One of the curious things about the NHL playoffs is that quite often the conference finals are more dramatic than actual the Stanley Cup Final.
The teams that face off in the third round are more familiar and may even be divisional rivals with rival fan bases. The Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings encounters of the 90s and early 2000s were the apex of the sport, making the Stanley Cup final an afterthought.
In 2013, the last four Cup champions were supposed to provide a frenzied two weeks of hockey, but instead left two franchises in disbelief and the other two with extra time to rest.
And even when the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins have yet to play one another in 2013, due to inter-conference play becoming a casualty of the lockout, this series has all the makings of a proper conclusion to a fascinating half-season.
Much is being made in mainstream hockey media about the matchup of two Original Six teams for the first time since 1979. Conversely, hockey historians fire back by reminding us that “Original Six” is a misnomer and that the NHL began in 1917 with four teams: The Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, and the Toronto Hockey Club. Both arguments, while entertaining, are overbearing and fans should instead look to the ways in which these particular clubs compare and contrast.
As mentioned above, both the Hawks and Bruins have recent Stanley Cup wins—Chicago in 2010 and Boston in 2011. Much of the core remains intact on both teams. And when no team has repeated as champion since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings, these clubs represent the closest thing, alongside the Red Wings and Penguins of today, to dynastic hockey.
This is the first stretch of memorable repeat contenders since the Avalanche, Red Wings, and New Jersey Devils of the millenium era (1995-2003) when eight of those nine seasons saw at least one of those teams raise the Cup. The one other winner, the 1999 Dallas Stars, were often worthy runners-up, usually providing a scare to the Avalanche or Red Wings.
This year’s Bruins and Hawks have each experienced their requisite “scare” during this postseason—the kind that most eventual champions endure yet consume as extra motivation.
Boston’s was in Round 1 when, after narrowly defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game seven comeback, forward Milan Lucic in a postgame interview looked genuinely shell-shocked, praising Toronto’s players and generally looking thankful that the upset was never realized.
“They have a lot to be proud of,” Lucic told CBC after that Game 7. Since that night, the Bruins have lost just one game.
Chicago went through its own transformation, initially looking juvenile in its series with the Red Wings. Jonathan Toews looked to be coming unraveled at one point, taking penalty after penalty and watching as his team fell behind 3–1 in the series. But the Blackhawks found their composure and also have also only lost once since facing elimination.
During that time, several individual performances have stood out and not all were obvious candidates. Due to his transgressions against Detroit and his middling point production (1 goal, 9 points), previous Conn Smythe winner Toews has left the door open for others to inherit the honor. Likewise in Boston, former Conn winner Tim Thomas will not repeat, making the race from the Bruins side closely contested.
Nathan Horton of the Bruins, who missed much his team’s last final experience due to a severe a concussion, has scored three game-winning goals—most on the team—and has a staggering plus/minus rating of +21.
Tuukka Rask will get serious consideration after allowing only two goals in four games to the highest scoring team in the Penguins and putting up a better save percentage so far to that of Thomas’ in 2011.
Zdeno Chara could be considered most valuable based on his ice time alone. He is averaging nearly 30 minutes per game, higher than his average in 2011, and will counter most of Chicago’s productive top-six forward group.
The votes are likely split for Chicago as well with Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Patrick Kane all tied with 14 points. Though four of Kane’s goals come from the last two contests and he had been widely panned for looking invisible for much of these playoffs.
“Top players, they want to be great all the time,” coach Joel Quenneville told the Globe and Mail. “Finding a way to be great in the tight checking that many teams have in our league, I commend him on [those] two outstanding games.”
Kane’s ability to play at peak levels at the most crucial time netted him the Cup-winning goal in 2010 and now he has given his team much-needed rest going in to Wednesday’s series opener.
On June 12, the Hawks and Bruins will make their first impressions of 2013 on one another and it should not take too long to create that special kind of playoff animosity.
With agitators like Brad Marchand and Andrew Shaw, previously suspended players like Lucic and Duncan Keith, and heavyweights like Bryan Bickell and the impossibly-sized Chara, the script looks as though it promises fierce competition and physicality, though it may take until Games 2 and 3 to develop that intimacy.
And though both teams face the strong possibility of losing teammates to free agency and trades due to the upcoming salary-cap crunch, the focus has to be squarely on the task at hand.
Most are returning from recent championships won within the last four years. Chicago’s Toews says what could just as easily have been said by the Bruins captain: “The guys in this room that were there in 2010 and have been there since understand that.
“We know what it takes. We know what we have to do to win these important games. Everyone’s setting aside their personal agendas for that. There’s no other way to do it. We have the ability, the talent, but most of all, we’re hungry to get back to where we were.”