After being shut down by the Boston Bruins defense through the first three games of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, the Chicago Blackhawks' best offensive players broke through in Game 4 on Wednesday with impressive performances to even the series 2-2 heading to Chicago for a crucial Game 5.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, two of the best forwards in the NHL, each scored their first goal of the series on Wednesday in a 6-5 victory that saw the Blackhawks score more goals than they did in the previous three games of the Cup Final combined.
Whenever Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville finds his team in a must-win situation, he puts Toews and Kane on the same line. The decision to reunite this duo reignited Chicago's offense in its second-round series versus the Detroit Red Wings and also worked in the conference finals against the Los Angeles Kings.
With his team facing a possible 3-1 deficit, Quenneville chose to put Toews and Kane together, and the results were positive.
These two stars combined for two goals, an assist and a plus/minus rating of four in Game 4, despite playing against the Bruins' top defenseman Zdeno Chara on most of their shifts.
"Credit to Chara, he's one of their key players. He's a great player. We know his No. 1 advantage is his size, reach and strength," said Toews after Game 4. "I think at the same time you can't give him too much respect and want to compensate the way you play as a line, considering the fact he's out there against you guys.
"We just try not to be intimidated by his size. You have to get to the net, find a way inside, not be, like I said, intimidated by that. We can out-work him, and we did that tonight, and we want to continue that."
The matchup of Chara, his defense partner Dennis Seidenberg and last year's Frank J. Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron versus Chicago's top forwards, including Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, is the battle that will determine the outcome of the series.
It's a chess match that was won by Boston in the first three games, with the four Blackhawks stars combining for just three points. But in Game 4, they tallied three goals and two assists.
So, which side will win this matchup for the rest of this best-of-three series?
Boston has the best chance to win for a few reasons. First, we seldom see Chara, Seidenberg and Bergeron perform so poorly on defense like they did on Wednesday.
As a team, the Bruins were out of position quite often and failed to win the battles in front of the net. They were caught sleeping in their own end and didn't win the majority of the physical matchups. These types of mishaps are fixable; it only requires a bit more focus and awareness to show improvement.
The goal for Boston before the series was to prevent Chicago from using its speed and skill advantage to create high-quality scoring chances by taking away the playmakers' time and space with the puck. It's a game plan they executed well in the first three games, but not on Wednesday.
"I think we let them have too much speed," said Bruins forward Brad Marchand. "They skated way too much through the neutral zone. We didn’t get on our forecheck enough and create turnovers, so we definitely have to get back to that."
Boston has bounced back from losses quite well this season. It has a record of 4-1 following a defeat, with an average of 1.80 goals given up in those games. The Bruins also haven't surrendered three or more goals in consecutive games during the playoffs.
In road games, Boston has the best goal differential at plus-nine and a league-leading 2.00 goals allowed, which is why playing two of the next three games at the United Center won't be difficult for the Original Six club.
One major concern for the Blackhawks has been the inconsistency of their top offensive players, as the chart below helps explain:
|Playoff Scoring ||Toews||Kane||Sharp||Hossa|
|Longest Goal Scoring Drought||10 games||5 games||5 games||4 games|
|Goal Droughts of 4-Plus Games||2||2||2||2|
|Goals in Back-to-Back Games||Never||Twice||Twice||Once|
Which Toews, Kane, Hossa and Sharp will show up in the last three games of the Stanley Cup Final? The productive players of Game 4, or the ones who have been inconsistent for a good portion of the playoffs?
The Bruins will make adjustments for Game 5, including a stronger sense of urgency in the first period, a stronger forecheck, more consistent backchecking and clearing traffic in front of the net.
As a result, it's unlikely that Chicago's top-six forwards will create the same amount of high-quality scoring chances with an abundance of time and space to make plays that we saw on Wednesday over the next three games.
Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask will also be tough to beat two times in a three-game span. It's happened just once in the playoffs. He's given up two goals or fewer in 14 of his 20 playoff starts, and he has allowed more than four goals in a single game only once (Game 4). He also leads the postseason in GAA and save percentage.
Boston couldn't have played worse defensively than it did in Game 4, yet it still almost won in regulation and overtime.
The Bruins are built for this stage of the playoffs. This is a deep, gritty team that has a structured defensive system which the players buy into and know how to execute. With superior goaltending and defensive skill, Boston has the advantage in its chess match against Chicago's playmakers in the remainder of the Stanley Cup Final.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 Stanley Cup Final in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.