The 2013 Stanley Cup Final is officially upon us as the Boston Bruins prepare to battle the Chicago Blackhawks. While the star playmakers may garner the headlines, this one will come down to a different breed of athlete.
The goaltenders will decide which team wins this year's Stanley Cup.
There is no shortage of goal scorers and facilitators, as both teams have stars that have helped to carry them to their current positions. From established superstars to opportunistic contributors, the stage is set for the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, David Krejci and Nathan Horton to break through.
With that being said, the Blackhawks and Bruins will only go as far as their goaltenders take them.
Fortunately, that hasn't been an issue for either squad, as Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask have been superb. From shutting down stars to pitching shutouts, we've seen it all from two of the top netminders in the NHL today.
They'll need to bring their A-game to win this series and take home the Stanley Cup.
Top of the Class
With one glance at the numbers, it becomes perfectly clear that Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask have been the best two goaltenders during the 2013 NHL playoffs. They dominate each statistical category and, most importantly, flat out win games.
It's actually quite scary how close they are in every major category.
Thus far, both Crawford and Rask have won 12 games while playing in net for their teams. That comes as expected, as they are in the Stanley Cup Final after three grueling rounds of hockey.
Just don't think their similarities end there.
Thus far, Rask leads all postseason goaltenders with a save percentage of .943. In second place is Crawford, who comes in at an impressive .935.
In terms of points, Crawford leads all qualified goaltenders in goals-against average, letting in 1.74 goals per contest, while Rask comes in second at just a hair worse with 1.75.
As I said, these are the top two goaltenders are in the Stanley Cup Final—and they simply cannot be separated by performance. Can they?
Tuukka Rask: Another Set of Stars
To reach the Stanley Cup Final, the Boston Bruins have defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. In that time, Tuukka Rask has protected the net against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Rick Nash.
Those three superstars combined for three points against the Finnish net maestro.
Can Tuukka Rask shut Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews down?
It will be yet another tough test against the Blackhawks, as Rask will be thrust into action against the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. While they have been underproductive thus far, the duo recently broke through.
Kane and Toews combined for five points in Chicago's 4-3 double-overtime win over the Los Angeles Kings.
This isn't their first rodeo, either, as the two led the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup title in 2010. With that being said, the Philadelphia Flyers put forth the likes of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher that postseason.
Rask is on another level.
If the Finland native can shut Toews and Kane down, the Bruins will have a chance to win this series. If he fails to do so, however, the Blackhawks' abundance of playmakers and goal scorers will break through and send Boston packing.
Keep in mind, Chicago was second in goals scored during the 2012-13 NHL regular season.
Corey Crawford: Recovery
During the 2012-13 NHL regular season, it wasn't Tuukka Rask and the Boston Bruins that led the league in goals allowed per game. It wasn't Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers, Jimmy Howard and the Detroit Red Wings or Craig Anderson and the Ottawa Senators.
It was Corey Crawford, Ray Emery and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Can Corey Crawford lead the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup title?
Chicago is an extraordinary defensive team, ranking first in goals allowed and third in penalty-kill percentage. During their past three games, however, Crawford hasn't been himself.
He's allowed three goals in two of the past three, and stopped 19-of-21 attempts—a solid, but not spectacular number—in Game 4 against the Los Angeles Kings.
If the Blackhawks are to take down the red-hot Bruins, they'll need Crawford to rediscover his world-class form. David Krejci and Nathan Horton are first and second in postseason points, combining for 38 in 16 games.
With the way Crawford is playing right now, that trend is set to continue.
Fortunately, Crawford has held opponents to two goals or less in 11 of his 17 appearances. That still marks six games that he's failed to prevent the opposition from scoring, but this is more a result of his forwards' inability to control the pace as they usually do.
If that's the case against Boston, Crawford can't make any excuses—he needs to match his elite counterpart at every turn. If he fails to, the Bruins will win the Stanley Cup and the Blackhawks will be looking at a great season that fell slightly short.
It's on the goaltenders to win this series.