NHL Playoffs 2013: 6 X-Factors That Will Decide the Stanley Cup Final
This Stanley Cup Final matchup features two teams that were a part of the Original Six franchises that comprised the NHL at its inception, the first time this has happened since 1979. This series will be packed with great goaltending, physical play, close games and most likely a wildly entertaining crop of games.
While these teams don't have much recent history, I imagine that by about the second period of Game 2, the bad blood will begin to boil over, and this series promises to be very tightly contested from start to finish.
This series will be decided by a series of X-factors, including goaltending, star power and special teams, and whichever team can hold the advantage will skate away holding Lord Stanley's hardware. Let's take a look.
1. A Tale of Two Kanes
In the last two games of the Chicago Blackhawks vs. LA Kings series, Blackhawks center Patrick Kane showed up and dominated, tallying four goals, including a hat trick and the game-winner in double-overtime in the series-clinching Game 5.
In his previous seven games? He managed only two assists. Kane’s brief career has been characterized by heroic moments but coupled with frustrating inconsistencies.
He is a player capable of putting up MVP-caliber amounts of points, as he finished fifth in scoring this year. However, he has been known to disappear for games at a time. The Blackhawks will need him to contribute on the scoresheet every game if they hope to bring home Lord Stanley’s Cup.
2. Incredible Goaltending
Coming into this lockout-shortened season, goaltending was possibly the biggest question mark facing both Boston and Chicago. Five months later, Boston’s Tuukka Rask and Chicago’s Corey Crawford may be the two biggest reasons their respective teams find themselves in the Stanley Cup Final.
After Tim Thomas’ retirement at the outset of the season, Boston finally handed over the reins of the starting goaltender spot to Rask, and he did not disappoint. His play put him squarely in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goaltender.
Crawford entered 2013 for his third year as Chicago’s starting goaltender, and after a subpar 2012 season, there was plenty of speculation as to whether or not Chicago would look to acquire another goalie to supplant Crawford. Crawford’s play ended that talk very quickly, as he led Chicago to the Presidents' Trophy as the league’s best team, and, like Rask, finished in the top five in goals against average and save percentage.
Both Crawford and Rask have continued to play at elite levels in the playoffs, both surrendering less than two goals per game and holding save percentages at .935 percent and .943 percent, respectively.
If either goalie falters or falls into a funk, this series will be decided very quickly. Look for both teams to throw a ton of pucks at the net and get a ton of traffic in front to try to find a hole in these brick walls in net.
3. The Bruins’ Physicality
While the Boston Bruins were not the most talented team in the Eastern Conference Finals, they swept and absolutely dominated the supremely skilled Pittsburgh Penguins. How exactly did they accomplish this? By playing the style of hockey the Bruins have become famous, or perhaps infamous, for playing.
Boston’s roster is chock full of big, rugged, nasty players such as Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, Zdeno Chara, Shawn Thornton and Dennis Seidenberg. They bullied, agitated and plain ol’ beat up the Penguins en route to an easy four-game sweep, and they did this by forcing Pittsburgh to play the Bruins’ style of game.
Rather than relying on their skill to defeat Boston, Pittsburgh got distracted with trying to hit and respond to the Bruins’ physical play. Heck, even Evgeni Malkin was coerced into a fight in Game 1, which of course kept the dangerous offensive player off the ice for five minutes.
The Blackhawks will need mental discipline in order to win the series, and must, repeat, MUST stay focused on playing a sound offensive game rather than attempting to chase the Bruins across the ice.
4. Special Teams
The Blackhawks thus far in the playoffs have boasted an outstanding 94.8 percent penalty kill. The Boston Bruins had one of the weaker power plays in the regular season, and in the playoffs, their PP has been fairly average as well.
The Blackhawks will hold a huge advantage if their PK can continue to play lights out against this Boston team, and a couple of key penalty kills can swing the momentum during a game. Don’t forget about power-play specialist Marian Hossa for the Blackhawks, as he has contributed three PP goals and five PP points thus far in the playoffs. In a series in which goals will come at a premium, a timely PP goal could come to decide a game or two.
5. The Superpests
Boston’s Brad Marchand and Chicago’s Andrew Shaw have similar roles. Put simply, they agitate, annoy, fluster and occasionally score. Both players have a penchant for getting in the face of their opponents to draw penalties and force them to lose focus.
Shaw, only 21 years old, will always look for the hit first and will refuse to back down regardless of the size of his opponent.
Marchand may be Boston’s most important player in this series, as not only will he do his best to throw Chicago’s stars Kane, Toews, Sharp and Hossa off their game, but Marchand can also score as well, leading Boston in points throughout the regular season.
Both of these players will end up playing an extremely important part throughout this series, and look for either player to perhaps draw a penalty or throw a check that could shift the outcome of a game.
6. The Chara/Toews vs. Kane Matchup
Zdeno Chara is Boston’s captain and a big, hulking, talented defensemen whose responsibility it will be to shut down the offensive capabilities of Chicago’s talented centermen.
Chara is 6’8”, and not only is he capable of unleashing thunderous body checks, but he also possesses one of the best slap shots in the entirety of the NHL, which will undoubtedly be important for Boston’s power play.
Toews and Kane possess immense offensive skill and stick-handling, and their ability to cycle pucks through the offensive zone in search of the right scoring chances will surely frustrate the Bruins. Chara will need to slow down Chicago’s young stars to keep the Bruins in this series.