"Anything can happen" is usually the cliche you'll hear in the NHL playoffs and while this year's post-season had a few surprises, there weren't many monumental comebacks or huge upsets like last year, where the Stanley Cup Final featured a sixth seed versus an eighth seed. Instead, we have the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, who many predicted to win the cup since their incredible undefeated streak to start the year, going up against the Boston Bruins, who most pundits have considered to be in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. The Bruins had more of a bumpy road to get to this point than Chicago, but they've really been on a roll in the last two rounds defeating the Rangers and the top-seeded Penguins in a total of nine games. Chicago, on the other hand, took down the reigning champions, the Los Angeles Kings, in five games after surviving a scare from the Detroit Red Wings in the previous round.
Both teams have gone through various struggles this post-season, but ultimately this is a matchup that a lot of fans and experts aren't too surprised about, and you know what? That's fine. These have been two of the best teams in the NHL and should deliver an entertaining series. One of my favorite things about this matchup is that both clubs are fairly evenly matched on paper. Both were excellent even strength clubs this past season, have great goaltending and are capable of wearing down their opponents physically. The whole "anything can happen" cliche may have not held up for this year's post-season, but I believe that this series could really go either way because Chicago & Boston don't have much of an advantage over each other.
This is going to make predicting the series tough but seeing how I am 13-1 in predicting series winners this post-season (series length is a different story), I figured that I would give this my best shot.
Regular Season Comparison
Going by the two team's regular season numbers, they are pretty evenly matched with the Bruins having a slight edge in special teams. This isn't the first time that two great even strength clubs went up against each other this post-season, as we saw that with plenty of matchups in the Western Conference and the Blackhawks participated in two of them. They obviously made it out of both alive, but were given some trouble by the Detroit Red Wings before taking down the LA Kings in five games. Chicago actually trailed Detroit 3-1at one point and it wouldn't surprise me to see the Bruins give them a lot of trouble, as well. Boston also has an advantage in special teams based on regular season play, but it's been a slightly different story in the playoffs.
The even strength play of these two teams has mostly remained the same during the playoffs, but there are few things that stand out. First of all, the Bruins have received unreal goaltending from Tuukka Rask which gives them a big advantage in that department. It is doubtful that he repeats the .980+ save percentage he put up against the Penguins last round, but he is still an excellent goalie and I expect him to give Chicago fans a lot of headaches. Chicago has been able to maintain a strong edge in even strength play while going up against some very strong opponents, so they could force Boston to rely on goaltending to win them this series, but I don't think the Bruins will complain too much if that happens. The Bruins have the more talented goalie, so they will likely have the advantage if this becomes a duel between Rask and Crawford.
However, if Boston struggles to control the play at even strength then I could see this series swinging in the Hawks favor even if Rask stays strong. Crawford is good enough to steal a game or two for the Hawks and they should be in good shape if they keep him to a light workload. On top of that, the special teams matchup doesn't exactly favor Boston here going by post-season results. The Hawks have allowed only three total power play goals against this year while the Bruins power play is clicking at only 15.6%. Chicago's power play hasn't been good either, but their strong PK should be able to keep them afloat here. Although Crawford is a big reason why they've been as successful as they have on the PK.
As for which team has the advantage at even strength, I think that will come down to player matchups and whichever coach does the better job at exploiting them. Looking at both team's rosters, Chicago's forward depth could give them a slight edge.
Chicago's Forwards vs. Boston's Defense
For how much chatter there has been about the Hawks star players not rising to the occasion, it hasn't hurt them too much. Jonathan Toews' contributions might not be showing up on the scoresheet, but he is playing well and others like Kane, Hossa, Sharp and Bickell have been providing more than enough scoring for Chicago to get by. The scary thing is that all of their top-nine are doing an excellent job of controlling territorial play with the exception of Michal Handzus. Joel Quinneville has been deploying these forwards a lot in the offensive zone, which has helped them but Chicago has the personnel to execute a strategy like this, at least when Dave Bolland is healthy.
In terms of forward depth, there isn't much to dislike about Chicago's lineup, but there are a couple of concerns. First of all, I'm not sure if Bryan Bickell will continue to score at such a high rate and he along with Patrick Sharp account for a little less than 40% of the Hawks post-season goals. Chicago has a few players that are scoring at pretty extreme rates and that will put pressure on the likes of Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad to start producing. I don't see this being a huge issue because the goals will eventually come for these two, but Toews might have his hands full against Patrice Bergeron & Zdeno Chara, if the Bruins elect to go with that matchup
Another thing I am skeptical about is how long Michal Handzus will continue to produce at this rate. Quinneville has been using him on the second line and they've been able to carry him for most of the post-season, but it's pretty obvious that he is the passenger on this line. The Hawks have been getting outshot during five-on-five play whenever Handzus is on the ice, and this is coming with him playing some fairly soft assignments and that could come back to haunt them against some of Boston's quicker skaters.
Even with that, the Bruins might be the ones struggling when it comes to matching up with Chicago's forwards.
There are a lot of times when Claude Julien double-shifts Zdeno Chara so that he is out against the opposing team's top two lines, but he broke away from that strategy against Pittsburgh. Chara was mostly out against one of Crosby or Malkin's line while Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference handled the other unit. The Bruins held both lines to a combined one goal in four games, so I could see Julien be content with using Ference & Boychuk against Patrick Kane's line while Chara & Seidenberg are matched up against Seidenberg. Meanwhile, Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid will likely play against Chicago's bottom two lines.
Chara is good enough to handle Chicago's top line, but I'm not sure if Boychuk/Ference can shut down Patrick Kane & Bryan Bickell. Yes, they held Pittsburgh's big guns to only one goal, but both Crosby & Malkin were creating a ton of chances in that series and not getting rewarded for it. Rask played more of a role in the Pens getting shut down than the Bruins defense did and he might have to do that again against Chicago. That being said, Boychuk & Ference have been good in the playoffs, but Chicago has better forward depth than any team the Bruins have faced thus far so we'll see how this turns out.
Boston's Forwards vs. Chicago's Defense
The Bruins first two lines have carried them through the playoffs and their first line has been unbelievable in terms of scoring. Much like Chicago's top-six, this line is being helped out by cushy zone starts but you can't fault them for taking advantage of it, and Boston can execute this strategy well because of how well Patrice Bergeron's line has been playing. Speaking of which, Bergeron's line against Toews' will probably be the most important matchup this series and I think whoever wins that gives their team a huge advantage. Chicago might have superior forward depth, but if Bergeron's line can shut down Toews, Hossa & Sharp, then it's going to put a lot of strain on Chicago's other lines to produce. That being said, the Hawks have been able to get this far without Toews putting up big numbers, so they might be able to survive even if Bergeron's line does their job.
The Bruins probably aren't that concerned about their top players not producing because they've had no issue with that so far, but some of their depth players really need to come through, most notably their third line. Chris Kelly, Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley have all played well, but their offensive production has been pretty minimal. With Gregory Campbell out, the Bruins fourth line is a little weaker and the third line is going to have to produce some goals sooner or later. Unless Krejci's line continues to light it up or if Rask remains a brick wall, the Bruins will need secondary scoring to win this series and the third line is going to have to do their part to help this.
Krejci's line is playing well enough to provide most of the Bruins scoring but just like the Toews line has a tough matchup, the Bruins first line also has their work cut out for them against Chicago's defense.
Quinneville reunited the Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook pairing in the Detroit series and hasn't looked back since. They have been excellent this post-season and it should be fun to see them go up against the Krejci line. These two have handled everything that has been thrown their way so far, but this is going to be their toughest test of the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see who comes out on top here. Unlike the Pens and Rangers defense, Keith and Seabrook have the size and the speed to keep up with the likes of Horton and Krejci, so I can see this end up being a stalemate when push comes to shove.
How Chicago's second defense pairing plays could end up deciding this series because they will likely spend a lot of minutes against Bergeron's line and they've been a mixed bag overall. Niklas Hjalmarsson has been fantastic, but Johnny Oduya has been prone to some bad mistakes in his own zone at times and that second line of the Bruins is good enough to exploit it. I thought Hjalmarsson was the Hawks best defenseman in the LA series and he is really good at frustrating opposing forwards and taking away space, so it will be interesting to see how he and Marchand play against each other.
Boston might have a favorable matchup against Chicago's third pairing becuase these two have been protected and the Bruins third line possesses two very talented players in Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley, even if their point totals are under whelming. Chicago might be able to counter this since both Leddy & Rozsival are skilled puck-movers, but Seguin is skilled enough to play on a few team's first lines, so this might be a good chance for him to finally break through.
As for goaltending, I don't see it being a deciding factor for Chicago but Crawford should be fine unless the Bruins take advantage of the even strength play and force him to steal a couple games.
It's really tough to predict how this series will end up because these teams size up really well against each other and a large part of who controls the even strength play will be determined by which players win their individual matchups. With world class talents on both sides, that could go either way. Goaltending is the only area where one team has a clear advantage and that belongs to Boston with Rask playing out of his mind this post-season. Will that continue in the Final? If so, it wouldn't be the first time this decade the Bruins won a cup on the back of elite goaltending and it wouldn't shock me if it happened again. The Bruins are a good enough team that they should be able to avoid getting run over by Chicago at even strength even if they lose the battle there overall. Factor that in with Rask providing elite goaltending and Boston could be taking the Cup home for the second time in three years. However, I'm going to take the Hawks in six games here.
The reason is because they have better forward depth than any team Boston has faced thus far, which could pose a problem for the Bruins defense, and the Hawks have already gone through two top-five possession teams this post-season. Chicago has proven that they can control play against some of the NHL's best and there is no reason why they shouldn't be able to do it against Boston. Goaltending might end up being the x-factor but in a close matchup like this, I usually with the better even strength club. In this case, that team is Chicago.
Stats courtesy of Behind The Net