated their play to another level. It's no coincidence that the Hawks' fortunes changed when these guys reuinted.
Keith in particular is playing at an MVP level this post-season.
Behind them are two guys that you don't hear much about, but shut things down without much notice. Hjlamarsson and Oduya have stifled opposing lines night in and night out, but nobody knows about it due to the wealth of stars in this lineup. The only time people begin to question Chicago's defense is when Rozsival and Leddy are on the ice. Neither have been glaring weaknesses thus far, and Rozsival has even been a bright spot at times, but the truth is neither one of them are going to be counted on to be difference makers. They play protected minutes against weaker competition, so it's up to Boston to find ways to exploit them when they're on the ice.
For Boston, the same dynamics are at play. Chara and Seidenberg are every bit as solid as Keith and Seabrook are. Boychuk, McQuaid, and Ference are just as good defensively as Hjalmarsson, Oduya, and Rozsival. Krug has been a revelation and has given the Bruins defense much more mobility than what Leddy has done to this point. But both are rough it up, shut down units.
I don't see much of an advantage for either side.
As usual, NHL goalies determine the fate of a team during the playoffs. In every series this year, I've questioned whether or not Corey Crawford had what it took to lead this team to glory. So far he's answered the bell with an impressive .935 save percentage. Is that enough to shut me up? Will the critics crown him as a reliable pressure situation netminder?
Not in the slightest.
When you have a track record of wild inconsistency, the questions are going to remain until you prove yourself across consecutive seasons or win a title. Crawford is probably relieved that he gets to face the Bruins offense instead of the Penguins, but neither will dim the bright lights that is the Stanley Cup Final. This is a whole new ball game now and we'll see if this kid can close the deal.
For Boston, we have no such concerns. Or do we? Last round I liked the Kings chances to pull off the upset due to the MVP level play of Jonathan Quick. As it turned out, Quick's level of play dropped significantly at times in the conference finals. Will Tukkaa-Time run out? Is Rask up to the challenge? It's hard to see why he wouldn't. He's been elite ever since he entered the league and he backed it up against the best offense in the league last round. He only allowed two goals on 136 shots and shut them out twice. If he continues to play like that, he'll be lifting the Stanley Cup above his head in a couple weeks time and likely taking home the Conne Smythe Trophy.
So far, one of these teams has blown a 3-1 series lead while the other has come back from one. Will we see the same dramtics in the final or will one team exert their will and cruise to the win? The answer lies between the pipes.
If Crawford continues to play at the same level he has up until this point, the betting markets are accurate. If he returns to earth, then this becomes a coin flip.
Since I'm still not sold on Crawford, I'm going to take the value and put my faith in Rask. The Hawks might have the better collection of forwards, but as we saw last round that doesn't matter much when your goalie is playing unconscious.
Prediction: Bruins ML for the series (+130)