If Game 1 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final is any indication of what's to come, then the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins are preparing to give us the greatest finale in hockey history.
The matchup, pitting the regular season's best team (Chicago) against an impenetrable force of playoff excellence (Boston), was everything fans could have asked for. Before a United Center crowd that reached Estadio Azteca levels on the decibel meter at certain points, the Bruins and Blackhawks engaged in a three-overtime thriller that will go down in Stanley Cup Final lore.
The two sides traded scoring opportunities like Pokemon cards (do people still do that?), with Boston first striking itself out to a 3-1 lead before Chicago came roaring back in the third period. Dave Bolland and Johnny Oduya both put clutch shots past Tuukka Rask, and then something strange happened—the goal well completely dried up.
Rask and Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, both of whom had their bouts with inconsistency through the first three periods, sprung into action hero form. They stopped brilliant attack after brilliant attack, somehow topping one another as fans looked on in glee, no one noticing that Wednesday had turned into Thursday and that about 20,000 fans were going to bring the Chicago economy down the following morning.
It didn't matter. Everyone was in the moment, cheering for what was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And then the home crowd's patience paid off. With a little more than 12 minutes elapsed in the third overtime, Michal Rozsival launched something of a prayer that got answered from the offsides line. It went off Bolland's stick, grazed Andrew Shaw's leg and then ricocheted past Rask for the game-winner.
The thrill ride was finally over.
But with only a two-day wait between Wednesday's exhausting effort and Saturday's Game 2, let's look back at all that was at the United Center. Here's a look at the biggest takeaways from Game 1, along with how they can be applied (and if they can be) to the remainder of the series.
Bruins Are in Major Trouble If Nathan Horton's Injury Looms for Entire Series
Perhaps the most disconcerting thing for Bruins fans that happened Wednesday night—even more so than Rozsival's answered prayer—was the loss of Nathan Horton. The superstar winger, who had an assist and was one of only four Boston players with a positive plus/minus, sustained an injury in the first overtime period, details of which are still up in the air.
He was sent immediately to the locker room with an apparent upper-body injury and did not return. The Bruins, who had relied on Horton so heavily through their playoff run, were left to shuffle their rotations on the fly. And though Boston still got scoring opportunities—did we mention how great the goaltending was?—Horton's presence was certainly missed.
Horton's status going forward is very much up in the air. Darren Dreger of TSN, while noting that details are sketchy, tweeted out that the 28-year-old winger is doubtful for Game 2:
It doesn't need to be spelled out that Boston losing Horton is a bad thing. He has been red hot in these playoffs after a struggle-filled regular season, scoring 18 points in 17 games. Almost every one of Horton's production stats were through the roof with their regular season counterparts, his place on the Boston hierarchy being cemented with every triumph. At plus-22 for the playoffs, it's possible that Horton was on his way to a Conn Smythe trophy.
Now? The Bruins are stuck, desperately hoping he can tough it out while making secondary plans should the injury keep him out going forward. Joe Haggerty of CSNNE.com noted that this injury is thought to date back all the way to an April 20 fight with Penguins winger Jarome Iginla. While it may be a case of a pre-existing condition, that also means the injury will probably linger through the remainder of this series.
For Boston, that means other players have to step up. Tyler Seguin, only 21, will see his responsibilities grow should Horton miss Game 2, or longer. Can he handle it? What about the extended minutes that will likely be thrown elsewhere in an effort to create more offensive cohesion?
Lost in the shuffle of everything else, perhaps that's the biggest question the Bruins have to answer before Thursday night.
The Bruins' Penalty Killing Continues to Dominate
On the positive side for Boston, there was plenty to like about the team's defensive performance—even with the four goals the Hawks put up on the scoreboard. Rask was unbelievable, and the entire team spent its night doing everything it could to block shots from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the remainder of Chicago's prodigious snipers.
For the most part, it worked. Dennis Seidenberg blocked nine shots, Andrew Ference was a shot-blocking, hitting machine and Zdeno Chara continued to merely be his brilliant, ageless self. The Bruins, even in allowing 63 shots to be sent Rask's way, had very few crippling defensive breakdowns.
Never was that more apparent than on the Blackhawks' power-play opportunities. During the regular season, Chicago struggled a bit on the power play, finishing 19th in goal-conversion rate on its opportunities. But with an offensive powerhouse of a team, it seemed like the Blackhawks were only pushing against a class ceiling. With every passing game, they looked closer to finding the right mix with an advantage.
It wasn't to be on Wednesday night. Boston was again brilliant in killing the opposing offensive attack, stopping the Blackhawks on all three of their opportunities with the extra man. There was a five-on-three that went without punishment in the second period, a near inexcusable lapse for a high-powered offense like Chicago.
That being said, Boston's excellence on the penalty kill isn't a new phenomenon. Dating back to the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Bruins have stopped the last 18 power plays against them—an astounding level of excellence against two top teams.
A regression to the mean will probably come at some point in this series—OK, it definitely will—but the Bruins have been a joy to watch these last two series on their kills. Chara was especially strong in his positioning, disrupting Chicago forwards anytime they got too deep into the zone.
Considering Chicago's season-long struggles to take advantage of power plays and Boston's excellence in killing them, the Blackhawks probably don't want to see a game come down to power-play goals.
Can the Blackhawks Avoid Falling to Fatigue?
During the regular season, there was no finer team in hockey than Chicago. The team's opening points streak will forever go down in the NHL record books, and even after the expected regression, the Blackhawks went on for an easy first-place finish in the Western Conference.
Their playoff journey hasn't been so easy. After gliding past an overmatched Minnesota Wild team in the first round, the Blackhawks embarked on a seven-game slog against a veteran Red Wings bunch that just lost steam.
Chicago trailed 3-1 at one point and exuded a ton of energy to get back into that series in order to advance. And while many will point to Chicago's defeat of the Kings in five games as an "easy" series victory, anyone who watched those games saw it was anything but. The defending champs battled down to the very last second, with that second being a two-overtime win for Chicago in Game 5.
The Blackhawks have now played five overtime sessions in their last two games. They've faced better competition as well, especially when you consider how Pittsburgh laid over and died against Boston in the Eastern Conference Final.
It's easy to say things like that. To claim that there is no such thing as tired during the Stanley Cup Final. Sorry, but there's "tired" everywhere—even during the biggest series of your life. Every player, fan, referee and Zamboni operator in the United Center was tired by the end of Wednesday night's game. Chicago was able to fight through and get the victory, but neither side seemed to be giving an inch.
The Bruins and Blackhawks have an equal amount of recovery time for Game 2 (obviously), but it will be interesting to see just how the long-term effects of Chicago's playoff journey plays out going forward. It might not hurt Saturday night, but it could if this series stretches into the six- or seven-game range.
2013 Stanley Cup Finals Schedule
|Game||Date||Time||Home Team||Away Team||Watch|
|1||June 12||8 p.m. ET||Chicago Blackhawks||Boston Bruins||NBC|
|2||June 15||8 p.m. ET||Chicago Blackhawks||Boston Bruins||NBC|
|3||June 17||8 p.m. ET||Boston Bruins||Chicago Blackhawks||NBC|
|4||June 19 ||8 p.m. ET||Boston Bruins||Chicago Blackhawks||NBC|
|5*||June 22 ||8 p.m. ET||Chicago Blackhawks||Boston Bruins||NBC|
|6*||June 24 ||8 p.m. ET||Boston Bruins||Chicago Blackhawks||NBC|
|7*||June 26 ||8 p.m. ET||Chicago Blackhawks||Boston Bruins||NBC|
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