After three rounds of thrilling NHL playoff action, hockey fans have a Stanley Cup Final worth salivating over. The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins take center stage in a title showdown between proud and historic franchises.
These Original Six squads swiftly dismantled opponents in conference semifinal action, setting up a highly anticipated matchup. Boston swept away top-seeded Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Final, while Chicago eliminated defending champion Los Angeles in five games.
This series has everything you look for in a title bout. Superstars, emerging playmakers and exceptional execution fueled each team through three intense postseason series.
Now that four wins separate one squad from eternal greatness, let's examine the elements that should ultimately decide the outcome.
Tim Thomas who?
The 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy winner has swiftly become ancient history with the emergence of Tuukka Rask, a 26-year-old Finnish netminder currently enjoying a career-defining run. He surrendered just two scores in a stunning four-game sweep of the Penguins, which featured two one-goal victories.
Rask stopped 53 shots in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final, a 2-1 Bruins victory that reached double overtime. It's one of six games in these playoffs in which he stopped at least 31 shots.
Rask, a 2005 first-round selection by Toronto, has never started more than 45 regular-season games. Established track record or not, a strong performance against Chicago would solidify him among the game's elite goalies.
The fact that he becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the season also provides an incentive.
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews contributed mightily in a decisive Game 5 victory over Los Angeles in the Western Conference Final. Toews dished out a pair of assists, providing his typical steadfast defensive effort and leadership.
He now has eight assists in the postseason, but the number next to it on the stat sheet is glaring. Toews owns just one playoff goal through 17 playoff games, entrenched in an ill-timed scoring drought that Chicago has been able to overcome thus far.
Since finishing the month of April with six scores, his lone goal during the past five-plus weeks occurred in a victory over Detroit in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. That's a far cry from Toews' typical productivity.
He netted a total of 14 goals during the first two playoff appearances of his career (2009 and 2010) and finished the 2013 regular season tied for the team lead with 23 goals. Boston has been tough on opposing stars (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Rick Nash to name a few), so the journey doesn't get any easier for Toews as he looks to get back on track.
Count Corey Crawford as another netminder who has absolutely elevated his efforts during these playoffs. The Chicago backstop has been big-time throughout the postseason, alleviating worries that he would become the weak link on an offensively dominant Blackhawks squad.
The 28-year-old entered 2013 with a career postseason record of 5-8, and a strong regular season did little to quell concerns about his ability to shoulder the load throughout a taxing playoff run.
Crawford responded with considerable dominance, accumulating a league-leading 1.74 GAA through three series. His .935 save percentage ranks second among all playoff goalies.
After out-dueling 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick in the Western Conference Final, he prepares to compete opposite of Bruins hot-handed netminder Tuukka Rask.
The Blackhawks' defensive strategy centers on stopping a trio of scintillating Bruins playmakers. Boston has relied heavily on the prowess of a line led by Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton.
Those three have combined to tally 51 points through 16 playoff games. Each player has eclipsed double-digit assist totals, while combining for 19 goals.
Krejci has been on fire, lighting up opponents with 21 points. He leads the team with nine goals and 12 assists.
Horton, who becomes an unrestricted free agent after the playoffs, has been a revelation. His efforts (seven goals, 10 assists) have energized an offense that played sporadically at times during the regular season.
Lucic is among the team's top facilitators and was among Boston's heroes in the memorable Game 7 comeback victory over Toronto in the first round.
Can the Blackhawks cool off the game's hottest line?
Chicago doesn't fear opponents' power plays. The Blackhawks simply dismantle them.
The Western Conference champions lead all playoff teams with a 95 percent kill rate against opposing man advantages. To make matters worse for Boston, the Blackhawks also have a penchant for punctuating the effort with short-handed scores.
Chicago ranked third during the regular season with an 87 percent penalty kill rate and has only become more stifling on hockey's biggest stage. The Bruins aren't exactly setting the world on fire during power-play opportunities either.
Boston converts on 16 percent of its man advantages, ranking 10th among playoff teams. The margin for error figures to be razor-thin in this series, so it's imperative the Bruins discover a way to counter Chicago's outstanding special teams play.