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.]

Should We Predict the NHL Playoffs’ 1st Round Winners or the Most Entertaining Series? How About Both?

[Editor’s Note: Two months ago I wrote about the Boston Bruins and how they were quietly becoming Boston’s most consistently competitive team. This is probably surprising to nobody who knows me and my sports jinxing history, but since I posted that article on February 25th, the Bruins have won 17 games and lost 16 games. Not really the dominant trajectory my article put them on. When it comes to sports not named football, you’ll notice my blog posts are typically limited to ball-washing my Boston teams. I don’t usually write anything about the going-ons outside of the New England area. But that doesn’t mean my readers don’t have a thirst for more balanced sports coverage. Therefore, I’ve invited back a guest blogger who regularly abandons his husbandly and fatherly duties to watch more sports than you or I could imagine. He’s here to break down the NHL playoffs in his no-nonsense, marginally humorous style. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the only blogger in internet history to write 10,000+ words about something called the “Euro Soccer Championship”….Mr. Neil “nkilla” Gariepy.]

Your favorite guest blogger is back! I know what most of you are thinking – if I am blogging, then there must be some sort of obscure sporting event coming up that I am going to try and get you to pay attention to. Well, if you consider the NHL “obscure” then you are correct…it is time for playoff hockey. For those of you that are not NHL regular season regulars, it is time for your annual “jump onto the NHL bandwagon”. No more shootouts, lots of sudden death overtime drama, and teams building up genuine hatred for each other as each series moves to the next game. [Editor’s Note: Someday Neil will learn to link to certain YouTube clips to support his claims, but for now I’ll give him an assist (pun intended!). If you want to see what Neil means by genuine hatred, just watch the first two minutes of THIS CLIP from the Penguins/Flyers playoff series last year. I promise it’s worth it.]

There are eight first round, best-of-seven series. I’ll go ahead and rank the eight first round series from least exciting to most exciting so if you have an actual life and can only follow two or three series you should probably use this blog post as your guide.

8. Chicago v Minnesota – This should be a quick series, a 1-seed vs 8-seed matchup where the 8-seed has very little chance for an upset. Chicago was the best team in the Western Conference, and Minnesota is probably the worst of the sixteen teams to make the playoffs this year. During the regular season Minnesota lost two out of every three games against teams that eventually made the playoffs. For you gamblers out there, Chicago -360 to win the series is not a horrible bet; I expected it to be more around -800. Chicago to sweep is +400. Also, my friend Todd is at -2000 to puke after reading the last paragraph and realizing I just jinxed his team.

The Pick: Chicago in 4


7. Pittsburgh v “Brooklyn” – Another 1-seed vs 8-seed matchup where the 8-seed probably has very little chance of winning. The difference between this series and the Chicago series is that the Islanders will have a nice little underdog story about them that everyone in America likes to root for. The Islanders last made the playoffs six seasons ago, and they have not won a playoff series since 1993. Their current team is built around 22-year-old-star-in-the-making John Tavares and a bunch of cast-offs from other teams. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was arguably the best team in the league this year, winning four out of every five games against eventual playoff teams. It is almost impossible to root for Pittsburgh unless you are from Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby is way too whiney for most of us and then there is Matt Cooke. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Cooke’s work, go ahead and google “Matt Cooke Cheap Shot.” One of the video compilations is titled “Matt Cooke Cheapshotting History.” It is almost four minutes long. And it is from 2009. If you can find the 2013 version with four more years of footage, it is probably twelve minutes long. [Editor’s Note: Interesting that this time Neil even tells you how to google the right video in order to see Matt Cooke’s cheap shots, but still doesn’t link to the video. As much as I hate doing someone else’s work for him, here you go]:

The Pick: Pittsburgh in 5


6. St. Louis v Los Angeles – This is the 4-seed vs 5-seed matchup in the West. St. Louis is the better seed here, but LA had a slightly better record against eventual playoff teams in the regular season. Most people are predicting a close series with LA prevailing in six, or St. Louis winning in seven. So why would I rank this as the third worst series of the first round? Well, LA won The Cup last year, brought almost the same team back to defend the title, and started the season off with a little bit of a residual hangover from all the celebrating. In the last month or so they have been getting back to form, winning games and moving up the standings. Also, they went 3-0 against St. Louis this season. I think this is one of those series that goes five or six games but seems like it was a sweep. Gamblers, LA at -120 to win this series is not a horrible bet, no need to get tricky by picking the right number of games.

The Pick: Los Angeles in 6


5. Anaheim v Detroit – Bit of a compelling storyline here. Many view Detroit as “old-blood NHL” and Anaheim as “new-blood NHL.” Detroit had to struggle to make the playoffs for a 22nd consecutive year whereas Anaheim stayed just behind Chicago most of the year and locked up the 2-seed in the West.  This series may very well go all seven games, and we will probably be treated to a couple overtimes as well. The reason this series is not higher on the list is that there is almost no history between the two teams and not a lot of household names on either team. Gamblers, Detroit to win the series at +125 or “the series goes 7 games” at +165 are probably your two best moves, but neither are recommended.

The Pick: Anaheim in 7


4. Washington v New York – I know what most of you are saying – “This is the worst ranking blog ever. How could one of the league’s most marketable players, Alex Ovechkin, playing against the New York Rangers in the playoffs just be in the middle of the pack for entertainment value?” Well, the problem is one of these teams is not good, and the other is really, really bad. The Rangers are the 6-seed and are basically “Minnesota of the East.” They only won 37% of their games against eventual playoff teams, and only five of those wins came in regulation. They are the “not good” team mentioned above. Washington did not beat a team in regulation that eventually made the playoffs until April 9th. When everyone was saying Washington was the “hot team” about a month ago, it was because they were beating up on their horrible division. Ovechkin vs New York still carries some weight, but I have a feeling this is a short series.

The Pick: New York in 5


3. Boston v Toronto – Shocking confession, I’m a huge Bruins fan/homer, but the following paragraph is in no way a reverse jinx. This Bruins team is a little too much like last year’s team  for my liking. Looked like the best team ever assembled for the first half of the season, played .500 hockey for the second half of the season, got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by an inferior Washington team. Meanwhile, people in Toronto like hockey more than any fan base likes any sport in the world. And Toronto is in the playoffs for the first time in eight years. The worst seats for the home games in Toronto are going for $2000. According to Vegas, Boston is a 2:1 favorite to win this series. Most experts are predicting Boston in five or six. I just don’t see it. Toronto is going to be so jacked up for every home game with a completely bonkers crowd. Toronto was slightly better than Boston during the regular season against eventual playoff teams. Both teams are original league members, physical, and are going to bring it. I think first team to lose a home game loses the series. This should be a very entertaining, long series.

The Pick: Toronto in 6


2. Vancouver v San Jose – San Jose, the 6-seed in the West, actually had a slightly better record than 3-seed Vancouver against eventual playoff teams. The teams are pretty evenly matched although Vancouver was not able to beat San Jose in the regular season. Both of these teams have had lofty expectations over the past eight years and neither have been able to bring home The Cup, and now one of them is getting knocked out in the first round. Both fan bases are knowledgeable, so there will be a great atmosphere at each game. Vancouver always seems to bring some team drama with them into the playoffs…you never know when the goalie carousel might get going with them, or when Alex Burrows might bite someone, or when the Sedin Sisters might admit they are not only sisters but also lovers. This has all the makings of a long, intense series. For the gamblers, being able to get San Jose at “plus money” (currently +105) to win this series is very good value.

The Pick: San Jose in 6


1. Montreal v Ottawa – Any time two Canadian teams play a long series against each other the intensity gets ratcheted up eh. Montreal is the 2-seed in the East and Ottawa is the 7-seed, but these two teams had basically identical records against playoff-qualifying teams in the regular season eh. Also, they split four games during the regular season eh. So we have two Canadian teams eh, that are very evenly matched eh. A series that is probably going seven games eh, and again all the games will be taking place in eh Canada eh. This may not have the high profile players of some of the other series eh, but the intensity and location should make it the best series of the first round eh. Eh.

The Pick: Montreal in 7

For the record, Neil picked four upsets in the first round, two series to go seven games, only one sweep, and somehow managed to squeeze in “eh” 11 times in the final paragraph.