The answer to the question of what the Boston Bruins fundamentally need in the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals breeds the deeper inquiry of how they ensure more of the same winning formula.
As an addendum, what missing elements from the previous three rounds do they need to cultivate?
The Bruins stamped their passport to the final round with a sweep of the Eastern Conference’s top seed from Pittsburgh. Their only remaining challenge comes from the NHL’s top overall seed in the Chicago Blackhawks, who barely bested the Penguins in such areas as five-on-five success during the regular season.
Boston’s own David Krejci tops the league's playoff leaderboard with nine goals and 21 points while linemate Nathan Horton is second with 17 points. So far, each of Boston’s playoff opponents has managed to keep Krejci off the scoresheet for only one night in their respective series.
Patrice Bergeron and Chris Kelly are first and fourth, respectively, among qualified postseason faceoff leaders with 61 percent and 59.5 percent success. Behind them, goaltender Tuukka Rask is coming off an otherworldly conference final, surpasses all qualified leaders with a .943 save percentage and is in a footrace with upcoming Chicago counterpart Corey Crawford in goals-against average.
How can the Bruins ensure that these ostensible advantages remain advantages and open additional gaps in their favor? Here are four keys to the four remaining requisite victories for a title in 2013.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com
Virtually all of the individual Chicago skaters have been admirably efficient in their own end, hence the team’s collective 1.94 goals-against average through three playoff rounds. But naturally, captain Jonathan Toews has been the quintessence of their defensive forwards with his Selke-caliber responsibility.
With each of Chicago’s top three centers, opposing goals per minutes played goes slightly up as cumulative minutes go down so far in these playoffs. That is, Toews has been the most efficient, followed in descending order by Michael Handzus and Marcus Kruger.
Therefore, Boston’s best bet to keep getting the most out of Krejci and his wingers, Horton and Milan Lucic, is to have that line circumvent Toews as much as possible.
Instead, the Bruins should leave it to Toews’ fellow Selke Trophy finalist, Bergeron, to directly engage him in arm-wrestling matches for puck possession, both at the faceoff dot and, if necessary, in a takeaway tug war.
Bergeron has won the majority of his draws in all but one playoff game this year, whereas Toews is coming off four straight outings where he won 50 percent or less.
As it is, Boston as a team has claimed a better ratio of faceoffs than Chicago by nearly six percentage points in the 2013 regular season and a full nine points (56 percent to 47) in the playoffs.
If Bergeron can continue that trend for both parties, he and the Bruins can also inhibit Toews’ efforts to set up chances for his linemates.
When he is at the top of his game, Patrick Kane is the Blackhawks’ trademark dynamic scorer and he restored that persona in the latter portion of the previous round versus Los Angeles. It was a timely and decisive awakening against the only team other than the Bruins or Blackhawks to average less than two goals-against per night in the playoffs.
If Boston is to seize any upper hand on Chicago, it will need Tyler Seguin to follow Kane’s act and lend the Bruins bottom-six scoring depth.
Seguin had a 3-4-7 scoring log in 16 appearances over Boston’s run to the Cup when he was a rookie in 2011. Since then, dating back to the start of the 2012 tournament, he has tuned the opposing mesh an identical three times over 23 games, including one in 16 this year.
Assuming the top three line combinations stay the same, Seguin will be allied with Kelly and Rich Peverley, who have similarly lagged since lending depth to the champion Bruins of 2011.
A combination of stinginess on the home front from those three and a line-wide offensive boost from Seguin would give Boston a chance to flaunt superior depth.
Beyond Seguin, the Bruins do not have many specimens of speed to brag about up front.
Conversely, Chicago has Kane, Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Viktor Stalberg (if he plays in this series) and Toews, all of whom have drawn positive notoriety to their scouting reports from The Hockey News for speed and/or skating flair.
Man for man, that quantitative discrepancy could amount to a decisive disadvantage for Boston, unless its collective blue-line brigade and leaned-on checking forwards are sure to have their say.
In case they are not in a surefire position to inhibit the oncoming Hawks with direct contact, the backchecking Bruins should make sure their minds are working as rapidly as the opponents’ feet. Boston can flaunt its forte on the home front and neutralize Chicago’s speed by complicating passing outlets and wearing down the strikers the same way they did to the celestial Penguins.
While assessing a potential stalemate on special teams due to each party’s laser-beamed penalty kill, Jay Cohen of the Canadian Press relayed Bruins skipper Claude Julien’s thoughts on the Blackhawks:
“You really have to work hard to get the shots through. That’s what they are, they’re very patient; they’re very aggressive when you do lose, I guess, control of the puck and if they feel they can get on you, they’ll get on you quick. They’ve done a good job that way.”
In turn, Boston will need to balance caution with competitive hunger when it is on the power play. A power-play conversion can be especially, well, empowering in a matchup like this, but so would a shorthanded goal or an even-strength strike by Chicago within seconds of a teammate’s jailbreak.
With the approach Julien alludes to, the Blackhawks are more capable of mustering a play that momentous than most other teams.
Superior discipline is desirable as always, but the Bruins need to ensure it does not backfire. Even if their power plays do not directly translate to offensive production, they want to ensure successful penalty kills do not amount to momentum for Chicago and that the Hawks expend enough energy while on the kill.
The latter, in particular, means anticipating and matching the opponent’s intensity as much on special teams as they do during five-on-five.