One key component to winning the Stanley Cup is dominating the important matchups throughout the series.
Through the first two games of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks, we have been able to confirm our pre-series assertion that these two teams are evenly matched.
Each Original Six club has won a game and they have both scored and given up five goals. With very little separating these franchises, it would not be surprising if this series went the distance and needed a do-or-die Game 7 to crown a champion.
Let's take a look at which team has won the key matchups heading into Game 3 in Boston on Monday night.
The matchup between the two most recent Frank J. Selke Trophy winners was going to be critical to the outcome of the series because both teams pride themselves on playing responsible defense and winning puck battles.
Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews impact the game in all three zones with clutch scoring, consistently strong defense and great leadership.
Here's how these two centers compare in several notable statistical categories so far:
Bergeron has won this matchup through the first two games with slightly better offensive production and a much stronger performance in the faceoff dot.
The Blackhawks need Toews to contribute offensively on a more consistent basis to win this series (he hasn't scored a goal in his last nine games), but Bergeron is doing his best to prevent this from happening. He's frustrating Toews with physical play and an effective poke check to force turnovers.
Boston's chances of winning the Stanley Cup will steadily increase if Bergeron continues to get the better of Toews in all three zones.
This matchup is important because Milan Lucic and Bryan Bickell both excel at a power forward game that impacts their teams' scoring success and ability to win physical battles against the opponent.
Bickell entered the series tied for the Blackhawks lead in goals scored with eight, but he has made no contribution offensively in the Stanley Cup Final. He's not being aggressive in the attacking zone, with just two total shots through two games, which resulted in him getting limited ice time in a top-six role following the first period of the series opener.
With Chicago receiving just one goal from top-six forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane, head coach Joel Quenneville needs depth players like Bickell to step up and provide the team with much-needed offense.
As for Lucic, he's been one of the Bruins' best players in the Cup Final. He had two goals in Game 1, and even though the 25-year-old winger didn't get on the scoresheet in Saturday's Game 2, he impacted the contest with intense physical play and a game-high 10 hits, which makes him the postseason leader in this category (82).
Lucic is wearing down his opponents with huge hits and has earned some confidence in his goal-scoring ability after failing to find the back of the net in Boston's last seven games prior to the Cup Final.
Here's a quick statistical comparison between these gritty forwards, who were arguably their teams' biggest X-factors before the finals.
The Bruins entered the playoffs with the best forward trio in the field. The team's top line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic entered Game 1 with a playoff-leading 51 points.
In the series opener, the "HuLK" line tallied two goals and four assists in a losing effort. They were held scoreless in Game 2, but did impact the contest physically with a combined 14 hits.
The Blackhawks' top line, which has featured several different players, has not been as productive offensively as the Krejci line. Jonathan Toews has stayed on the line through two games and has been flanked by a few wingers, including Patrick Kane, Bryan Bickell, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad.
Chicago has gotten just one goal (Saad in Game 1) from its top line in the Cup Final and zero points from Toews. Kane and Hossa each have one assist, but those were earned alongside veteran center Michal Handzus on the second line.
For the Blackhawks to generate enough offense in this series, their top line has to be more productive and not get outplayed by the Krejci line.
Andrew Shaw scored the overtime-winning goal in Game 1.
Bottom-six scoring will play a key role in this series because both teams' top two defense pairings will likely prevent the top-six forwards from dominating offensively.
In Game 1, the Blackhawks got six points from their bottom two lines. Three of Chicago's four goals were scored or assisted by third- and fourth-line forwards, including Andrew Shaw's goal that ended the triple-overtime thriller to start the series.
The Bruins were unable to match this bottom-six production with zero points at even strength in Game 1.
Game 2 was the opposite, with the Bruins getting two goals and four points from their third and fourth lines, while the Blackhawks got no scoring production from their bottom-six forwards.
Despite their disappointing performance in Game 2, the Blackhawks' third and fourth lines have been a little more effective (both offensively and defensively) than their Boston counterparts in this series.
These teams are fundamentally strong defensively and boast impressive depth on the blue line, which is why the 4-3 score in Game 1 was a bit surprising.
Game 2 was a more defensive contest, and the Bruins gave an excellent performance in their own zone to earn a 2-1 overtime win.
Boston's top pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg has been on the ice for two of the Blackhawks' five goals at even strength, but it has also shut down Chicago's four best scorers. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa have combined for just one goal.
As for the Blackhawks, their top pairing of Keith and Seabrook was fantastic until its final shift of Game 2 when these defensemen were on the ice for Daniel Paille's overtime-winning goal. Seabrook was unable to block Paille's shot or deflect it with a poke check. It was the first even-strength goal that either Chicago defenseman was on the ice for through two games.
Here's a statistical breakdown of each team's top defense pairing.
|Chara and Seidenberg||0||7||14||18||1|
|Keith and Seabrook||0||8||10||9||0|
When you consider that Chara and Seidenberg have been more successful against the opponent's top two lines and were phenomenal in Game 2 (Chicago had just six scoring chances after the first period), they deserve a slight edge through two games.
The goaltending in this year's Stanley Cup Final has been brilliant. Tuukka Rask and Corey Crawford have made a number of great saves at even strength, shorthanded and in the four overtime periods played through two games.
As the chart below shows, there isn't much separating the two starting goaltenders in this series.
On Sunday, Bruins head coach Claude Julien praised his No. 1 goaltender when asked how Rask's play has compared to Tim Thomas' performance from two years ago, when the 39-year-old led the team to a championship as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
"I think it's just as good. No doubt," said Julien. "Tim has been a great goaltender for us. When you lose a guy like that, there's always that fear that you're not going to be able to replace him.
"Tuukka's done an outstanding job. To me, he's been as much of a contributor to our team as Tim was two years ago."
It's tough to give one goaltender the advantage in this crucial matchup with only two games to judge from, but since Rask has been forced to make more saves and prevented Game 2 from getting out of hand with 18 stops on 19 shot attempts in the first period, he's earned a slight edge to this point.
Coaching always plays a significant role in the outcome of each playoff series, especially in a matchup of two experienced bench bosses with prior championship experience like Joel Quenneville and Claude Julien.
The coaching matchup in the Cup Final has been a tale of two games.
Quenneville won Game 1 with the decision to promote talented rookie and Calder Trophy finalist Brandon Saad to the first line just a few shifts into the game. The move paid off, with Saad scoring the Blackhawks first goal of the game. That provided the team with some much-needed confidence and momentum.
In Game 2, the Bruins were awful in the first period and Julien needed to find some line combinations to get some scoring from his bottom-six forwards. He decided to put Daniel Paille and Tyler Seguin alongside veteran center Chris Kelly, and the results were impressive.
"We didn't have much going. At one point I thought that line would give us something," said Julien after Game 2 when asked about the Paille, Kelly and Seguin trio.
"They responded well. Got both goals tonight. It's a hunch from a coach. I know that Dan is a great skater, can make a lot of things happen. Seguin after the first period was one of the guys that picked up his game. Kelly was one of the guys that was good right from the start. I put those three guys together and they answered."
After a split in Chicago, Quenneville will need to find ways to get his best forwards away from the Bruins' top defense pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg because Boston has the last change in the next two games as the home team. If he fails to accomplish this goal, the Bruins could go back to the United Center up 3-1 going into Game 5.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 Stanley Cup Final in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand or from NHL media notes.