The Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks begin the final leg of the championship journey on Wednesday night when the two Original Six franchises open the Stanley Cup Finals. It’s the first time a pair of NHL originals have met for the Cup since 1979, a year Montreal won its fourth straight title over the New York Rangers. TheSportsNotebook does its final series preview of the season, as we see if Chicago is worthy of their status as the 8-5 favorite to win it all.
SUCCESS BUILT ON FUNDAMENTALS
When you break down the statistical profile of each team through three rounds of the playoffs, the keys to success become clear, and they are not a surprise. It starts with goaltending. Boston’s Tuuka Raask and Chicago’s Corey Crawford rank 1-2 in save percentage for the postseason. And then you look at how each team plays in the 5-on-5 game, when no penalty either way is in effect. The teams again rank 1-2.
Say what you will about star offensive talent, scoring on the power play and all that, but Boston and Chicago’s success fits what has been a strong general pattern, and is built on goaltending and executing in straight 5-on-5 hockey.
WHAT STYLE OF PLAY ARE WE LOOKING FOR?
Two interesting statistical notes through three rounds of playoff hockey…
*While Chicago has more renowned offensive talent, it’s Boston that’s been the superior team in terms of generating shot opportunities. The shot averages for each team are 36-32 in favor of the Bruins. Boston has been the best among the playoff teams, while Chicago is close to the middle of the pack.
*But on the flip side, Chicago has been decisively superior in shot prevention, allowing only 28 a game and ranking fourth. Boston has been below the playoff average, in exposing Raask nearly 33 times a game.
What makes these stats interesting is that they run counter to what each team did during the regular season. Chicago has been an open-ice team, relying on great scorers like Patrick Sharps, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa to light the lamp, and counting on Crawford to make saves when the free flow of play created opportunities back the other way.
Boston has been more defensive-oriented, using its deep fourth line to help grind teams down, protecting Raask and looking to win close, low-scoring games. The B’s have good scorers—Nathan Horton, Tyler Seguin, and David Krejci being the prime examples—but none are great scorers. Indeed, you can fairly argue that at least in terms of offense, Chicago will have the best four players in the Finals—with center Jonathan Toews and his great passing ability joining the three listed above.
Thus, we start with a compelling storyline—Chicago’s desire to open the ice, versus Boston’s desire to grind—and then throw in the variable of each team winning in a way that runs counter to that for three playoff rounds. If nothing else, it shows the quality of these teams. Each can beat you a lot of different ways.
EACH TEAM’S EDGE
The power play might be overstated by the media in terms of its general importance to success, but if both teams have great goaltending and execute in the 5-on-5, that’s going to give special teams an outsized importance. Based on play thus far in the playoffs, that favors Chicago.
While neither team has been especially good at cashing in their opportunities, ranking in the lower half of playoff teams—the Blackhawks have at least turned in an elite performance of penalty-killing. Boston’s penalty kill team has not been bad, but it’s only marginally above the playoff average. Furthermore, in spite of this team’s defensive pedigree, that has not always translated to the power play during the regular season, so what we’ve seen this spring is par for the course.
What Boston brings is exceptional depth. The contributions of the Bruins’ fourth line has won plaudits throughout the postseason, and that enables the B’s to wear opponents down and win games late. Furthermore, while Boston lacks Chicago’s flashy firepower, they have a large number of players who are steady threats to score, or to find the open man. For example, while Towes may be the best center in this series, Boston’s trio of Krejci, Bergeron and Tyler Seguin would rank 2-3-4.
Thus, we have a situation where Chicago can win a tightly officiated series, where the superior penalty kill can be vital, while Boston would prefer that it be a series with no standout players or moments, and simply a test of depth.
We’ve dropped a lot of names for each team already. Chicago essentially needs Toews to be a facilitator, although with only one goal for the entire playoffs, they are used to having him be a more productive scorer. Defenseman Duncan Keith is also a talented passer and offensive threat from the back line.
Sharp, Kane and Hossa are the ones the Blackhawks usually count on to light the lamp, although Bryan Bickell has been a revelation in the playoffs. He’s got eight goals and if you gave an MVP just for the Western Conference finals series with Los Angeles, Bickell would have won it.
With Boston it starts with the trio of centers noted above. Krejci is the leading point-producer in the playoffs thus far, while Seguin has been way too quiet. Horton is the second leading point-producer and the best of a group of forwards that’s pretty good—Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic included—but certainly not in Chicago’s class.
It’s the depth of the back line that makes Boston stand out. Zdeno Chara, with his long wingspan, is one of the league’s best defenseman, and the equivalent of Keith as a passer. Johnny Boychuk has scored five goals and rookie Torey Krug has enjoyed his coming out party in the playoffs.
Thus, if we want to oversimplify it, think of the personnel battle as being about Boston’s defenseman against Chicago’s forwards, because that’s where each team has the edge.
Regular readers of TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis know I am a Boston fan and that I don’t pretend to try and feign objectivity. But I do have to say this—Chicago is a team that deserves enormous respect.
I welcomed the chance for the Bruins to play Pittsburgh, because I felt the Penguins were all flash, no substance and could be exposed by a team with depth and discipline and that loved the grind. Chicago has the flash, but they showed against Los Angeles, they could win in the grind. I have a high regard for the Blackhawks in all phases of the game.
On my Monday podcast through Prime Sports Network, my co-host Greg DePalma feels Chicago is an overwhelming favorite and that this series is not even close. I don’t buy that, although since Greg’s picked against Boston each series this postseason, I suppose I should be glad. But if you were to ask me to give an objective observer reasons why the Bruins are better than the Blackhawks, as opposed to simply competitive, I can’t say I could do it.
The B’s are tough, deep and will be a difficult out. If you wanted to take the 8-5 odds, I think that might be a decent price. But straight up, are my troops better than Chicago? Quite honestly, no.
Game 1 will be Wednesday night in Chicago (8 PM ET, NBC). NHL analysis comes back Thursday morning to look back on the series opener and hazard a guess as to what it might mean for what lies ahead.