There is a saying in hockey that always sprouts at this time of year: "Your best players need to be your best players."
That is to say, if you have a team with Wayne Gretzky, chances are, you'll need Gretzky to be your best player to win a Stanley Cup. If some fourth-line guy who has fewer teeth than fingers is playing better than Gretzky, that's not a good sign.
And it makes sense. On the Pittsburgh Penguins, there is no doubt that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the two celestial lights around which that constellation of stars swirls. Reggie Jackson might say their sticks stir the drink.
Well, when the Penguins were swept by the Boston Bruins last round, they were dreadful.
And now, with the Stanley Cup final tied at 1-1 heading to Boston Monday night, the Chicago Blackhawks must wonder if Superman is still stuck in his phone booth. Patrick Kane, who once wore a cape during the shootout competition on all-star weekend, has seemed to shrink before the Big Bad Bruins, skirting on the edges of play, pushed to the areas of the ice where there is least resistance – and where he is very little threat.
Marian Hossa, too, has been largely anonymous so far. The Blackhawks need both to be among their best players over the next (potentially) five games.
But then, what about the Bruins?
On one hand, the Bruins' best players have been their best players – emphatically – this postseason. The Bruins' first line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Nathan Horton has been the best line so far in these playoffs, and by some distance. Lucic scored twice in Game 1 of the final.
But that, in itself, is telling. None of that threesome would likely even be on the Penguins first line. For the Blackhawks, arguably at least four forwards are all bigger offensive stars than any of the Bruins top 3 – Kane, Hossa, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Sharp.
And that, if anything, is the legacy of what one might call the National Hockey League's "Bruins Era," whether or not the Bruins win this cup. Since the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, team has trumped talent, steadiness has trumped star power. And this series is shaping up no different.
The Bruins are essentially a team with two second lines and two third lines. Their best forward, Patrice Bergeron, is best known for playing defense. Their leading point-scorer in the regular season, Brad Marchand, is a second-line winger best knowing for annoying opposing players past endurance.
They are hockey's embodiment of the bell curve: one great goaltender (Tuukka Rask), one great defenseman (Zdeno Chara), and everyone else bunched together in the middle – none spectacular, none awful. If competence can be an art form, the Bruins are its Picasso.
In Game 2 Saturday night, the Bruins third line was its best, creating both goals in the Bruins' 2-1 overtime win. Why? Because Bruins coach Claude Julien moved up fourth-liner Daniel Paille. On many teams, fourth-liners are ballast – fists on skates that bump and bruise to avoid being sent back down to the Charlotte Checkers or Grand Rapids Griffins in the minors. The idea of improving the team by moving a fourth-liner up the pecking order would be preposterous.
Then again, they're all sitting at home now.
Coach Julien was spot on in his news conference after Game 2: The top forward lines always draw an opponent's top defensive pairing, with the result of each often canceling the other out. In the toughest games, where every square inch of the ice is contested – as this series has been – that can leave the third and fourth lines to do the damage.
And make no mistake, that is a major reason the Blackhawks are here, too. Put aside Toews and Kane and Hossa and they still have a positively Bruinian supporting cast. In Game 1, the Blackhawks' third and fourth lines accounted for goals 2, 3, and 4 of Chicago's 4-3 triple overtime win. In Game 2, the Blackhawks' fourth line was by far their most dangerous when the game was in the balance.
It was the same last year, when the Los Angeles Kings won the cup by being steadily unspectacular.
Now, should the Penguins offload Sidney Crosby? Does today's NHL have no room for superstars?
No. But to win the Stanley Cup, it seems, they're no longer a necessity.