This could not have worked out any more perfectly for the always-shooting-themselves-in-the-skate National Hockey League.
Five months ago there was the very real possibility that there would be no 2012-13 season, thanks to the league’s second lockout in nine years.
Now, the NHL is enjoying record ratings and global interest spurred by two of its marquee franchises, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks.
It’s hard to believe these two storied clubs have never met in the Stanley Cup final, but the timing could not be any better. Two rabid, passionate fan bases; two teams with star power, grit, firepower and nastiness; two major markets where hockey was once, and is again, king.
So in honor of the first Original 6 championship final in 34 years, here are six reasons why the Boston Bruins will skate off with the hallowed silver chalice for the second time in three years:
1. Get in Crawford’s head. You have to figure the Blackhawks are going to come after Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask any time they have the chance by following up shots, scrapping for rebounds, bumping him after the whistle, etc.
It’s to be expected. Boston, with a burlier forward corps who never mind getting into the dirty areas out front, has to do the same thing, only better, against Chicago’s Corey Crawford.
Of the three teams his Hawks have beaten to reach the final, only the Los Angeles Kings come remotely close to the ferocity and never-ending aggressiveness that the Bruins bring to the net front.
Plus, Crawford has seen 53 fewer shots (in one less game) than Rask; a barrage by Boston could eventually wear him down.
How Crawford does (or doesn’t) handle the in-your-face stuff should go a long way in determining the series winner.
2. Shutting down the left side. Right wingers Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa are two of the most explosive players in hockey with open ice and a lane to the net; the Chicago snipers can and will do damage if given the opportunity.
That’s where Big Z comes in; Boston’s behemoth captain, Zdeno Chara, is a left defensemen who will be tasked with putting a body on these two dangerous but considerably smaller forwards and keeping them away from the Boston goal.
It’ll be a fascinating game-within-the-game each night as both coaches try to get the matchups they want on the ice.
3. Owning the dot. The loss of center Gregory Campbell to a broken leg notwithstanding, faceoffs are an area where the Bruins should be able to dominate.
Patrice Bergeron is arguably the best in the NHL and his league-best winning percentage on draws during the playoffs (61 percent) proves that. Chris Kelly (59.5 percent) has also been terrific while David Krejci (46.8 percent)and Rich Peverley (64.4 percent in limited time, but increasing now that Campbell is out) can also win their fair share of battles. The Blackhawks’ pivots, including Jonathan Toews (53.1 percent) and Michal Handzus (47 percent), are serviceable, but far from automatic.
The more draws Boston can win, the more time they’ll be able to control where and when the puck goes in all three zones.
4. No fear. When the Bruins faced Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference final, many pundits felt the Bruins might take the series six or seven games before ultimately falling.
Few selected Boston to actually defeat the Penguins, and no one saw them sweeping Sidney Crosby & Co.
While the prognosticators have certainly come around heading into the Cup finals, few would argue the Blackhawks aren’t, on the whole, a more talented collection of players than their Black-and-Gold foes.
5. Keep ridin’ that wave. Yes, it’s true that the Bruins were less than a minute away from being eliminated by Toronto in the first round.
But they weren’t, and since that miracle comeback victory they’ve been on a white-hot tear, losing only an overtime Game 4 to the Rangers while prevailing in every other postseason game since then (9 out of 10).
The Blackhawks were impressive in the conference semifinals against rival Detroit, batting back to win the final three games and capturing that series before dispatching the defending Cup champs from LA in five games. Boston has beaten better competition — how could anyone argue their sweep of the Penguins wasn’t the playoffs’ most impressive feat to date? — and that could feeling should continue now.
6. It’s meant to be. Call it fate, destiny, a preconceived notion ... whatever you want. But just as they did two years ago, the stars of the hockey universe have seemingly aligned in Boston’s favor once again.
The Blackhawks are a fantastic, supremely skilled, well coached club ... that just happens to be playing the absolute last team you want to see lined up against you in the Stanley Cup finals. Boston Strong, indeed.
Phil Stacey is the sports editor of The Salem News.
agateHed:Boston Bruins (12-4) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (12-5) agate_boldCentered:Projected Lineups BOSTON BRUINS CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton Patrick Sharp-Jonathan Toews-Marian Hossa Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Jaromir Jagr Bryan Bickell-Michal Handzus-Patrick Kane Kaspars Daugavins-Rich Peverley-Tyler Seguin Brandon Saad-Dave Bolland-Andrew Shaw Daniel Paille-Chris Kelly-Shawn Thornton Brandon Bollig-Marcus Kruger-Michael Frolik Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg Duncan Keith-Brett Seabrook Andrew Ference-Johnny Boychuk Michal Rozsival-Nick Leddy Torey Krug-Adam McQuaid Johnny Oduya-Niklas Hjalmarsson Tuukka Rask Corey Crawford agateText:Analysis: For the second straight series, the Bruins will be facing a team with more overall skill and speed, one with perhaps the league's best puck-moving defensive corps and a tradition as rich and proud as their own. But while the Blackhawks came out of the gates roaring and set NHL records for games played without a regulation loss to begin the season, the Bruins are the ones playing their absolute best hockey when it matters most. That'll be the deciding factor when Lord Stanley's mug is finally raised. agateText:PREDICTION: I picked the Bruins to beat Chicago for the Cup in print before the season began and again prior to the start of the playoffs; I'm not changing my mind now. Bruins in 7.