blackhawks-bruins

As the Blackhawks prepare to face the Bruins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, we’ve all taken a stab and some of the questions surrounding this Original Six Final. Sure, the series will be frustrating at times and you’re going to want to bite your fingers off because you’ll be so nervous pretty much every second, but … well, I guess I pretty much covered it.

Anyway, here’s what we’ve got regarding the series as of now, as Bartl, Nakis, Mighty Mike, JesusMarianHossa and Chris Deme weigh in:

The Blackhawks were the best team in the NHL during the regular season and have lost only one game at home in the playoffs. Why are you optimistic the Blackhawks can win the Stanley Cup?

Mighty Mike: You’ve answered your on question: The Blackhawks were the best team in the NHL this season.  A couple of hiccups against Detroit has done little to persuade me that they’re not still the best team in the league. They have the skill and the savvy to beat anybody. They would do well to keep that in mind when the going gets rough (and it surely will).

JesusMarianHossa: Because I’m a fan of the team and even gambling interests can’t get me to actively root against them. The part of the question that says “they were the best team in the regular season” would also satisfy as a reason for optimism. If you’re looking for any real insight here, it’s that the Blackhawks were #2 in Score-Adjusted Fenwick for the 2013 regular season. They just beat the team that was #1, and the only team I really “feared,” in five games.

Deme: Speed kills. The only team Boston has played in the Playoffs that rivals the Blackhawks’ speed is Toronto, and the Bruins barely escaped that series. The Hawks are fast, they have remarkable depth contribution, and Corey Crawford is playing the best hockey of his career. They have a fantastic shot at being a royal pain in the ass for the Bruins.

Nakis: With the exception of the perennially shitty power play, the Blackhawks have looked fantastic in every aspect of the game during these playoffs. Crawford is playing great; the defense has been nails and is transitioning the puck better than any team in the league; the forecheck has been vicious and the penalty kill is on another planet entirely. If there is any pessimism in me, it’s due almost entirely to the identity of their opponent.

Bartl: Simply put, other than the hiccup in the Detroit series, the Blackhawks really haven’t given me a reason NOT to be optimistic heading into the Final. Even then, they were still playing well overall. When the stars haven’t scored, the depth has shown. When the stars have scored, Kane nets a hat trick and sends the Hawks to the Cup Final. The top defensive pairings are playing well, Crawford is at the top of his game and there’s little reason to believe the ‘Hawks can’t hoist the Cup again.

We all know the Bruins as a big, mean team who just so happens to also possess a ton of skill. Which aspect of this Bruins team do you believe will give the Blackhawks the most trouble?

Bartl: There Bruins are pretty dangerous up and down the lineup, but the ‘Hawks need to find a way to shut down their top line of Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton. Krejci has a playoff-best 21 points (9 G, 12 A), Horton is right behind him with 7 G and 10 A, and Lucic has added 13 points.

However, that line’s plus-51 in the playoffs is pretty deceiving, mainly due to the play of Tuukka Rask. Lucic, Krejci and Horton had a combined minus-55 in CORSI over the final three games of the Pittsburgh series. You have to figure if the Blackhawks hold that type of shot advantage against those three that they’ll be in pretty good shape.

Nakis: Everyone is talking about Tukka Rask and the brut force employed by the Bruins, but the defensive acumen up and down that lineup is just scary. They’ve got penalty killers on all four lines, they backcheck like a bunch of Marian Hossa’s and they will pound you while doing it. The big guns of the Blackhawks aren’t going to have anywhere near the time or space they’ve had against Los Angeles or Detroit – and there wasn’t all that much to begin with.

Deme: The Hawks will have to keep it under control. Guys like Chara, Lucic, Marchand will do everything they can to crawl under their skin and throw off their game (see: Pittsburgh Penguins). Krejci is playing out of his mind. Lucic and Horton have heated up tremendously. Patrice Bergeron is possibly the most underrated player in the NHL. There will be plenty of challenges.

JesusMarianHossa: I’ve watched Brad Marchand play hockey. If Jeff Carter whacking Duncan Keith’s gloves away from him preceded a retaliatory stick to the face then there may be some criminal proceedings after the Stanley Cup Final for Keith, Shaw or any other hothead on the team.

But seriously, it’s the defensive awareness and responsibility of their forward group that makes me concerned. The Kings were backstopped by Jon Quick, who despite the small sample size of the playoffs, is a better goalie than Tuukka Rask. What Quick didn’t have was a group of forwards in front of him that backcheck like the Bruins do. The Wings were the most defensively responsible forward group the Hawks faced in the playoffs and they took the Hawks to seven games. Forget Zdeno Chara for a moment and concern yourselves with the likes of Bergeron, Horton and Lucic.

Mighty Mike: The Bruins, frankly, terrify me. They’re an unholy combination of snarl and firepower. Patrice Bergeron is having the Post-season of his life, Marchand is being everything that we wish Dave Bolland was and Zdeno Chara is a force of nature. I picked them to hammer the Pens (although stopped short of a sweep)  I think the most worrying thing for me is that Tyler Seguin has been a passenger all playoff long. If he suddenly come to life a fearsome team becomes a beast.

Patrick Kane seems to have come alive on a line with Jonathan Toews and Bryan Bickell. Does Joel Quenneville keep this line together or split it up in order to get Kane away from Zdeno Chara? (H/T to Twitter user @DChomicz)

Deme: There’s no reason to make any adjustments right now, particularly to a line on which one of the players is coming off a hat trick in an elimination game. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

JesusMarianHossa: Keep it together. It doesn’t matter what Q does, one of the top two lines will draw Chara, the other will draw Bergeron. There’s no shifts off against the Bruins.

Bartl: Chara is playing roughly 29 minutes per game in the playoffs, so getting anyone away from Chara will be difficult as it is. That being said, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to take Kane away from Toews right now. Especially after the Game 5 hatty, there’s nothing broke to fix. Don’t overthink it, Q. Just go with what’s working and adjust later if needed.

Mighty Mike: I can see him rolling with what worked (as he should). He’s going to see lot of Chara regardless, so keeping a line that looked like it’s tailor-made for all three players  makes sense. But look for then line mash-ups to start coming if things go awry.

Nakis: Chara is like a 2010-2011 Duncan Keith – he plays half the damn game. You’re not going to be able to keep Kane away from him forever. That line is playing too good right now to split up. Plus, I’m not sure we want to see Kane playing with Michal Handzus again.

It seems the Blackhawks have acquired something of a reputation for being a team willing to bring the physicality during these playoffs. Is this new persona overblown or have the Blackhawks really gotten more physical?

JesusMarianHossa: “We are trailing in the hits column most games. That just means we have the puck more.” – Patrick Kane 3/28/13. Not much has changed since then and possession/speed is still what Chicago wins because of.

Mighty Mike: I think it’s not so much overblown as a necessary reaction to the way the Kings play. The Hawks had to show that they couldn’t be bullied off the puck and did, more or less. They may need more of the same against Boston but would be ill-advised to get into unnecessary physical battles with them. It won’t end well.

Nakis: Largely overblown. The Blackhawks, for the most part, are no more or less physical than they were all season long. Remember last round when everyone thought they were too soft to get through LA? That was like 2 weeks ago.  I will say that both Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw have made their presence known in every series and Frolik-Kruger and Bolland are like a couple of goddamn piranhas (sorry Ozzie) out there. But no, this is still a speed and skill team for the most part.

Bartl: Overblown, IMO. It’s the nature of the playoffs. Guys are playing with a bit more pep in their stride and more physical play comes along with that with them playing balls to the wall. I don’t think the Blackhawks are winning because they’re “more physical” in the playoffs.

Deme: Very much overblown. The Hawks are a finesse team that kills you with speed. Physical play comes with the territory of playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If you aren’t physical, you aren’t alive. Good on the Hawks, particularly guys like Bickell who have stepped it up in the hit department. It’s a very effective way of wearing an opposing team down and making them look for the hit before they play the puck, causing mistakes, but his physicality comes from the nature of the playing hard in the Playoffs. I would not call the Hawks a physical team.

Which team has the edge behind the bench in this series? Would you rather go to battle with Joel Quenneville or Claude Julian?

Nakis: Draw. Both of these guys have won a Stanley Cup. Both command the respect and loyalty of their players.  Q & Claude have the unenviable task of keeping guys like Brad Marchand and Andrew Shaw under control while maintaining maximum intensity. While we don’t know what they’re going to do yet, watching them game out the matchups in this series is going to be fascinating. The teams that win at home will win the series, so coaching is going to have a big impact on this Stanley Cup Final.

Bartl: I’m not overly abreast of Julian’s ways, but his quote after Game 4 was pretty priceless. People in Boston were calling for his head had the Bruins blown a 3-1 lead before that epic comeback against Toronto in Game 7. He said, ““I’ve been here for six years. I think I’ve been fired five times.” So, ‘Hawks fans aren’t the only ones calling out their coach, and both teams are in the Final. Can’t ague with “Even” until after Game 1.

Deme: Both guys have Stanley Cups in the past 3 years. Both guys brought their teams back in this year’s Playoffs from gut-wrenching deficits on the brink of elimination. Both guys have a pretty miserable power play in the Playoffs. Quenneville gets the edge for the PK. Both guys have a ton of depth to work with and have made the most of it. It’s a tough call.

Mighty Mike: Chicago. I think Q has, by-and-large, done  the right things. Some of his line changes, and the shake-up of the D pairings, have paid off handsomely. He’s also resisted the urge to tinker too much, or panic.

JesusMarianHossa: They asked Uncle Lou if he regrets firing Julien six years ago when he was with the Devils. His response? “No. In fact, get me a phone. I’ll call him up today and fire him again if you want.” I’m still of the mind that coaching in the NHL is a small piece of the equation. Hell, in most sports that’s the case. Unless you’re harboring a Belichick, Poppovich, Phil Jackson, Nick Saban, Mike Babcock or Tom Thibodeau, you don’t really have much of an advantage.

The coach that stays out of his own way the most and lets his talented roster do the heavy lifting will have done the best job in this series once it’s over.

Finally, who ya got?

Nakis: Blackhawks in 7…..which is to say that it’s a complete tossup.

JesusMarianHossa: Whoever wins Game 1 in six games.

Bartl: As much as I’d like to write, “Hawks in 4″ since I’m going to Boston for Game 4, I’m going to be more realistic and say they clinch on the Bruins’ ice in Game 6. As if I was going to pick against the ‘Hawks, anyway….

Mighty Mike: Chicago in 7. Yes. I think this one goes the distance. God help us all.

Deme: Hawks in 7, winning in front of the home crowd.