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.]

In Case You’re Having Trouble Finding Any Bruins Coverage On The Web, Read These Expertly Crafted Notes

I wasn’t sure if any websites were going to have Bruins-Penguins coverage today, so I’ve been keeping notes throughout the first three games just in case you can’t find anything else on the web to read regarding the Bruins’ unthinkable 3-0 series lead.

Yep, a real blogger would probably be posting notes after every game, but we’re a little backed up right now at the blogging headquarters, mostly moving furniture aimlessly around the facilities.

  • Listen, as we get older and sports becomes much less of a life-or-death scenario, we’re naturally going to shed some of our crazy superstitions. For instance, I’m no longer one of those insane people who has to sit in the same spot on the couch for every game and drink the exact same beverage. Now I just grow the lucky playoff afro and keep wearing the same t-shirt for as long as my team keeps winning. I hear that if there’s a game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, it’s scheduled for June 28th. I cannot imagine keeping my hair growing for another three weeks (but I have to because the Bruins might lose if I don’t…).
  • As for Tuukka Rask, when I was back in Boston for Memorial Day weekend, I made the mistake of putting sports talk radio on in the car (should have listened to you, Eamon). The Bruins had just handled New York in five games, but the radio hosts were saying they weren’t sure if the Bruins should pay top dollar to keep Rask this summer because he hadn’t had a “put the team on his shoulders” series yet. Stupidity. As for the impending negotiations between Tuukka’s agent and the B’s this summer, I’m thinking by the end of this Penguins series all Bill Zito will have to say is this:
  • I actually wrote that last note about Tuukka after game 1 of this series. I’ve never felt like he had to have a signature series to be paid like a top guy. He’s been proving it all year, and as a matter of fact, if he didn’t make some ridiculous saves when the Bruins were down 4-1 in game 7 against Toronto, the only thing you’d be reading about regarding the Bruins is whether they should fire Claude Julien or not. And now, after that performance in game 3 against Pittsburgh, the negotiations to keep Tuukka should be especially easy.
  • Going back to game 1 here…Did the Bruins become the first team to ever blow a two-on-oh fast break?
  • That was ridiculous, we all know it. But it’s not like anyone should be surprised. The Bruins might have the least skill on offense in the history of the Conference Finals. I’m not saying they’re bad offensively. It’s just that they don’t really have much in the way of finesse players or snipers. Well-executed scoring chances isn’t their thing (Usually. Seems like they’ve been proving this wrong in games 2 and 3). But blowing these easy plays shouldn’t worry us at all. During the Celtics 2007-08 Championship Run, my group of friends had a running joke about how the Celtics were the only team in the NBA that couldn’t execute a simple alley oop. It’s an exaggeration, but they really did seem to screw up an inordinate amount of alley oop opportunities. And it’s because the running, fast break, athletic style of play just wasn’t their thing. Didn’t stop them short of a championship though.
  • Goalie controversies are fun, specifically when it’s the other team trying to figure out the lesser of two evils between the pipes (maybe the best subplot to the 2011 Cup Finals was the Roberto Luongo drama), but I doubt we’re seeing another goalie change for Pittsburgh regardless of how many more games are in this series. Tomas Vokoun seems to at least show up for one of every two games. But even the most optimistic Bruins fan couldn’t have dreamed of the first goalie change for the Penguins coming with 3:29 left to go in the 1st period of game 2!
  • Unlike the goalie change, here’s something that did actually take a lot longer than expected in this series…At 11:08 to go in the 2nd period of GAME 3, the Penguins finally tied the score up for the first time in the entire series, other than when each game begins at 0-0. Think about that…the Penguins have never had a lead in this series, and they only finally tied the Bruins up after 149 minutes of game time. DOMINATION.
  • Gregory Campbell just became a playoff legend in Boston sports history. Blocked shot, broken leg, killed off the penalty for another 30 seconds before his season was officially over. It’s not the exact same scenario as when Nathan Horton was cheapshotted by Aaron Rome in game 3 of the 2011 Cup Finals and missed the rest of the playoffs, but I’m sure the Bruins will be playing for Campbell, and it would be nice to see him hoist the Cup on whoever’s ice the Bruins win it on in a couple weeks.
  • Did everyone enjoy last night’s stress and anxiety? It’s been a while since we felt the nerves of a close game. I hadn’t felt nervous about the Bruins since the Rangers series was in doubt, which was midway through game 2 almost 20 days ago. But this one was an edge-of-your-seat, pacing-the-room situation from the 2nd period on.
  • And with 5:00 left in the 3rd period, I thought it would be an absolute miracle for the Bruins to win this game. The fact that they even made it to overtime, and then to a second overtime, was more than we could even ask for with the way they were outplayed.
  • Good to see Sidney Crosby blow a great three-on-two opportunity with 10:50 left in the second overtime. He just straight up bobbled a flat puck. This really is the worst three-game stretch he’s ever played, probably in his entire life.
  • Is there any difference between Sidney Crosby seven years into his professional career and what we thought of LeBron James after his first seven years? LeBron’s first seven years were in Cleveland. He made one Finals appearance, was widely regarded as the most talented player in the NBA, but seemed to choke or shrink in the biggest moments of the playoffs. Sure, Crosby has a Stanley Cup Championship and has played in two Finals, but isn’t the best player in the world supposed to be playing like at least an average player during the Conference Finals? Evgeni Malkin has been five times as good as Crosby in this series.
  • I’m convinced Jaromir Jagr couldn’t score on a pulled-goalie penalty shot…if that sort of thing existed.
  • If the Jagr hook on Malkin that started the game-winning goal happened against my team, I would go berserk. Like complete meltdown burning my possessions type of berserk. But since it benefited the Bruins, it’s gotta be one of my favorite non-calls in sports history.
  • And finally, if you were the Penguins, how could you possibly show up next game? You just played the game of your lives, and you only put up one goal, and you lost. It wouldn’t be spineless of them to fold up shop and forfeit. Sometimes you just know when it’s not your series.
  • But I will try to be the voice of reason for Bruins fans. Before this series began, if someone told you that the Bruins would have a 3-2 series lead going back to Boston for game 6, you absolutely would have said, “Great, let’s fast forward to that. We’ll take it.” Right? I’m not saying I think it’s going 6 or that I want it to go 6. I’m just saying that if it happens where the Penguins pull off the next two, let’s try to stay a little bit calm and realize the Bruins are facing what was the best team in the East during the regular season. And now the Bruins have to do it without Campbell. This series might go a little longer than you think.

The Boston Comeback That Made Almost All Of Us Look Like Fools (With a Big Assist From Twitter)

I’m sure guest-blogging extraordinaire Nkilla will be along later today with his Round 2 preview of the NHL playoffs, but it would be irresponsible of me not to post some disjointed, incoherent thoughts about what went down in Boston last night.

-I don’t care how spoiled Boston fans have been since the Patriots’ 2001 run. We were all thinking the exact same thing as last night’s 3rd period creeped closer and closer to the 10-minute mark: “Son of a bitch, we’ve been tricked again. This team is no different than last year’s gigantic disappointment. Only 115 days til football starts, thank the Lord.”

-God damn Twitter and Facebook. In the old days, I would have just told the person I was watching the game with that the Bruins were frauds, had no heart, should fire their coach before the final whistle…and then I could have denied it all after the comeback. Now my naysaying is all over the friggen web for eternity.

-Just imagine if Twitter was around during the 2004 ALCS. I can’t even fathom the type of hate I would have been spewing at the Red Sox after that 19-8 game 3 debacle against the Yankees in Fenway.

-Or even worse, imagine if they had liquor as tasty as Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey back in 2004. Dangerous.

-Here’s a sampling of some of my Tweets and Facebook posts that historians 100 years from now will be laughing at as they put together a complete history of my life:

  • “1 of 2 things happens in this game: Bruins lead by multiple goals the whole way, or I chug Jack Daniel’s Honey for the next 3 hrs” (No exaggeration whatsoever. I severely underestimated how much I’d need so during the first intermission I sprinted to the store to re-load on the Honey. Best move I made all night.)
  • “I would tell Lucic to take the sweater off and exit the building right now if I were Julien. Awful, Nice season B’s” (In my defense, this was written the moment after Toronto scored their third goal, a goal that only happened because Lucic, having beaten Phil Kessel to the puck in the corner of the Bruins defensive zone, decided he wanted to make contact with Kessel more than grabbing the puck and clearing it out. It was an inexcusable play in my mind. As for the “Nice season B’s” comment, remember that they were now down two goals with 18 minutes to go and had scored all of three goals in the previous 162 minutes dating back to the start of game 5. I don’t think it was so wrong to write them off here.)
  • “Choking away a 3-1 series lead when 2 of final 3 games were at home is greater than or equal to a baseball team losing 9.5 game lead in Sept” (Fine, this one was a major exaggeration. Of course losing a lead like that in baseball when all you have to do is win 8 out of your final 27 games is worse than losing three straight hockey games.)
  • “I’d bet on Titus Young Sr getting signed by Patriots over Bruins coming back in this game” (And I’d still make that bet if the situation came up again. Remember, three total goals in 162 minutes and they needed three in less than 15 minutes!)
  • “I refuse to stop tweeting about the Bruins demise…It might just be the thing keeping them alive” (Rule #1 of debilitating superstitions: If good things start to happen while you’re behaving a certain way, don’t you dare change that behavior. My negativity just might be the thing that saved Boston’s season. I accept thank you’s in the form of paid writing jobs or straight up donations to the “Keep Ross Unemployed Fund.”)
  • “The Bruins treat playoff series like I treated college papers” (Pretty self-explanatory. Slack off until it’s so close to the deadline that you have a stress-related ulcer and then do just enough to not get kicked out of school/the playoffs.)
  • “So, New York, we meet again” (I don’t know this Rangers team, but I don’t care. They’re from New York. That’s all that matters.)

-I want to talk to someone who left the Garden when the Bruins were down 4-1 or 4-2. Not to make fun of them (Lord knows I was thisclose to changing the channel to watch the other game 7 going on at the same time), but to hear them express their feelings as they were driving out of Boston and realizing what was happening. Must have felt like a kick squarely to the testicles.

-Logic says the Bruins don’t get out of the 2nd round. Not only did they get outplayed in 4.5 of 7 games against the Maple Leafs, but they continued to lose key guys throughout the process…Andrew Ference, Wade Redden, Dennis Seidenberg. Good thing they have a guy who annually ranks as the best defensive-minded forward in Patrice Bergeron because they might just have to ask him to line up on the blue line if things keep going this way.

-You can never feel confident when two of your defensemen are a 19-year-old rookie (Dougie Hamilton) and a guy with nine total games of NHL experience (Matt Bartkowski).

-But there’s apparently no place for logic when it comes to the Boston Bruins and playoff hockey in general (as evidenced by the fact that the number 2, 3 and 4 seeds in the West bowed out in Round 1, along with the number 2 and 3 seeds in the East).

-As far as I’m concerned, Peter Chiarelli and Claude Julien should grab a couple scrubs from Providence and sub them in for Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin for the rest of this playoff run. They are invisible. Marchand has all of three total points (all assists), ranking him 99th out of all players in the playoffs. But hey, he looks like Gretzky compared to Seguin….one point, an assist. There’s literally no one Julien can put in for them that will hurt the team more than they’re already hurting it.

-Bruins went 1-2 against the Rangers this year, but the two losses were as close as can be…one in OT and the other in a shootout. So there’s hope, I guess.

-Not that I would ever root for a triple-heart attack game again, but this just might have been the thing that gets my girlfriend legitimately interested in the NHL Playoffs for the rest of her life. I’ve been trying to tell her for the past week how amazing game 7’s can be, mostly because I wanted her to be OK with me hogging the TV for every possible hockey game, but now she’s going to think every game 7 is as crazy as last night’s. If that’s what it took, then I guess I’m glad it happened (Maybe her interest will stay with only the Bruins…she didn’t seem too thrilled this morning when I told her round 2 starts up immediately with two games tonight).

-I haven’t heard every sound byte from last night yet, but the leader in the clubhouse is Tuukka Rask saying “You’re either a hero or an asshole.” The Bruins seem to have a handful of both.

-Going forward I’ll make a deal with the Bruins. You play 60 minutes a game as if you actually care about winning in the playoffs, and I’ll stay away from prematurely writing your obituary on Twitter.