The Stanley Cup Final begins Wednesday June 12.
It's down to two.
Starting Wednesday, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks will face off in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.
Both teams have impressed this year. The 'Hawks posted a record-setting regular season on their way to the Presidents' Trophy, while the Bruins have improved steadily as the playoffs have progressed.
Here's a look at the 10 biggest storylines surrounding the Stanley Cup Final.
The Blackhawks and Bruins each boast long traditions.
The last time two of the NHL's Original Six teams squared off for the Stanley Cup, Marian Hossa was a baby and Jaromir Jagr was just seven years old. Gregory Campbell was four years away from being born—his father Colin was midway through his own NHL career.
In the 1979 Stanley Cup Final, the Montreal Canadiens defeated the New York Rangers in five games to capture their fourth consecutive championship. That year, the league consisted of just 17 teams. The following season, the WHA merger would take place to bring in the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers.
Despite their Original Six pedigrees, neither the Boston Bruins nor the Chicago Blackhawks have been dominant champions in their storied histories. Since joining the NHL in 1924-25, Boston has won six Stanley Cups. Chicago entered the league in 1926-27 and has won the big prize four times.
The United Center will be unfamiliar territory for the Bruins.
Even with their long histories, the Bruins and Blackhawks have never met in a Stanley Cup Final. They've faced off in just six playoff series since 1926. Boston won five, while Chicago won just one.
It may take a little time for the hate to build in this series. These teams don't see a lot of each other and due to the NHL lockout, they didn't face each other at all this season.
The most recent meeting between the two teams was on October 15, 2011, in Chicago. Boston won 3-2 in a shootout.
Bryan Bickell and Patrick Kane scored for Chicago, while Chris Kelly scored short-handed and Nathan Horton logged Boston's other goal. Tyler Seguin lit the lamp in the shootout to give the Bruins the win.
Corey Crawford made 35 saves for Chicago, while Boston's Tim Thomas stopped 27 shots.
Jonathan Toews' supporting cast is much different from 2010.
Chicago and Boston are both recent Stanley Cup winners.
The Blackhawks broke a 49-year drought with their 2010 championship, while Boston hoisted its first cup in 39 years the following season.
The Bruins have been able to keep their Cup-winning team largely intact, with 17 players from 2011 still on their current roster. The Blackhawks, however, faced an immediate salary cap crunch after their title and were forced to part with key players including goalie Antti Niemi, defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Brian Campbell, and forwards Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg and Troy Brouwer. Just nine faces remain from the 2010 Stanley Cup team.
Boston's run this year has largely been orchestrated by the same players that carried the load two years ago.
Goaltender Tim Thomas is out. Tuukka Rask and veteran Jaromir Jagr are the most significant additions. For Chicago, farmhands Bryan Bickell and Corey Crawford have been two of the team's top stars, while acquisitions like Michal Handzus, Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival have all played key roles thus far.
Gregory Campbell's broken leg creates a void for Boston.
As far as we know, both Boston and Chicago are reasonably healthy for this time of year.
The Bruins suffered a rash of injuries to their defense earlier in the playoffs. Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference have now returned to their regular spots while rookie Torey Krug has been too good to take out of the lineup.
Gregory Campbell will be missing from the series after suffering a broken leg in Game 3 of the conference final. Campbell's gutsy attempt to finish his penalty-killing shift has become a symbol of the Bruins' tenacity. Kaspars Daugavins will sub into Campbell's spot on what was known as the Merlot Line.
Over in Chicago, Joel Quenneville has had the luxury of using a reasonably consistent lineup throughout the first three rounds. Of his key players, Viktor Stalberg was out of the lineup for two games against Detroit while Duncan Keith was suspended for one game in the conference final.
Players on both teams are doubtlessly playing through any number of injuries by this point, some of which will likely become noticeable as the final wears on. The team that can stay the healthiest could well be the one to hoist the Cup.
Bryan Bickell goes to the dirty areas
A successful Stanley Cup run requires that a team's stars play up to their potential. Along the way, it sure helps if some lesser lights can also chip in.
Chicago's Bryan Bickell has become a major story in this year's playoffs. He's tied for second in the playoffs with eight goals and is in the top 10 in overall scoring with 13 points in 17 games.
At 27, Bickell is two years older than Jonathan Toews and three years older than Patrick Kane. The very definition of a late bloomer, Bickell is making the most of every shift in this year's playoffs.
According to capgeek.com, Bickell is in the last year of a contract that pays him just $600,000 this season. As an unrestricted free agent on July 5, he's set to get paid in a big way.
Boston has seen balanced scoring throughout its lineup. The Merlot Line of Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille was chipping in effectively until Campbell's injury.
An even bigger boost has come from the blue line. Johnny Boychuk has been a monster with five playoff goals, while newcomer Torey Krug set a new league record with four goals in his first five NHL playoff games.
With both teams boasting outstanding goaltending, every hot hand will be needed to help the cause.
Marcus Kruger and the Hawks have been dynamite on the penalty kill.
For all their offensive firepower, the Bruins haven't been especially effective on the power play so far in the postseason. They're ranked just 10th in the playoffs, with seven goals on 45 attempts for a 15.6 percent success rate.
The task will get even tougher in the final, when they take on Chicago's top-ranked penalty killing unit. The 'Hawks have surrendered just three power play goals against on 58 tries, for a stratospheric 94.6 percent kill rate.
Forwards Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik have been the core of Chicago's short-handed squad. Having confidence in their penalty killers allows the Blackhawks to play with that edge they prefer, with less fear of potential consequences.
Boston has surrendered seven power play goals in 52 short-handed situations, but Chicago's power play has been even worse that Boston's. The 'Hawks are ranked 12th with a 13.7 percent conversion rate.
The edge in the series could well go to the team that figures out a way to capitalize with the man advantage.
One area where Boston and Chicago are very similar is in the presence of agitators on their roster.
Neither team is afraid to go into the dirty areas or to see how much it can get away with.
Against Los Angeles, Chicago's Duncan Keith was the most notorious villain after his open-ice slash to the face of Jeff Carter. But let's not forget Dave Bolland's elbow on Mike Richards, which knocked the Kings center out of the lineup for three games. Chippy Andrew Shaw leads the 'Hawks with 26 penalty minutes in the playoffs.
Boston's penalty leaders are Brad Marchand and Shawn Thornton, with 16 minutes each, but the Bruins have nine players with 10 minutes or more, while the Blackhawks have just seven.
It looked like the lid would blow off early in the Boston/Pittsburgh series after Matt Cooke took Adam McQuaid into the boards in Game 1. As much as anything, Boston's flat-out dominance precluded too much additional nastiness.
Which team will dish it out more effectively in the final, and who will get frustrated first?
David Krejci leads the playoff scoring race.
The Boston Bruins boast the two top scorers in the Stanley Cup playoffs so far. David Krejci has nine goals and 21 points while linemate Nathan Horton has seven goals and 17 points.
The Bruins also lead all teams in playoff scoring with 50 goals in 16 games, but the Blackhawks aren't far behind. They've scored 47 times in 17 games.
Both teams have gotten the production they've needed, but each still has room for improvement.
Patrick Kane finally busted out of his playoff-long scoring slump with his hat trick in Game 5 against Los Angeles. Meanwhile, 2010 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews still has just one goal this postseason, but it's not for lack of trying. Toews is third on his team with 51 shots.
For Boston, Tyler Seguin leads the team with 54 shots but has just one goal for his efforts, while Jaromir Jagr is goalless on 45 shots.
These players all faced criticism for their lack of production earlier in the playoffs, but the roar has died down with their teams' overall success. Will one or more of these stars get back to a more typical level of production in the finals?
No matter what the sport, the best officials are the ones you don't really notice.
Unfortunately for the NHL, the zebras have been front and center on more than one occasion during these playoffs.
The most dramatic moment occurred near the end of the third period of Chicago's Game 7 showdown in Round 2 against Detroit. The game was tied 1-1 with 1:47 to go when Niklas Hjalmarsson fired a slapper from the top of the circle to put Chicago ahead—or so we thought.
A dust-up behind the play sent Kyle Quincey and Brandon Saad to the penalty box with matching roughing minors, called just before the goal was scored. The goal was disallowed and play continued.
In the end, Brent Seabook potted the winner for the 'Hawks in overtime, allowing them to continue their playoff journey. And referee Stephen Walkom escaped the United Center safely.
When emotions run as high as they do at playoff time, every call and every non-call goes under the microscope. In a series that's bound to have an edge, the officials may be under the most pressure of all.
Though Chicago and Boston are both just a few years removed from their last Stanley Cup wins, they enter the finals with new netminders between the pipes.
Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask have had no trouble erasing the hallowed memories of Antti Niemi and Tim Thomas before them.
Both Crawford and Rask were with their respective organizations when the Stanley Cups were won. Rask served as Thomas's backup in 2010-11 but didn't play a single playoff minute. Crawford spent his 2009-10 playoff with the AHL's Rockford Ice Hogs, while Cristobal Huet backed up Niemi.
This time, both goalies are taking full advantage of their moment in the spotlight. The difference between their numbers so far is razor-thin. Crawford currently holds the edge with a 1.74 GAA, while Rask boasts a 1.75. Boston's big Finn has the better save percentage at .943, while Crawford is at .935.
Both Crawford and Rask have stolen games for their teams in the earlier rounds and are playing the best hockey of their careers. Only one will hoist the Stanley Cup.
Which team do you think has the edge in this year's final? Let us know in the comments below.
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