Bruins vs. Blackhawks: Stanley Cup final set up to be a thriller
The Chicago Blackhawks will meet the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final. Both teams could be perfectly built to exploit the other's weaknesses. But the Bruins might have something extra.
Boston — Surely, when the National Hockey League releases its commemorative Stanley Cup champions 2013 video, the winner of the series that begins Wednesday in Chicago will be crowned a "team of destiny" though the perspicacity of hindsight.
Yet now, with the Stanley Cup finals matchup set after the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Los Angeles Kings Saturday night, only one team can truly lay claim to the moniker – and the Blackhawks will be hoping that a deep dose of the inexplicable does not take the cup back to Causeway Street in Boston for the second time in three years.
Because "inexplicable" best describes these Stanley Cup playoffs for the Boston Bruins. They just finished a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that seemingly had more firepower than the Death Star, all of it fully operational. Along the way, they gave up only two goals. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were both held pointless, an apocalypse that even the Mayans could not foresee, much less Barry Melrose.
And a month ago, after the first round of the playoffs, Boston sports radio jocks were debating whether the Bruins' Game 7 rally against the Toronto Maple Leafs – coming from 4-1 down with 11-1/2 minutes remaining, and scoring two goals in the last 1:22 of regulation while playing without a goalie – was the most miraculous event in the city's sporting history.
Bear in mind, this is a city that witnessed the Red Sox rally from being down three games to none against the New York Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series. Not only do those Red Sox remain the only team in baseball history to rally from a 3-0 deficit, but they did it against the arch-rival Yankees on their way to winning their first World Series since 1918 all while sweeping aside the supposed curse laid upon them by the greatest player in baseball history.
So let's just say Boston is no stranger to the extraordinary.
And this sure looks familiar.
Of course, Game 7 against Toronto can be explained. The Maple Leafs were young and inexperienced. They hadn't made the playoffs since 2004. Their goaltender was not ready for primetime.
Likewise, the Penguins' refusal to play anything resembling defense in the first two games of their series with the Bruins can be explained. They underestimated the Bruins. They felt their offensive pedigree entitled them to win every game 6-4. They didn't want to take off the gloves and grind.
Yet in this era of advanced statistics, when "Moneyball" metrics seek to chart everything from the quality of a player's opponents to his potty breaks, momentum or destiny or whatever you want to call it is the most infuriating of phenomena – undeniably palpable yet utterly unquantifiable.
Increasingly, this has become a part of football. The past two years, the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants have simply gotten hot at the right time, and in a league now dominated by parity – in which the substantive difference between one team and another is appreciable only to salary-cap crunchers – that was enough to bring Super Bowl championships.
Hockey has long been this way, with the goalie as the ultimate equalizer. The Penguins might have thought that they had built a once-in-a-generation team – a Fabergé collection of offensive talent that needed to be ferried to and from the ice in a jewelry case. But in the glove of Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, the Bruins found their Hope Diamond.
Once again, the Bruins find themselves facing a team sprinkled with the fairy dust of history. The Blackhawks, like the Penguins, are not so much a team as an assemblage of offensive finery. They didn't lose a game in regulation time until almost halfway through this lockout-shortened season – a record run in which they went 20-0-3.
Like the Penguins, they are deep, they are fast, and they score goals in bunches. Unlike the Penguins, they play defense and they are most dangerous on the counterattack – turning opponents' mistakes into offense with blinding thrusts of pace and skill. It was this style of play that was so nearly the Bruins' undoing against the Maple Leafs. And the Blackhawks have turned it into an art form.
Of course, the way the Bruins are playing now, they are the perfect antidote to the Blackhawks' style of hockey. They don't make mistakes.
It means that, for each team and all hockey fans, the conference finals that ended this weekend were more than a warmup; they were a prelude. In the end, The Penguins, built to keep the scoreboard operator busy, could barely get him to lift a finger; the Kings, built to play fundamental hockey in front of one of the game's best goalies, found even their smallest mistakes cruelly punished by the Blackhawks.
Now, the Bruins and Blackhawks will try to go one better – beating the team that was seemingly perfectly constructed to beat them.
Unless "destiny" has something new up its sleeve.