[Editor’s Note: One more time, guest blogger Nkilla is delivering all the bloggy goodness of the Stanley Cup Finals matchup. He sent me this preview with less than 8 hours to go before the puck drops for Game 1. You’ve probably read plenty of previews about this series already, but what’s one more? You know you’re looking to kill some time before you convince yourself it’s acceptable to crack open a beer and turn on the TV anyway.]
Well here we are, the Stanley Cup Finals. Two of the original six teams (and two of the last three Cup Champions) going head-to-head to lift arguably the best trophy in sports. Before we break down the rivalry and breakdown the matchup, let’s take a quick look back at the Conference Championships.
Boston defeated Pittsburgh 4-0. As you can see from my previous post, I fully expected the Bruins to advance to the Finals, but I did not think they would dominate Pittsburgh the way they did in this series. In games one and two, Pittsburgh decided they were going to try and play Boston’s style of hockey: very physical. Boston totally dominated both games, Pittsburgh started up the goalie carousel, and the series was basically over. Some may argue that games three and four were one goal games that could have gone either way, which is true, but both those games were dominated stylistically by the Bruins. They were not final scores of 5-4, but rather 2-1 and 1-0. Also, Tuukka Rask and the Bruins defense gave up a total of two goals the entire series. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had a total of zero combined points in the series. Again, complete domination by the Bruins.
Chicago defeated Los Angeles 4-1. Admirable title defense for the Kings. In order to beat Chicago though, they were going to need a fairly healthy team and for Jonathan Quick to steal them a couple games. Neither happened. In retrospect Quick played so well to steal the series against San Jose that he had to have a little let down against Chicago. As for the Blackhawks, Corey Crawford outplayed Quick in this series and the offense got more than enough goals to advance fairly easily. A dominant, quick performance for the Blackhawks which is probably exactly what they needed coming off the long series against Detroit in the previous round.
And now onto the rivalry. And I’m not talking about the Bruins vs the Blackhawks. I’m talking about me and Rmurdera against our friend Todd. I’ve been friends with Todd for at least a decade, and Rmurdera has been associated with him for six or seven years. Todd is the Chicago fan equivalent of me and Rmurdera. He loyally follows all the teams from Chicago, he has well-formed and informed opinions, but also the occasional irrational opinions and emotions. [Editor’s Note: If I’m not mistaken, during game 5 of Chicago’s first round series against Phoenix last year, Todd watched the entire 3rd period and overtime with his pants pulled down because it was “good luck.” So I can back up Nkilla’s claim that Todd is as irrational as us Boston fans.]
Todd doesn’t have to go running out for Blackhawks gear for himself and his kids for the next two weeks because he just jumped on the bandwagon…he already has everything he needs. When the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, Todd did not celebrate. He said something along the lines of “who the fuck cares, I’m a Cubs fan.” Again, a true sports fan and a loyal Chicago fan. You can understand why we became friends.
So anyways, Rmurdera and I have been waiting for Boston to face Chicago in a championship round for several years. Up until now Todd has always been able to say “Super Bowl 20” which stings a little, but is also pretty dated. In the grand scheme of things, there isn’t really any hatred between Boston and Chicago. I actually have no ill-will towards the Blackhawks unless they are playing the Bruins (this could all change in two weeks). Now that the Red Sox have two championships in my lifetime, I hope the Cubs fans get theirs someday. This is all to say that the banter between myself and Todd will be of the “fun-loving” nature, as opposed to the “murderous nature” that exists when Boston goes head-to-head with New York for a title, or any time Chicago plays Green Bay or Minnesota. Since the Red Sox playing the Cubs in the World Series would be a sign of The Rapture, and by the time the Bears rid themselves of Jay Cutler, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s career might be over, I’m glad the Bruins and the Blackhawks are finally giving us a very meaningful Boston/Chicago title bout.
OK, enough about our somewhat awkward “tough love” style rivalry with Todd. Let’s breakdown the series. One very important note: Due to the lockout, the Eastern Conference and Western Conference did not play each other at all this year, so we have no idea if there was a huge disparity in talent between the two conferences or not. This is somewhat of a wild card heading into the finals and makes all comparisons a little less certain.
Important: Goaltending. It may seem obvious that goaltending is going to be important in the Stanley Cup Finals, but that doesn’t mean I should just ignore it. I think at this point we know we’re going to get above average to outstanding play from Tuukka Rask in every game. With a few more games like the way he played against the Penguins, Rask can make himself the defining player of these playoffs. (Side note: Do you think Peter Chiarelli wishes he rushed onto the ice and signed Rask with ten minutes to go in game seven of the Toronto series? Or was it twelve minutes left?) What are we going to get from Corey Crawford? Do we get the Crawford who outplayed one of the top three goalies in the world in the previous round, or do we get the Corey Crawford that can be shaky at times?
Not Important: Home Ice. Both these teams have proven they can win anywhere and that crowd noise/taunting does not bother them.
Important: Physicality. Boston wants this series to play out almost exactly like their series with Pittsburgh. Play very physical, hope Chicago tries to match their physicality, and in turn Chicago forgets how potent their offense can be. This is not to say Chicago is not physical, but they will want the physical aspects of the game to be an ancillary story rather than the determining characteristic of the series.
Not Important: Special Teams. Both teams’ penalty kills are awesome, and both teams’ power plays suck. And by “suck” I mean both teams should check the rulebook to see if declining power plays is allowed.
Important: Coaching. Somewhat related to the physicality point. Both coaches need to remind their teams to play their style of hockey and not get sucked into the other team’s style. The Bruins need to dump the puck into Chicago’s zone and chase after it. Chicago needs to get their defensemen (and therefore their forwards) flying up the ice with the puck and staying out of the extracurricular physical altercations that Brad Marchand and company will try and suck them into.
Not Important: Coaching. Not a typo. In terms of X’s and O’s both coaches and their staffs are great. And both coaches have won Cups with their respective teams. So from a tactical point of view there is no advantage.
Most Important: Forechecking. This is the biggest factor in the series as far as I’m concerned. Chicago’s defense is very fast, very big, and very offensive-minded. You could argue that two of Chicago’s top four offensive players are defensemen. When Chicago is clicking offensively their defensemen are carrying the puck out of the zone and starting the offensive break. The Bruins forwards need to get the forecheck going all series. They have to make it so that Chicago’s D is sick of getting hit in their own zone, are turning pucks over, and most importantly making Chicago’s forwards come back to help on defense, which slows the entire offense down. A daunting task, but fear not Bruins fans as this is what the B’s do best when they are playing well. If the Bruins’ own defensemen are feeling comfortable in a game, it is really, really hard to score on them. Chicago’s forwards have to create a steady forecheck to tire out the Bruins defense, create some turnovers (the Bruins are not shy about turning the puck over in their own end when they are under duress), and get better looks at Rask. Not an impossible task, but do Chicago’s forwards want to commit to this? It’s easy to imagine the Bruins’ top two lines sacrificing goals for a good defensive play because that is what they do every game. Do you think Patrick Kane, Andrew Shaw, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp want to commit to that style of play for six or seven games? They might, but I think it’s the less likely scenario. Sorry Todd (and his fellow Chicago fans), Bruins in 5.
[Editor’s Note: One of the many reasons why I like having Nkilla do these predictions is because I find it pointless and impossible to get an accurate read on two hockey teams. For instance, every expert in the world said that in the Eastern Conference Finals the key was for the Bruins to stay out of the penalty box, you know, because Pittsburgh had such an amazing power play. Well the B’s didn’t stay out of the box, but the Penguins’ power play was a complete non-factor. I said it would take a minor miracle for the Bruins to advance over the Penguins, but that four-game sweep looked more like a precise surgery than a miracle. Therefore, I’m abstaining from making a prediction. I will continue to grow my good luck afro and wear the same Bruins t-shirt that has helped them win 9 of their last 10 games. I’m just trying to do my part to make sure the dominating Boston sports run continues.]