Now the real fun begins. After an abbreviated 48 game season of intra-conference play and three playoff rounds with their fair share of scares for each team, the Hawks and Bruins will meet in the post season for the sixth time ever, and for the first time ever in the Stanley Cup Final. With the Bruins two years removed from their last title and the Hawks three, it’s a juggernaut matchup that the league has dreamed of, but probably doesn’t deserve after what it’s put everyone through. And though superficial analysis would have one believe that these two teams are diametrically opposed stylistically, they’re actually far more similar than one would expect.
For the Prince of Wales Trophy ignoring Bruins, they enter tonight fresh off of a sweep of the top seeded and Cup favorite Penguins, whom they held to a meager two goals, both at even strength, despite all of their offensive prowess and deadline acquisitions.
This sweep was able to be accomplished for manifold reasons. First the Bruins possess a dominating top line of Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic, centered by David Krejci. Krejci and Horton are #1 and #2 in both scoring (21 points and 17 points respectively) and in plus-minus, with Horton an otherworldly +21 in 16 games, and Krejci a +14. Lucic is not that far off the pace with 13 points (3G, 10A) and a +13. The line has accounted for 38% of the Bruins offense thus far, and those plus-minus numbers are a function of the B’s doing nearly all of their damage at even strength. They’ve been able to do so with by having the extremely large Lucic and Horton pummel opposing defensemen while the slick and crafty Krejci is able to find both them and the back of the net with only a minimal amount of space. If there’s one wart of this impressive resume, it’s that Krejci himself is only about 46% at the dot, and is barely above water in Corsi, with only a 3.58 advantage in shots directed at the net per 60 minutes played.
However, that differential is more than made up for on the second line, containing the linchpin of the Bruins entire gameplan, Patrice Bergeron. Bergeron wins 61% of his draws and drives possession for linemates Jaromir Jagr and Brad Marchand. The unit regularly faces the top competition the other team has to offer, and is able to neutralize them in no small part thanks to having the puck the vast majority of the time starting with the puck drop. Bergeron has also shown and incredible flair for the dramatic with two OT winners, an OT assist, and also the game tying goal in the waning seconds of Game 7 against Toronto. And he also kills penalties with lethal efficiency and runs a point on the first power play unit, so yeah, he’s kind of important.
Since Gregory Campbell’s injury, the B’s bottom six forwards have been kind of a jumble (something Hawks fans are all too familiar with), with Rich Peverley centering Tyler Seguin and Kaspars Daugivins on the third line, and Chris Kelly dropping down to center Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton on the fourth. The fourth line shouldn’t miss a beat as Kelly is actually better at the dot than Campbell was, however the B’s third line is the only one that doesn’t really possess any of the relentless physicality and puck pursuit the others do, and it will be something to monitor.
On their blue line, everything begins and ends with Zdeno Chara, because he is literally that large. For the second time in as many trips to the Final, the Hawks will be staring down a Hall of Fame defenseman of imposing physical stature, and there are none more imposing in the history of the league than the 6’9″ Chara. Chara covers so much ice for so much of each game, it’s always difficult to see any way around or through him, and may the Force be with whomever lays down in front of his Death Star cannon of a shot. He’ll be partnered with Dennis Seidenberg as usual, who is sizeable and mobile himself, but does not possess the anger in his game Chara has. They may be forced to switch sides as Chara normally mans the right side of the pairing, but the Hawks’ depth at right wing (Seidenberg’s side) with Kane and Hossa may necessitate a switch.
The defensive corps is rounded out by the pairings of Boychuck and Ference and then Krug and McQuaid. Both Boychuck and McQuaid are large and angry and have heavy shots of their own, but are only marginally faster than the likes of Matt Greene and Rob Scuderi. Ference and Krug are both diminutive but their games could not be more different. Ference plays with an edge that belies his size, and Krug is a shotgunning rookie who has made a name for himself on the power play this post season. Krug is tougher to shelter away from home for Claude Julien, so look for this to be a matchup Quenneville will seek.
In net for the B’s is Tuukka Rask, who has finally turned his glittering regular season numbers into post-season success. Rask has had trouble closing out series, and only has done so on the first try once, just this past series against the Pens. He’s slightly built but plays a strong game down low and can move post to post quickly, but his glove hand is not near the speed of what the Hawks have seen the past two rounds against Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Quick. Rask comes into tonight with a 12-4 record, a 1.75 GAA, and a .943 save percentage while facing just short of 33 shots per game. While having a near impeccable stat line, that last number is one the Bruins would certainly like to see lowered.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the big news has been the jumbling of lines in practice the last two days, with Viktor Stalberg once again fated to wear a suit in favor of purported physical presence but verified turd Brandon Bollig. While the decision to import Bollig leaves many a Hawks observer apoplectic, the decision to sit Stalberg with the new construction of the lines actually makes a little bit of sense and isn’t just a case of Quenneville outsmarting himself after two successful games with the most recent changes prior.
At least to start tonight, the Hawks’ top line will consist of Toews centering Sharp and Hossa, followed by Handzus between Bickell and Kane, Bolland flanked by Saad and Shaw, and lastly Kruger surrounded by Frolik and Bollig.
The key to all of this is the reconstruction of what appears to be an actual dedicated checking line once again featuring Dave Bolland. It stands to reason that Q will toss Bolland out against the Krejci line with the singular task of nullifying their attack, scoring yourself be damned. This is only possible because as was pointed out earlier, Krejci hasn’t been great at the dot, though those numbers are sure to improve if he’s facing off against Bolland regularly. With Toews and Bergeron’s lines staring each other down, this could potentially free up Kane and Bickell to see time against the likes of Kelly, and especially Peverley, Seguin, and Daugavins, the only line with out anyone truly in the two-way category.
For the Hawk defensemen, look for Keith and Seabrook to primarily get looks at the Krejci line as well, as they’re the only two Hawk blueliners with a solid history of being able to withstand the onslaught Lucic and Horton are sure to bring. Because the Bergeron line only possesses one real puck pursuer in the form of weeping herpes sore Brad Marchand, giving Hammer and Oduya that matchup seems to be a little more ideal considering some of the trouble each have had with forecheckers bearing down on them. The thought of Daniel Paille or Tyler Seguin closing in on Michal Rozsival further down each lineup is not an appetizing one, so Nick Leddy’s wheels will need to be put to use, as well as to get him available for quick, short outlet and reversal passes.
In net will of course be Corey Crawford, who will need to take what was for the most part exemplary rebound control up even a notch further against the phalanx of Bruins forwards that will be joining him in his crease after every shot. Crawford has bounced back nicely from the occasional boners he’s allowed, and has the league leading 1.74 GAA to prove it, but there will be no room for such error against the Bruins in this series.
Where Game 1 in 2010 was a wide-open acid-reflux inducing feeling out process of a game between two teams with goalies not on top of their games, expect at least the first 10 minutes to be a bit of a grind before the game settles in, even if the crowd is absolutely frothing. Though both power play units have been fucking clown shoes for either team, giving the Bruins any kind of early or regular looks on the power play is just asking for trouble, and asking to have forwards injured and unavailable by having to step in front of Chara’s shot. Conversely, making the Bruins pay for any penalized physical tactics will go a long way in opening up space as the series progresses.
This is what the delayed and compressed season been building up toward, and what will validate every minor accolade the Hawks have earned to this point. The competition will be like none the Hawks have faced in their renaissance, but the opportunity is there and cannot be missed. Let’s go Hawks.
Not able to get down to the UC tonight? Buy tonight’s Indian here.