Stanley Cup Final preview: Boston comes into series on a roll Bruins defense is humming along

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BOSTON – The Chicago Blackhawks dramatic win on Saturday night to wrap up their Western Conference Final should be considered a good break for the Boston Bruins. Not having to wait too long to play again should benefit the Bruins as they are on such a roll right now. A Los Angeles win would have pushed Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals to Saturday instead of Wednesday, much too long of a layoff for the NHL’s hottest team.

Several key items have shown up in my review of the upcoming series between the two storied franchises. This will be the first Original Six Stanley Cup Final since I graduated Bishop Hendricken High School in 1979. The dreaded Montreal Canadiens disposed of the New York Rangers in 5 games to secure their fourth straight Cup win that year.

The Bruins and Blackhawks have met just seven times in the playoffs. Their last meeting in 1978 was a four-game Bruins sweep in the first round. The teams did not face each other this season due to the lock-out by the owners. They have never faced each other in the Stanley Cup Finals. This will be the Bruins 19th appearance in the Finals and for the Hawks it will be their 12th opportunity. The Bruins have won six Stanley Cups to four for the Blackhawks. Both teams have won recently, Chicago in 2010 followed by the Bruins in 2011.

Chicago is the favorite coming into the series. The Hawks won the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best team in the regular season, finishing 15 points ahead of Boston. Boston loves the underdog scenario as proven against the much heralded Vancouver Canucks while winning the Cup in 2011, and most recently disposing of the favored Pittsburgh Penguins in a shocking sweep.

Comparing some critical numbers between the two teams is very interesting. The Bruins power-play, which is a real sore spot within the organization and its fans, is sitting at 15.6% in the playoffs. In the four-game sweep over the Penguins the Bruins failed to score on 13 opportunities. The Bruins fared a little better in their 5-game series with the New York Rangers converting on 4 of 12 chances.

The Blackhawks power-play is worst, believe it or not, converting man advantage chances just 13.7% of the time. The Bruins and Hawks combined power-play went 1/27 in their Conference winning series against the Penguins and Kings, respectively.

On the penalty killing side of things, the Bruins just held the top scoring team in the league to just two goals in the series, and no goals on the power-play. Overall, their percentage suffers from their opening round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, in which they allowed five power-play goals by the Leafs. The Rangers managed to punch in two power-play tallies in the 2nd Round.

The Blackhawks penalty killing has been at an elite level throughout this season’s playoffs. The Hawks have allowed a measly three goals through 17 games played. The Kings managed to get two goals, and the Detroit Red Wings were stymied by the Hawks, converting on just one power-play goal in their 7 game series. Their penalty killing percentage is an astounding 94.8%.

Boston has averaged 3.12 goals per game this playoff season compared to the Blackhawks at 2.76. However, against the Kings, the Hawks averaged about 3.6 goals per game. The Bruins scored 12 goals against Pittsburgh, including a 6-1 blowout in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Overall, the Bruins have outscored the Hawks 50-47 during the playoffs despite playing one less game.Boston_Bruins_logo

Tuukka Rask allowed just two goals against the highly offensive Penguins and is on fire right now. The Bruins are allowing just 1.88 goals on average, but as stated, Rask is playing the best hockey of his life right now. On the other side, Corey Crawford allowed 11 goals against the Kings and his play would seem to be the biggest question mark for the Hawks heading into the Finals. The difference that he can make against the Bruins, where so much is more or less even on both sides, should be compelling.

Rask currently leads all postseason netminders in save percentage (.943) and is second in goals against average (1.75).

A lot is made of face-offs nowadays and the Bruins are the best in the NHL in that category. Winning face-offs generally leads to possession, which leads to scoring chances. The Hawks win about 47% of their draws compared to the dominant Bruins at over 56%.

David Krejci and Nathan Horton lead all skaters in scoring during the playoffs. Krejci, who led the league in playoff scoring when the Bruins won the Cup in 2011, has 21 points. His league leading 9 goals is one more than Chicago’s Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell. Krejci also leads in assists with 12, for a total of 21 points. Horton, now a proven playoff scorer has 17 points, including 7 goals for Boston. Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, and Zdeno Chara also have at least 11 points. Boston top scorers have amassed 86 points this playoff season, 20 more than Chicago.

Sharp, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Bickell, and Duncan Keith all are listed in the top 25 scorers this postseason. Sharp, with his 8 goals and 6 assists is tied with Hossa and Kane for 14 points each. The surprising Bickell is a legitimate scorer this playoff season and along with defenseman Duncan Keith round out the scoring threats.

The Bruins own the top four spots in the NHL plus/minus rating this postseason. Nathan Horton’s +21, Krejci’s +14, Lucic’s +13, and Chara’s +12 are far and away better than any Chicago player.

The backline of Chicago is being recognized for their puck moving abilities and rightfully so, but it is Boston’s defensemen who are putting pucks in the net. The Bruins, Johnny Boychuk, ranks second among NHL defenseman in scoring with five goals. 22 year-old rookie Torey Krug ranks third with four goals for the Bruins. Chara ranks third overall among all NHL defenseman this postseason.

The Bruins and Blackhawks have faced each other eight times in the regular season since 2004. Boston has won six times, including their last two meetings. Boston has won five of its previous six playoff series against the Blackhawks. The Hawks lone victory was a three game preliminary round win in 1975.

The Blackhawks do have the home ice advantage and they have a 9-1 record in this year’s postseason play. The Hawks have won on home ice 27 of 34 contests at the United Center this regular and playoff season combined. No denying they play better on Chicago home ice.

Should the series go to a Game 7, the Hawks are 5-2 in Game 7’s. Boston on the other hand is just 1-4 on the road for Game 7’s. However, that one win was in 2011 in Vancouver to clinch the Stanley Cup. The Bruins are 5-2 away from their home ice at TD Garden in Bean Town. The last time Boston didn’t get a point in a game at Chicago was on March 29, 2003.

Rask has appeared in only one game for Boston against Chicago and allowed one goal. Crawford has faced Boston twice and is 0-1-1 with a 2.40 GAA in his two chances against the Bruins.

Andrew Ference and Chara are the only Bruins to play more than 10 games in their career against the Hawks. On the other side, Marian Hossa has 16 goals and 38 points against Boston in his career in 45 games played. Defenseman Johnny Oduya (21 games), and Michal Rozsival (34 games) are the other Hawk regulars who have played more than 14 games against the Bruins.

This could be a memorable old school affair but the Bruins look so good since being down 4-1 against Toronto in the opening round of the postseason. They are the best team right now and their force and will is unmatched in my opinion, by any team. The layers of defense and a commitment to each other should get the underdog Bruins another Cup celebration. Soon to be free agent, Rask, will be the difference again for the Big Bad Bruins.

Game 1 is Wednesday at the United Center in Chicago at 8 p.m. Enjoy.

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