A Rivalry A Decade In The Making: Guest Blogger Breaks Down The Stanley Cup Finals

[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.]

bruins blackhawks

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.]

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Wake Up Boston: The Bruins Are The New Patriots & There’s Still Time to Jump on the Bandwagon

Being a diehard sports fan isn’t a skill or a talent. It’s an investment. For the most part it’s simply an investment of your time, but every now and then you’ve gotta dip into the wallet and make a financial investment to properly keep up with your team.

I live in LA, but I bleed Boston sports. Unfortunately for me, following my teams isn’t as easy as tuning the TV to NESN. We have to pay a ransom to watch Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics games out here. When I bought the Major League Baseball package last April, it was easily one of the worst investments in my life. That’s the risk I run every year when I ponder the benefit of sinking my money into one of the sports packages. The Red Sox were such a disaster last year that I was basically done watching them by August 1st. And you know what? I haven’t decided yet if I’m buying the MLB package for the 2013 season. It’s sad that Red Sox fans are even considering not forking over the money this year, but that’s how pessimistic we are about a franchise that’s been more drama than baseball over the past 18 months.

Buying the NHL package like I did four weeks ago is on the opposite end of the spectrum. There is little downside in investing in the Boston Bruins right now. I’d go so far as saying at this current moment in Boston sports, the Bruins are as sure of a bet as the Patriots.

Here’s my disclaimer before you continue reading: Any legitimate diehard Bruins fan can probably stop reading this article. I don’t think I’m going to tell you something you don’t already know. This is really for the fair weather fans who haven’t decided whether to jump all-in on the Bruins bandwagon. I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to hockey and basketball I am a bit of a bandwagonner. There’s only so much time in the day, and football and baseball have ruled my sports life for a long time. I realize the NHL just had its second work stoppage in eight years and hockey isn’t covered in the media as thoroughly as the other major sports, but that doesn’t take away from how incredible of a sport it truly is. And really if you’re a fair weather fan you should have been pretending to like the Bruins as far back as two Springs ago when they won the Title. Last year they rolled to a #2 seed in the East before losing to Washington in a classic seven-game series. So if you started backing them in 2011, I have no idea why you would have stepped off the bandwagon between then and now.

If you’re still having doubts, right now is your last chance. You can still get ahead of the laggards and the extreme casual fan curve and not look like a total fool after the Bruins win their second Stanley Cup of the decade (That’s not a guarantee that it’ll happen this year, but I’ll be stunned if it doesn’t happen soon).

It’s not an exaggeration to think these guys might be the “new Patriots” over the next five years. As you’ll see below, they may even be better-positioned for multiple title runs than the Patriots.

Here are some stats and tidbits that should help you understand why I’m pushing this so hard:

  • First of all, after Sunday’s 4-1 win at Florida, their record now sits at a sterling 11-2-2
  • By my count, 17 of the Bruins’ 20 regular players were a significant part of the 2010-11 Stanley Cup team. There really hasn’t been much turnover, so even if you were out on them last year, you can hop right back in without skipping a beat.
  • They have one player who’s the son of a Bruin legend. That would be Chris Bourque. How can you not root for the son of #77.
  • They’ve got a high 1st round draft pick from 2011 who looks like he’s going to be the stud they thought they were drafting. That would be Dougie Hamilton. He’s already a regular defenseman and he’s 19 years old.
  • They have their own version of Dustin Pedroia! Or is it Wes Welker? Or Rajon Rondo? Whatever it is, they have an undersized, not-much-to-look-at guy of their own. His name is Brad Marchand and he’s leading the team with nine goals.
  • They have 10 “key players” under the age of 30.
  • Their top seven point scorers so far this year are all under the age of 28. You really can get behind this team now and feel good about their chances over the next five years. They have a young cornerstone goalie, a young cornerstone defenseman, and several young cornerstone forwards.
  • Speaking of their goalie, his name is Tuuka Rask, and he’s actually not a new guy on the scene. This is his 6th year in the league and 4th playing meaningful minutes. In the 2009-10 season, he led the NHL in both goals against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931). If not for Tim Thomas’s resurgence over the last couple years (which I’m absolutely not complaining about), Rask would be a household name along with the best goalies in the league.
  • It’s unfair to judge a hockey team purely on a traditional win-loss record because it’s somewhat irrelevant to the standings. For the uninitiated, here’s how it works: a team gets two points for a win (regulation or overtime) and one point for an overtime loss (whether they lose in the extra period or the shootout). So it’s much better to gauge a team on the number of points they’ve captured as a percentage of their total possible points (example: This current Bruins team has played 15 games. At most they could have 30 points. They currently have 24. That puts their “points captured” percentage at .800…Still with me?) By comparison, an .800 win percentage in baseball would have the Red Sox winning 130 games in a season. That same win rate for the Patriots would give them 13 victories in a 16-game schedule. If you want to argue that this 14-game sample isn’t sustainable, I totally agree. But over the last two-and-a-half seasons, the Bruins are playing at a .640 clip. Translating that number into baseball once again, the Red Sox would put up 104 wins, or just a handful more than Josh Beckett said they’d win in 2011. My apologies for nerding out in this paragraph, but hopefully you get my point. The Bruins are damn good, and it’s been that way for a while.
  • If fighting and physicality is more your game than scoring, the Bruins roll out Shawn Thornton, Lane MacDermid, and Milan Lucic on the regular. They are all badasses, trust me (hopefully you saw Lucic absolutely bury that Panthers player who hit him from behind on Sunday). And for pure comedic value, just watch a Bruins opponent (especially a rookie) get pissed off at Zdeno Chara. There’s nothing more entertaining to me than seeing a guy on the other team get a borderline cheapshot from Chara, quickly turnaround to confront the offender, and only then realize it’s the 6’9″ Bruins captain (aka the biggest player in NHL history).
  • The Bruins are tied for 5th in the league in fights per game. Just read some of the opposing players’ or coaches’ quotes after they play the Bruins. They regularly call it “the most intense game we’ve played all year” and comment on the “physical, crushing style” the B’s play. I promise you this all lends itself to even more entertainment.
  • Yeah the lockout sucked, but the Bruins’ season just began and already they only have 33 games left. Surely you can get on board with such a short season.
  • In March, the Bruins play 17 games and will have more than one day off in between games only once. So you can count on meaningful hockey every other day.
  • Hey, it’s not all sunshine and pixie dust for the Bruins. If there’s one knock on their “watchability,” it’s that their highest point scorer ranks 63rd among all NHL players. That’s pretty ridiculous. When you’re trying to make the case that Boston is one of the best and most enjoyable teams to watch in the league, that’s a damning argument against them. But remember those three Patriots Super Bowl winning teams? How they never really had just one guy standing out on the stat sheet? And that Celtics championship team in 2008, no one averaged more than 19 points per game? And even the Bruins title team two years ago didn’t have a guy ranked higher than 39th in the league in points. What I’m trying to say is, yeah it kinda sucks not to have a Crosby or a Stamkos or one of the Sedin Sisters to dazzle you every night, but last time I checked, regular season flash doesn’t translate to postseason success.
  • And then there’s the gigantic woolly mammoth in the room: the Bruins power play. We’re now into year four of all Bruins fans asking if they’re allowed to decline the power play rather than play with a man advantage. It’s that pathetic. But if they’re going to suck on one special teams unit, at least they are far-and-away the best in the league on the man disadvantage. So even the dark power play clouds have a nice silver lining for this team.

The point of all this? Fair weather fans in Boston have naturally gravitated towards the Patriots and Red Sox over the past 10 years, and for good reason. They’ve been the more consistent contenders in their sports. But the landscape has shifted, and the Bruins are ready to take the reigns for the foreseeable future.