As the NHL playoffs reach their climax with the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the Boston Bruins are undoubtedly peaking in their own right. Since their miraculous Game 7 comeback against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bs have been relentless in consistently imposing their will through physical yet disciplined defense and sustained offensive pressure. Playing games on their terms has compensated for not fielding star-studded lineups with names like Crosby, Malkin, Nash or Lundqvist.
If the Bruins are to defeat the Presidents' Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks, they cannot return to their "Jekyll and Hyde" mentality, as Claude Julien put it during the regular season. So how can the Bruins prevail in the NHL Original Six showdown? Well, besides scoring more goals, here are a few keys critical to Boston's chances of hoisting the Cup:
Winning the Neutral Zone
Both teams have been putrid on the power play and excellent on the penalty kill in the playoffs (via NHL.com), so the series will be won during 5-on-5 action. Thus, the Bruins would do well to stymie the Blackhawks aggressive transition game. If they can take away space like they did in the Penguins series, we have seen what that can do to even the most high-powered attacks. Indeed, Chicago writers like Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times are already anticipating Boston to employ a similar strategy:
While the Hawks prefer to play with speed and aggression offensively, the Bruins surely will deploy a similar style against the high-flying Hawks that they did against the high-flying Penguins.
Physical play on the blue line (led by star defenseman Zdeno Chara) and responsible backchecking by the forwards (led by Selke finalist Patrice Bergeron), combined with Rask’s brilliant goaltending, will be the Bruins’ path to its second Cup in three seasons.
Much of Chicago's offense stems the defensive zone, as their forwards are aggressive in intercepting passes and seeking out odd-man rushes. Moreover, the shutdown pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is also extremely adept at controlling and moving the puck forward. If the Bruins are on their heels and failing to clog the neutral zone, they will be in serious trouble against the 'Hawks forwards.
Keep Rolling Four Lines
Unlike many coaches, Claude Julien does not like to shorten his bench come playoff time. Depth has been the Bruins' calling card for years now; the "Merlot line," or fourth line, of Shawn Thornton, Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and rookie blueliner Torey Krug combined for 16 points in the Rangers' series, via ESPN.
Julien can utilize this advantage because of the team-first system that requires every player to backcheck and grind for pucks. Even a scoring ace like Tyler Seguin, who has struggled and scored just one goal in the postseason, has worked harder to shore up the defensive zone and create positive momentum offensively.
The Blackhawks are a similarly constructed team, possessing both high-end firepower in the quartet of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, as well as depth contributors like Bryan Bickell and Michal Handzus, who have stepped up in the playoffs.
While the Bruins' top two lines have been humming for a month now, the third and fourth lines come with questions, especially after Campbell's injury. Julien's system will likely sustain the defensive pressure, but can the Bs get some offense from the likes of Seguin, Chris Kelly or Rich Peverley? Though all have been quiet so far, they can redeem themselves with timely goals in the Final.
Tuukka Time Cannot Strike Midnight
Before the Eastern Final, the consensus was that Tuukka Rask's performance could not merely be good, but Conn Smythe-worthy if the Bruins were to advance. After stopping 134 of 136 shots, good for a mind-boggling .985 save percentage via ESPN, Rask has answered any questions about his ability to carry a team to the Stanley Cup.
After being stymied for four games, even Penguins coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged Rask's brilliance during the series, per James Murphy of ESPN:
"There's no question that the performance he put in in this series was elite," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of Rask. "He was the difference in the series, there is no question. It's not like we didn't have good opportunities and good scoring chances. We had good looks at the net. We had good opportunities, even in Game 1, had 12 scoring chances in the first period. He was the difference in that game. We weren't able to get on the board, get in a lead at any time in the series. Again, Game 3's performance, he was a 50-plus A performance, outstanding, spectacular in a lot of his saves. Again tonight he was up to the task. No question about this being his best performance."
Rask's 2013 playoff run has drawn numerous statistical comparisons to Tim Thomas' Stanley Cup winning performance. However, while Tuukka actually has better numbers at this point, it is moot to compare them yet because of how Thomas grew stronger deeper into the Bruins' run. By the Canucks' series, Thomas was locked in and playing his best hockey, allowing just four goals in the final five games of the series. Although it is hard to imagine Rask matching his numbers against Pittsburgh, he must sustain the same type of performance to allow the Bruins to play the low-scoring games they thrive on.
Staying Composed and Focus
Though it might sound simple, few factors can derail a team quicker than losing its mental composure in a series. Against the Penguins, the skirmishes at the end of the second period in Game 1 were a harbinger of Pittsburgh's inability to respond to the Bruins' punches. From that point on, Boston was able to bully the talented Penguins into submission, never allowing Pittsburgh's world class skill to play a significant factor.
The Blackhawks are one of the few teams who can match the Bruins' grit. Apart from Bickell's emergence, forwards Brandon Saad and Dave Bolland bring a strong physical presence that will batter the Bruins throughout. In Andrew Shaw, Chicago has its own Brad Marchand, who, as Joe Haggerty points out, must walk the thin line between agitator and scorer.
Players like Marchand and Lucic are game changers when they stay focused and on the ice instead of in the penalty box. But both have a history of short tempers, and dumb retaliatory penalties, like this one by Lucic in Game 7 against Toronto, can end a team's season.
The Bruins have won nine of their past 10 games. The team is in a special zone right now. If they simply sustain their focus and intensity for one more series, it might be time to bring out the duck boats one more time.