Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final kicks off Wednesday night in Chicago between the Blackhawks and Bruins, marking the first postseason meeting between the two teams since 1978.
Both clubs are riding waves of playoff dominance heading into the series, boast plenty of experience from their recent championships (Chicago in 2010 and Boston in 2011) and are teeming with deep rosters that should make for an entertaining matchup. With only hours to go before puck drop, here’s a look at some of the storylines to watch throughout the final and links to help get you ready for Game 1.
>> Tuukka Rask vs. Corey Crawford: Neither goaltender was minding the crease when their teams last won the Stanley Cup and both are eager to make their own legacy as the anchor of a championship team. Rask (12-4-1, 1.75 GAA, .943 save percentage) allowed only two goals in the Eastern Conference finals as the Bruins swept Pittsburgh.
Crawford faced plenty of doubters as he entered his third full season in the NHL, but his 12-5-1 showing with a .935 save percentage and 1.74 GAA in the playoffs have erased most, if not all, of those questions.
“He’s really been progressing every year,” Chicago GM Stan Bowman said Tuesday. “He’s a guy we’ve had in our organization since we drafted him. We’ve taken our time allowing him to improve year after year. He’s finally made it to the NHL, established himself as the No. 1 goaltender.”
Will one netminder’s ability to steal a game or two tip the balance in the series? Both Chicago and Boston are capable of offensive outbursts and the ability of either Rask or Crawford to make key saves could prove to be the difference.
>> How will the Blackhawks fare against the brawny Bruins?: Boston smothered and rendered the Penguins’ offensive firepower useless in the conference finals with their aggressive forecheck and relentless physical play. The speedy Presidents’ Trophy winners and their thriving transition game will provide a difficult test for that formula, but many believe that the Bruins are a more physically imposing team than what Chicago has faced in the postseason thus far.
Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville made adjustments in practice leading up to Game 1 aimed toward counteracting Boston’s rough-and-tumble style including scratching Viktor Stalberg in favor of the more rugged Brandon Bollig and placing Toews and Patrick Kane on separate lines so that they both won’t be matched up against Boston’s captain and mountainous top defenseman Zdeno Chara. But whether that will be enough to counteract Chara, who has averaged nearly 30 minutes of ice time per game in these playoffs, remains to be seen.
“We want to make it challenging for him. At the same time that could be easier said than done,” Quenneville told reporters Wednesday morning. “But he does play big minutes. You try to wear him down, work him in his own zone. You have to commend him on how he’s playing, how he’s played in his career. He’s a special defenseman. We have to pay attention to him being on the ice.”
>> Jagr’s impact: It’s been 21 years since Jaromir Jagr last appeared on hockey’s grandest stage as a mullet-sporting phenom taking the NHL by storm. Jagr returns to the Stanley Cup final as a wily 41-year-old member of the Bruins and on Tuesday as he met with reporters he made fun of his former hairstyle and reflected on the novelty of playing with and against those who grew up idolizing him like David Krejci, Michael Frolik and Jonathan Toews.
From the Boston Globe: “I know it’s not easy to be 41, but I don’t think that age matters,” Jagr said. “As long as you love the game and you like to work hard every day, more than the other guys you can play.”
The former Capital has yet to score a goal in these playoffs but has recorded seven assists, arguably none more critical than the play he made along the boards in Game 3 to help set up Patrice Bergeron’s double-overtime winner that gave Boston a 3-0 lead in the conference final series against Pittsburgh. Jagr still has the potential to be a game-changer and it’s smart, timely plays like that one that make him worth watching in the final. (If you missed it earlier in the playoffs, Elliotte Friedman’s look at Jagr’s conditioning routine is worth the time.)
>> Which role players become finals heroes? Both Chicago and Boston have benefitted from the contributions of unsung members of their lineup in the playoffs and every year there’s always at least one role player who makes a clutch contribution for his team in the final.
For the Blackhawks, no one has made as profound of an unexpected impact in the postseason than Bryan Bickell. The impending free agent forward has racked up eight goals in 17 games, tying him with Patrick Sharp for best on the team, and 13 points. Veteran center Michal Handzus, 36, has quietly added nine points and chipped in on important penalty kill situations as well.
When injuries threatened their defensive depth, the Bruins turned to rookie Torey Krug for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against New York, and he’s been in the lineup for every game since. Krug has recorded four goals, two assists and performed well beyond his 22 years. While most of Boston’s offense in the postseason has stemmed from its top two lines, contributions from the blueline have been equally important. Boston’s defensemen have combined for 15 goals so far in the postseason, with Johnny Boychuck (5), Krug leading the way.