NHL Stanley Cup Final 2013: Position-by-Position Breakdown
The NHL couldn't have asked for a better matchup in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, where two Original Six teams, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks, will compete for the best trophy in sports.
Both of these teams dominated their conference final series (Blackhawks beat the Los Angeles Kings in five; Bruins swept the Pittsburgh Penguins) and will now enter the final round with a ton of confidence and a firm belief that they will emerge as champions.
Like every playoff series, there are certain positional matchups that will take center stage and greatly impact the outcome.
Let's take a look at a position-by-position breakdown of this Bruins and Blackhawks series as these two historic franchises prepare for Game 1 on Wednesday at the United Center.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
|1||Jonathan Toews||David Krejci|
|2||Michal Handzus||Patrice Bergeron|
|3||Andrew Shaw ||Rich Peverley|
|4||Dave Bolland ||Chris Kelly|
Depth down the middle is essential to winning the Stanley Cup, which is why it's no surprise that the two teams left standing have so much skill at this position.
The Bruins have two of the best defensive centers in the NHL in Patrice Bergeron (reigning Frank J. Selke Trophy winner) and Chris Kelly. These players are both fantastic on faceoffs (Bergeron leads the playoffs in faceoff wins), they consistently backcheck and also play a major role on the penalty kill that went 15-of-15 against the Penguins' No. 1-ranked power play in the conference final.
Bergeron did a marvelous job at defending Penguins superstar center Sidney Crosby last round, holding the world's most talented player scoreless through four games, which had never happened in No. 87's playoff career. Bergeron will now be asked to shut down Toews, who is playing his best hockey of the postseason entering the Stanley Cup Final.
He had two assists in the series-clinching victory to eliminate the Kings on Saturday, and Patrick Kane's move to his line has resulted in Toews' offense being more consistent.
No player has taken more faceoffs in the playoffs than the Blackhawks captain (358), and he must succeed against Bergeron in the dot if Chicago is going to have consistent puck possession and use its speed to create scoring chances.
The challenge of defending David Krejci's line, which includes power forward wingers Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic, will be incredibly difficult for the Blackhawks. Toews will likely get a lot of ice time against this line, and Handzus probably will too. The 36-year-old veteran is good on faceoffs and has the size and strength needed to limit the effectiveness of Lucic and Horton.
Krejci leads the playoffs in points (21) and goals scored (nine), with at least one point in 14 of Boston's 16 playoff games. Pittsburgh could not stop his line, giving up a total of six goals and six assists in four games. Failing to prevent this trio from dominating will result in the Blackhawks losing this series.
In the bottom two center positions, it's important that Shaw and Bolland win faceoffs and play smart against Peverley and Kelly. Peverley has tremendous speed and is responsible defensively, while Kelly dominates in the faceoff dot and does a good job of forcing turnovers with great stick work and physical play.
Peverley was fantastic in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final for the Bruins, but he has failed to make the same impact in 2013. He has one goal in 15 postseason games and has struggled all year. Boston will be hoping that his game improves at the most important time of the year.
|1 LW||Bryan Bickell||Milan Lucic||-||1 RW||Patrick Kane||Nathan Horton|
|2 LW||Patrick Sharp||Brad Marchand||-||2 RW||Marian Hossa||Jaromir Jagr|
|3 LW||Brandon Saad||Kaspars Daugavins||-||3 RW||Viktor Stalberg||Tyler Seguin|
|4 LW||Marcus Kruger||Daniel Paille||-||4 RW||Michael Frolik||Shawn Thornton|
There's a lot of talent on the wings between these two teams, including many players who elevate their games with clutch performances in the playoffs.
When Hossa tallies a point, the Blackhawks are 9-1 in the playoffs, and the team has a 6-0 record in games that he scores a goal. Marchand has scored or assisted on five game-winning goals in the Bruins' playoff run, including the primary assists on the winning goals in the last two games of the conference final.
Chicago centers have not been producing offensively on a consistent basis in the postseason, which means that the team will need its wingers to maintain their current scoring production in the Cup final. Kane, Hossa and Sharp are tied for the team lead in scoring (14 points), with Bickell right behind them with 13 points.
The Bruins will need to be physical with these players and take away their time and space in the attacking zone, especially Kane, who is one of the NHL's top playmakers and has four goals in his last two games. His speed and scoring ability makes him one of the most difficult players to defend.
Bickell has been the surprise star of the playoffs with eight goals in 17 games, one less than his regular season total of nine in 48 games. He does a great job of creating a net-front presence at the top of the opposing goaltender's crease and winning puck battles in the dirty areas. Getting traffic in front of Rask will be a key part of the Blackhawks' game plan, and Bickell and Hossa will both fulfill this role.
Chicago will also need to combat the physicality of the Boston wingers because the Bruins have a size and strength advantage over the Blackhawks at this position.
Lucic and Horton are premier power forwards with good offensive skill, and even though Marchand lacks size, he still makes his presence felt in all three zones as an agitator and a clutch scorer.
Bottom-six scoring will also be important in this series since the top-six forwards are so evenly matched. Boston has received 27 points from its third and fourth lines in the playoffs, while Chicago has gotten 24.
The Bruins will be hoping Seguin breaks out of his slump after scoring just one goal with three assists through 16 games. He's their most skilled forward and brings fantastic speed to the lineup, but he has made a very small impact offensively in the postseason.
Paille and Thornton have given the Bruins a combined two goals and seven assists as fourth-line wingers, and Boston will need this impressive scoring depth in the Cup final against a four-line Blackhawks squad.
Chicago also needs Saad, a Calder Trophy finalist, to start contributing offensively. The rookie forward has zero goals, four assists and a minus-four rating in 17 playoff games after playing a key role on the team's first line for much of the regular season.
Sharp will also play a key role in Chicago's offense. He is tied for the team lead with eight goals scored and the Blackhawks are 6-0 in games when Sharp finds the back of the net.
Projected Defense Pairings
|1||Zdeno Chara||Dennis Seidenberg||--||Duncan Keith||Brent Seabrook|
|2||Johnny Boychuk||Andrew Ference||--||Niklas Hjalmarsson||Johnny Oduya|
|3||Torey Krug||Adam McQuaid||--||Nick Leddy||Michal Rozsival|
The Bruins put on a defensive clinic in the conference final by holding the league's most talented and highest-scoring offense to two goals in four games. Penguins star forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow all went scoreless. Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang also failed to tally a point.
Led by captain Zdeno Chara, the Bruins have the deepest and most defensively skilled blue line in the NHL. Chara was on the ice for 89 percent of Malkin's even-strength shifts last round, and the Russian center was unable to generate much offense.
Chara and Seidenberg are the best shutdown pairing in the NHL and will likely match up against the Toews, Kane and Bickell line as much as possible. This is a matchup Chicago has to win in order to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Ference defended Crosby on 76 percent of his shifts at even strength, completely shutting down the Pittsburgh captain in what was the worst playoff series of his career.
The Bruins' third pairing features a nice combination of defense and offense. McQuaid is a physical player who excels against skilled forwards, while Krug gives Boston a smooth skater on the blue line. He makes a good first pass out of the defensive zone and creates scoring chances on the power play.
Not only are the Bruins defensemen preventing the opposing teams' best players from dominating, they are also contributing offensively.
Boston has received 15 goals from defensemen in the playoffs (out of 50), the most of any team. That includes five goals from Boychuk and four from Krug (a rookie). The Bruins have actually gotten 35 of their 138 points in this postseason from defensemen (25.4 percent).
For the Blackhawks, expect Keith and Seabrook to defend the Krejci-Horton-Lucic line, a trio that leads the playoffs in scoring with a combined 51 points. As a shutdown defenseman with an impressive two-way game, Keith will need to have a strong series to prevent the Bruins from creating a lot of high-quality scoring chances.
Chicago's second pairing will also play a huge part in determining the outcome of this series. Hjalmarsson is playing the best hockey of his career during this postseason. Him and Oduya are tied for the team lead in blocked shots (32) and their 23 combined takeaways are by far the most of any Blackhawks pairing.
This duo will go up against the Krejci line or the Begeron-Marchand-Jagr trio, which will make its defensive performance a key element in Chicago's success.
Leddy and Rozsival have also played well for the Blackhawks, providing the team with physical play and reliable defense. Both of these blueliners handle the forecheck well and are willing to block shots.
The Bruins lead the playoffs with a 1.88 GAA, so it's important that the Blackhawks defend well in this series because they probably won't be able to overcome any struggles defensively by scoring lots of goals on Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask.
Starting Goaltenders and Stats
|Tuukka Rask (BOS)||16||12-4||1.75||.943||2||497||6-3|
|NHL Rank||3rd||T-1st (wins)||2nd||1st||2nd||1st||3rd|
|Corey Crawford (CHI)||17||12-5-1||1.74||.935||1||443||6-1|
|NHL Rank||2nd||T-1st (wins)||1st||2nd||4th||3rd||1st|
The goaltending matchup will be the most important battle in this Cup final. Rask was phenomenal for the Bruins against the Penguins with a 0.44 GAA (two goals allowed in the series) and a .985 save percentage against the league's top offense (4.27 goals per game entering the conference final) and most dangerous power play. The 26-year-old netminder has allowed two or fewer goals in 12 of his 16 playoff starts.
"Right now [Rask is] in a zone that you hope he can hold on to," said Bruins head coach Claude Julien after his team eliminated the Penguins on Friday. "Without that kind of goaltending, you don't get a chance at winning a Cup."
Rask's stellar play in net and big saves made in high-pressure moments gives his teammates a lot of confidence in him. He's been the Bruins' most valuable player in the postseason, and a good performance in the Cup final would help the pending restricted free agent earn a huge contract in the summer.
As for Crawford, he has continued to prove doubters wrong in the playoffs with consistently strong play in the Chicago net.
To his credit, Crawford outplayed reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick in the Blackhawks' Western Conference Final series against the Los Angeles Kings. He gave up more than two goals only once in the conference final and stopped 127 of the 137 shots he faced (.927 save percentage).
Crawford hasn't needed to "steal" many games or win any by himself for the Blackhawks to be successful in the playoffs, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure in the Cup final if his team is unable to score many goals against Rask. He will be facing a four-line Bruins team that is capable of creating chances from many different forwards, in addition to the team's offensive skill on the blue line.
The team that wins the goaltending machup will win the Stanley Cup, which is why the Bruins should prevail in this series, because Rask is more capable of making important late-game saves than Crawford.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.