In many ways, for these two teams, the Stanley Cup Final is going to be like looking in a mirror:
Cup-winning pedigree? Check. Star power all over the lineup? Check. Defensively disciplined? Check. Roll four lines? Check. Getting ample secondary scoring? Check. Star players not performing up to snuff? Check. Awesome penalty kill? Check. Lousy power play? Check. Awesome Corsi/Fenwick numbers? Check.
And on it goes.
There's not a whole lot to pick between these two teams. The Blackhawks were the better team in the regular season, but recent playoff form probably favors the Bruins a bit, and so the most recent Vegas odds have Chicago a modest favorite at -155 (bet $155 to win $100), with the Bruins at +135 (bet $100 to win $135).
So, let's break this thing down:
Forwards - Measured by GVT, the Blackhawks had two of the four best skaters in the NHL this year in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Joel Quenneville had them skating on different lines until game 5 of the Western Conference Final, at which point Kane, who hadn't exactly been lighting the playoffs ablaze, erupted for a hat trick. One assumes that Chicago will thus roll out a top line with those two paired with Bryan Bickell, he of the 8 goals and rather unsustainable 22.5% shooting percentage. Toews continues to struggle, with a meager 9 points in the playoffs, and opponents have sometimes gotten him off his game, a prospect certain to interest a team that did exactly that to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The second line will feature Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa being centered by Michal Handzus, whose 9 playoff points already exceed his total for the regular season. Precisely why Handzus, a 36 year old career journeyman, is seeing top 6 minutes is anyone's guess, but he's acting as a millstone around the necks of his significantly more skilled wingers. The Blackhawks let their top three scoring lines suck up all the offensive zone time and leave their fourth line to take the defensive draws. Their usage chart is about as unbalanced as you can imagine, but I quite like that approach: why waste good ice time on guys who aren't going to score anyway? If you have to shelter a line with favorable offensive zone time, you're really just limiting your scoring opportunities. Of course, the other side of this argument is that putting weak players in defensive situations is going to lead to giving up more goals, which is absolutely true. My counter to this is, if a guy can't play offense and can't play defense...why the hell's he in the lineup? But this is the Blackhawks section, not my opportunity to rant about why Shawn Thornton is seeing ice time.
Boston has become more reliant on the top line of Nathan Horton, David Krejci and Milan Lucic than they ordinarily have been. Playoff leading scorer Krejci stands a fair shot to bring home the Conn Smythe if Boston brings home their second Cup in three years. For reasons known only to Claude Julien, the Bruins' second line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin was broken up with Seguin moved to the third line and Jaromir Jagr promoted to the second. Jagr has played well, and has a higher Corsi than Seguin, but Jagr's impressive puck possession might have helped his struggling third line mates of Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley a bit more, where Seguin's ability to capitalize on scoring chances generated by others might have been better spent with his old linemates. Of course, Seguin has been so snakebit in this postseason that he's growing scales and a forked tongue, and the same could be said of
Wolverine Jagr. Nevertheless, the switch is likely here to stay. Kaspars Daugavins will be replacing the injured Gregory Campbell, and figures to see the sort of pillow soft ice time that Julien uses to shelter Shawn Thornton, the polar opposite of what Quenneville does. At the very least, this should minimize the number of times that the Bruins are stuck pairing Thornton/Daugavins against Kane/Toews or Sharp/Hossa. Julien deserves a tremendous amount of credit for getting his forwards to buy in to making strong defensive efforts; not every coach can say the same. It helps that he has our beloved patron saint Patrice Bergeron, the best defensive forward in the league, but the effort is there on all four lines, and that reflects on the coach.
The way they're playing right now, you'd have to take Chicago's forwards. If Seguin or Jagr were to finally get some puck luck, or Bickell were to lose some, this would even out in a hurry. On the flip side, if Toews catches fire, this could turn into a huge edge for Chicago. Edge: Blackhawks.
Defense - The Blackhawks feature one of the best top pairings in the NHL in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Both have been killing it in the playoffs, with Corsis of 18.79 and 11.07 respectively. Keith has 11 points, but Seabrook, ordinarily a fine offensive producer, has struggled a bit to put points on the board, with just 3 to date. Their playoff Corsis are, interestingly, way above their regular season numbers both this year and last, but the small sample size of playoff games makes that true for a lot of players. So the Bruins' top offensive producers won't get a free ride by any stretch. The second pair of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya is better than most, but that's largely due to Hjalmarsson's strong play, as Oduya has been okay, but hardly spectacular in the playoffs, though he boasted a 9.03 Corsi in the regular season, which is hardly a thing to sneeze at. Quenneville shelters his third pair of Michal Rozsival and Nick Leddy, but not quite to the same extent Julien does. Leddy is a -7 in the playoffs, Rozsival a +6, which is more than a little strange considering that they're normally on the ice together. Neither has provided much offensive punch in the playoffs, though Leddy has the ability to do so.
Where the Blackhawks are fairly egalitarian with their even strength ice time distribution, the Bruins are heavily reliant on the play of Zdeno Chara. In terms of total ice time, Chara averages a full five minutes more than the next highest Bruin, his sometime partner Dennis Seidenberg. As Chara goes, so shall the Boston defense. He faces the toughest competition, gets the least favorable zone starts and still drives play and generates offense. The defensemen who most commonly pair with Chara will be Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk, both players who look a hell of a lot better with Chara at their side than without. During the season, Boychuk had a mighty 56.7% Corsi For with Chara and a more pedestrian 50.5% without, while Seidenberg's splits were 55.9% with and 53.0% without. It's noteworthy that in the full season of 2011-12, Seidenberg had a much wider with/without Chara split. As for the rest of the Bruin defense, Claude Julien insists on sitting two of their best six defensemen because they're not sufficiently experienced. It's hard to argue with the play of Adam McQuaid and Andrew Ference, but Dougie Hamilton and Matthew Bartkowski are better options. Alas, Boston surely has the best "fourth pair" in the league. McQuaid is a big hitter who is above-average positionally, but can be stymied by any competent forecheck. Thus, he's been paired with Torey Krug, a fearless, slick-skating rookie who has been able to get the third pair out of trouble and generate offense time and again. The bottom line is simple: if Chara is on the ice, the Bruins stand a good chance of holding Chicago at bay. Without him, not as much.
Both teams are deep, with a lot of two way ability. The lack of back to back games, and the fact that there are two games where there will be an extra day of rest, is a big benefit to the Bruins, who can (and surely will) play The Captain 30 minutes a night, so that, and the recent strong play of the lesser lights on Boston's defense, give them a paper-thin edge. Slight edge: Bruins.
Goaltending - Corey Crawford, who, improbably, was born in La Belle Province, leads the playoffs in GAA with 1.74. His .935 save percentage is sterling, and if Chicago wins the series, he's the likely winner of the Conn Smythe. However, a deeper examination of Crawford's numbers is a little more troubling for the Chicago faithful. Crawford's career save percentage is .913; perfectly respectable, but indicative of a goaltender who's playing well above his true level of talent. And Crawford is 28, with 152 regular season games under his belt; that's not a huge sample size, but it's probably enough to say that at some point, he's going to have a letdown.
Tuukka Rask leads the playoffs with a .943 save percentage, and is a mere hundredth of a goal behind Crawford in GAA. Rask absolutely stoned the mighty Penguins in the conference finals, giving up a whopping two goals in four games. If Boston should win the Cup, unless Krejci has an absolutely heroic Final, the Conn Smythe is his to lose. If the series goes 7 games, it might be his anyway. Rask, as you might expect from a goaltender who is leading the league in playoff save percentage, is also playing above his head, but the gap between his "true" level and his current level is not as great as Crawford's. Rask's career save percentage is .927, and with less variance than Crawford's season-to-season numbers.
It's hard to make an argument that Crawford is better than Rask either now, or at any point in time. The best Chicago can likely hope for is that Crawford matches Rask. I will assume that we will not see either Ray Emery or Anton Khudobin in this series, however, Boston has a pretty significant edge betwixt the backups. Edge: Bruins.
Coaching - Quenneville isn't shy about mixing up his lines, and goes out of his way to put his best offensive players in positions where they can put goals on the scoreboard. I wouldn't say that about Julien. However, Julien's commitment to getting his forwards to completely buy in to defense, and his ability to keep his team cool despite the high-intensity game they play is impressive. Both coaches have a Cup ring to their credit, and both have a great deal of experience on which to draw. And ultimately, both are probably among the top 5 in the NHL. But, if I had to pick one to help me win a game, I'd take Quenneville. Edge: Blackhawks.
Special teams - Neither power play has been great in the postseason, and both penalty kills have been fantastic. In all likelihood, this series will be decided based on 5 on 5 play. Both teams have been fairly disciplined, ranking in the middle of the pack for penalty minutes per game in the playoffs. Chicago's power play was a tad better in the regular season, but not enough to give them a clear edge. The addition of Krug has been a big boon to Boston's man advantage unit, enough to make me think that the modest improvement is legitimate. Draw.
Intangibles - I don't actually have anything to comment on here, except that I hate when sportswriters talk about "intangibles" as though we can quantify them and give one team an advantage over the other. The whole point of an "intangible" is that it's NOT tangible. It can't be defined.
National anthem - Ninja, please. HUGE edge: Bruins.
Beer - If I wanted to be a total dick, I'd put Old Style up as Chicago's beer, but in all fairness, we'll give them Goose Island. That's a fine beer, more than worthy of being consumed en masse from the Stanley Cup. Their Honker's Ale is a very versatile brew that goes with pretty much anything. I also like their IPA offering, but found their 312 to be a touch lacking. Sam Adams Boston Lager is the best mass-market beer you're going to find anywhere. The brewery is hit and miss with some of its more adventurous offerings (I found this year's summer 12 pack to be very underwhelming), but their seasonal offerings always deliver, such as this year's Summer Ale. Edge: Bruins.
Prediction - Chicago is the better team up front, but Boston has the ability to stop them and should have enough firepower to counterpunch. I've discussed the idea of regression a fair amount in this piece, but in a best of seven series, it won't always show up the way it will over a full 82 game season. Corey Crawford could continue stopping almost 94% of the shots he sees. Bryan Bickell could keep lighting the lamp, as could Boston's defensemen. I do expect Seguin to get off the schneid; he's been shooting a ton and really moving the puck well, so at some point, I think it pays off. But there really isn't a ton to pick from, so I think goaltending will be the key, as that tends to be disproportionately important in a short series. Boston needs Rask to be better than Crawford to win this series. And not just a smidge better, either. If they play evenly, or close to evenly, Chicago is probably going to win. If Rask steals one game, Boston has a decent chance. If he steals two, Dave Goucher will get another shot to fuck up his "get the duck boats ready" call. I think Rask stands a good chance of continuing his recent form, pulling the Bruins out of the fire a couple times, and taking this series. Bruins in six.