The Boston Bruins are poised to take a run at their second Stanley Cup in three years, and will begin that quest this Wednesday against the Chicago Blackhawks. This matchup is between two of the most balanced and complete teams in the league, and both teams will be looking for whatever advantage they can find. With that in mind, here are four Bruins keys to the series:
If the Boston Bruins are going to win the Stanley Cup, goaltender Tuukka Rask is going to be a big reason why. While the Bruins can’t expect Rask to replicate his absurd .44 GAA from the Eastern Conference Finals, they’ve built this team expecting him to be the foundation for the playoff’s #1 defense. Coming into the 2013 playoffs, there were questions about Rask’s ability to play in the postseason, and many Bruins fans’ last playoff memory of #40 involved a few soft goals in four straight losses to the Philadelphia Flyers. After posting a playoff save percentage of .943, highlighted by a 53-save performance in the Bruins’ Game 3 win, there are no more questions. Tuukka Rask is a Stanley Cup caliber goalie, and he’s played like it.
The Bruins have the edge in goaltending heading into this series, but the advantage won’t be nearly as large as it was in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford has also silenced last year’s critics by posting a 1.74 GAA in these playoffs, and has held opposing teams to two or fewer goals in 12 games this postseason. When he’s on his game, the Blackhawks are a tough team to beat. Watching these two goalies this postseason, it’s becoming clear that if they see the puck, they’re going to stop it. Therefore, both the Bruins and the Blackhawks are going to try and get as much traffic in front the opposing team’s net as they can, and create those rebound opportunities that so often prove the difference in big games. If Rask handles that chaos better than Crawford does, the Bruins will win the Cup.
After letting up five powerplay goals to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, the Bruins’ penalty kill has been trending upward. The anemic New York Rangers powerplay wasn’t much of a factor in the Conference Semifinals, and the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins offense couldn’t manage a single powerplay goal in their series. When the Bruins needed a penalty kill, their PK unit did whatever it took to get the job done, famously exemplified by Gregory Campbell’s shift of the year in Game 3. Chicago’s powerplay has let them down recently, managing only a single goal in their series against the Los Angeles Kings, so it’s not unlikely that the Bruins man down success continues.
Given that, the Bruins have to have the advantage on special teams, right? Not exactly. The Blackhawks penalty kill has been outstanding, only allowing three goals in 58 attempts. Meanwhile, the Bruins powerplay was held off the board against the Penguins, and has been inconsistent at best (clicking at just over 15%) this postseason.
If one of these teams can get it going on the powerplay, it can be a huge advantage. In a series that looks to be as close and contested as this one, a few powerplay goals could make the difference between winning and losing. If Bruins defenseman Torey Krug can replicate his powerplay performance against the Rangers, it might be enough to tip the scales in Boston’s favor.
Toews and Kane
Patrick Kane is one of the purest offensive talents in the league (just ask Los Angeles), and if the Bruins can shut him down, it’ll make Rask’s job much easier. Kane has been terrifying defenses all playoffs, racking up 16 points in 17 games. Even more frightening, Kane delivered a masterful performance in Game 7, scoring the game winning goal to complete the hat trick. The Bruins have shut down Rick Nash, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin, holding them to a combined single goal. However, Kane has one attribute that’s proven to be the Bruins’ kryptonite all year: speed. While the Bruins’ defensemen have no problem with physical power forwards, faster players have generally been able to get behind them. No need to look further than Toronto’s success in round one for an example of that, as forwards Phil Kessel and James van Reimsdyk consistently put the Bruins back on their heels.
Kane will have some help in Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews. Toews has only one goal in these playoffs, but continues to be a three-zone player and a force on the defensive end. After watching Patrice Bergeron, Bruins fans will see a lot of Bergeron in Toews’ game, whether it’s the leadership, the defense, or the timely goals. Toews can take over a game in all three zones, and neutralizing him in any series is a tough task.
But the Detroit Red Wings may have given the Bruins a blue print for how to keep these dangerous players quiet. During the Conference Semifinals against the Blackhawks, the Red Wings took away time and space from Toews in the neutral zone, leading Toews to commit uncharacteristic penalties out of frustration. The Bruins have already employed a similar strategy against Crosby, and don’t be surprised if they try it again. If Kane and Toews can evade the Bruins stifling defense, it’s going to put a lot of pressure on Boston’s forwards to keep up on the scoreboard.
The Top Line
Bruins forwards David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Nathan Horton combined for 82 points over the 48-game season, and at times looked half-asleep on the ice. In the playoffs, they’ve combined for 51 points over 16 games, and have been the most dominant forward line in the league. Krejci is leading the playoffs in goals and points, and it’s no coincidence that the last time he did that, the Bruins ended their season with a parade. When Lucic and Horton are engaged physically, this line is a nightmare for opposing defenses, and over the course of these playoffs, their relentless forecheck has created turnover after turnover. After eviscerating the Penguins defense with near-surgical precision, the Lucic-Krejci-Horton line needs to continue their hot streak against the Blackhawks.
Stopping that line is no easy task, but the Blackhawks have as good of a defensive corps as any team in the league. Most of the responsibility for shutting down the Bruins top line will fall on Blackhawks’ defenseman Duncan Keith. Keith has been matched up against opposing teams’ top lines all throughout the playoffs, and Chicago’s defense is a big reason why they’re in the Cup Finals. Keith will no doubt get some help from the Toews-centered forward line, as the Blackhawks will try and limit Krejci’s options through the neutral zone.
If Krejci and his linemates can match their pace from earlier series, Chicago is in trouble. However, if Keith and the rest of the Blackhawks can limit that line offensively, the rest of the Bruins will have to pick up the slack, including a Bruins third line that has been lackluster at best.
Blackhawks’ forward Andrew Shaw said that the his team is going to “prepare for war,” and he’s right. This series is going to be tight, it’s going to be close, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.