The 2013 Stanley Cup Finals have been set, as the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks will battle in a clash between two members of the "Original Six." With just days remaining until the series commences, both teams will be placed under a magnifying lens.
These are two of the top defenses in the NHL, as both Boston and Chicago ranked in the top five in goals against average and penalty-kill percentage. They're also two squads coming off of impressive series victories over former champions.
The Bruins swept the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the Blackhawks defeated the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in five games.
The question is, what will happen when these franchises meet in the Stanley Cup Finals? More specifically, which players will decide this clash of the elite?
Let's find out.
David Krejci vs. Jonathan Toews
Entering playoffs, no one would have believed David Krejci would be playing like a superstar and Jonathan Toews like a dud. For quite some time, however, that was the story.
Until Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.
Toews may not have found the back of the net, but he reeled off two key assists in the Blackhawks' series-clinching win. That includes a gorgeous feed on the game winner, thus reestablishing the power of the tandem of Toews and Patrick Kane.
The question is, can Toews out-duel Krejci?
Boston isn't known for their offense, but Krejci has helped to re-define their identity in the postseason. After scoring 10 goals in 47 regular season games, he has nine in 16 games during the playoffs.
Tack on 12 assists and Krejci leads the NHL with 21 postseason points.
With two teams that dominate defensively, it will come down to Krejci and Toews being able to create for themselves and others. If they're able to provide goals for their team, they may just win the Stanley Cup crown.
If either fails to show up, however, the other will make them pay—it all starts on the faceoffs.
Nathan Horton vs. Patrick Kane
Believe it or not, Nathan Horton has the second-most points of any player during the Stanley Cup playoffs. He has seven goals and 10 assists in 16 games, which is especially surprising considering he had 13 goals and nine assists in 43 regular-season games.
Talk about shining under the bright lights.
Horton will have his toughest task yet, as he attempts to out-duel Patrick Kane on the offensive end of the ice. Kane may not be having the most spectacular postseason of any player, but he can strike at any moment and prove his superstar status.
Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals is a primary example.
A hat trick and the game-winner? That's cold-blooded.
Kane appears to have rediscovered his form, which is bad news for a Bruins team that thrives on controlling possession. With Bryan Bickell heating up and Jonathan Toews remembering how to wield a stick, that makes Kane all the more dangerous.
It's on Horton to use his speed to create as many scoring opportunities as possible to counter Kane and provide the Bruins with a chance to win. In that same breath, Kane can't continue putting up duds if he hopes to take home the trophy.
It's time to put up or go home.
Corey Crawford vs. Tuuka Rask
The position players in this series will garner all of the headlines, as they score the goals and tally the assists. When it comes right down to it, however, the Stanley Cup will go to the team with the best goaltending.
Thus far, Corey Crawford and Tuuka Rask have both lived up to the hype.
Rask has been extraordinary, coming off of a series in which he held Sidney Crosby and Evgani Malkin without a point. In fact, the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins offense scored two goals all series against Rask and the Bruins.
That includes Game 3, when Rask stopped 53 of the 54 shots sent his way.
Going up against Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Chicago's deep offensive attack, it won't get any easier. If he lets goals slip through, then Boston may not have an opportunity to tie it against Crawford and Chicago's opportunistic defense.
With that being said, Crawford hasn't been as hot as he may like.
He's allowed at least three goals in two of the past three games, including two in the third period of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Fortunately, Crawford turned it around and held L.A. scoreless during two overtime periods.
The question is, which player will we see step up and carry their team to victory?
Will Crawford defend the net well enough for Chicago's offensive stars to step up when they're needed? Or will Rask continue dominating the playmakers of this league?
The winner of these three position battles will decide this series, but none as much as the goaltenders.
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