By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
The NHL season has reached its most exciting point, down to the final two teams. This year’s Stanley Cup Finals can already be called a success on many levels. It involves two Original Six teams (last time this occurred: 1979), lots of superstars and two rabid fanbases, which should provide a big ratings boost for NBC.
Chicago and Boston have traveled similar paths on their way to the Finals. Both have had a blowout series win, a series that went seven games, and one series that required a dramatic comeback. The Blackhawks and Bruins are also two of the three most recent Cup winners and have struggled in the playoffs after winning the title before breaking through again this year.
This is a very difficult series to predict, but I’m confident that I’ll get it right, just like last season.
The Blackhawks have been the team to fear all season long and with good reason. They are stacked offensively with four outstanding forwards. Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa are on one line. The two Patricks, Kane and Sharp, are on another. Sharp has been the goal-scoring leader in the playoffs, while Hossa has played the most consistently. Kane showed in Game 5 against the Kings how talented he is with an impressive hat trick, including the winning goal in double overtime. Toews frequently shows why he is considered one of the best leaders in the league.
In addition to the four stars, the Blackhawks will rely on grinder Bryan Bickell, who gave Los Angeles fits and provides a physicality that’s sometimes lacking among the big four.
Defensively, Chicago is led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who have been stellar since the grueling series with Detroit. The Blackhawks are backstopped by the most impressive goalie in this year’s playoffs, Corey Crawford. Crawford has bounced back from a rough 2012 postseason to outduel the Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard and outplay last year’s Conn Smythe Award winner, Jonathan Quick. Chicago also had the best penalty kill in the Western Conference and it’s only gotten better in the playoffs.
Turning to big, bad Boston, the Bruins have been both good and lucky in this year’s playoffs. Their physical play has helped them outlast their Eastern Conference foes. One of the few offensive units that can keep up with the high-flying Blackhawks, Boston is led by David Krejci, who is on a short list of Conn Smythe frontrunners. Krejci leads all playoff scorers with 21 points and has gotten support from clutch scorer Patrice Bergeron. Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand are also very capable of lighting the lamp.
While Boston is more than capable on offense, it is known for its defense corps. Zdeno Chara stands out the most, and not just because he’s the tallest player in NHL history, at 6-foot-9. He’s arguably the best blueliner in the NHL and completely shut down Evgeni Malkin in the Eastern Conference final. Andrew Ference has also recovered from his injury and Johnny Boychuk is smart with the puck. Every defenseman has had at least a point in the playoffs, and they have 15 goals as a unit. The Bruins seem to have also found the heir apparent to Tim Thomas in Tuukka Rask. Rask has had to pay his dues with the Bruins, who seemed to overlook his talents in favor of some washed-up veterans. At 26 he’s finally showing what he can do, shutting down the Rangers and then the Penguins. Thomas may have become a local legend by leading the Bruins to the Cup in 2011, but he could be quickly forgotten if Rask keeps it going against Chicago.
You could make a case for both sides in this matchup. Boston hammered the East’s most talented team in sweeping Penguins during a remarkably easy sweep, and it has the ability to do so again with the Blackhawks.
However, I feel that this is just Chicago’s year. The Blackhawks started the season on an epic winning streak that captivated the hockey world, earned an insane 77 points in only 48 games. They just wiped the floor with the defending Stanley Cup Champs. The Bruins’ physicality and defensive prowess will push the series to the limit, but Chicago’s offensive firepower will help bring the title back to the Windy City. Crawford will also outduel Rask and win the Conn Smythe. Six years ago, the band Ministry created a song entitled “Keys to the City” as a gift to the Blackhawks and it will be playing loudly as the team parades down Michigan Avenue. Chicago in seven.
Chicago and Boston will face off Wednesday, but the AHL is down to its final two teams and is already up to Game 3. Grand Rapids, which outlasted an outstanding Oklahoma City team in seven games, is up 2-0 on Syracuse, which zoomed past Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Until this point, the Crunch had only lost once in the playoffs before dropping the first two games at home. The Griffins’ success has come from AHL playoff goal leader Tomas Tatar, while four players are tied with 14 points. One of those four, Riley Sheahan, leads Grand Rapids with 11 assists. Goalie Petr Mrazek has also continued to be solid between the pipes with a 2.21 GAA and a .921 save percentage.
Syracuse has the ability to come back behind 21- and 19-point men Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, respectively. Goalie Cedrick Desjardins (11-3, 2.16 GAA) has also been great in the playoffs. The Crunch could turn the series around, but I think the task is too large. They would have win two out of three on the road, and they aren’t playing as well as they were in the earlier rounds. The Griffins will be your Calder Cup champs.