The 2013 Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks has been a phenomenal battle and confirmed many people's predictions that it would reach six or seven games.
These are two evenly matched opponents with a wealth of championship-winning experience, which has resulted in four exhilarating games with the series tied at two apiece.
This is the fourth championship series in the last five years to be tied 2-2 after four games. In the previous three series, two of them were won by the team that lost Game 5 on the road.
As we anxiously wait for the first puck drop in Game 5 on Saturday night, let's look at the biggest difference in the Cup Final so far.
Marian Hossa was arguably the Blackhawks' best player through the first two games of the Cup Final.
He assisted on Brandon Saad's goal in Game 1 to get Chicago on the scoreboard after winning a puck battle that resulted from a strong forecheck. The veteran forward also assisted on Patrick Sharp's power-play goal in Game 4 to give his team a 5-4 lead in the third period.
Hossa missed Game 3 due to an injury, and the Blackhawks offense was completely ineffective in a 2-0 shutout loss. His presence on the ice as a strong puck-handler and someone who can make plays for himself and teammates proves why Hossa is a valuable part of Chicago scoring depth. His seven shots on goal per game leads all Blackhawks forwards in the Cup Final.
The 34-year-old winger didn't look 100 percent healthy in Game 4, but he played well and was able to give head coach Joel Quenneville just under 20 minutes of ice time in a top-six role.
The Blackhawks are 2-1 against the Bruins with Hossa in the lineup, and they need him to be healthy and effective to win this series.
Patrick Sharp is the only top-six forward on the Blackhawks who has scored two goals in this series. He opened the scoring in Game 2 and gave Chicago a 5-4 lead in the third period of Game 4 with the team's first power-play goal of the series (see video above).
The 31-year-old has been aggressive in the attacking zone by firing at least seven shots on Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask in three of the four games. From a playmaking standpoint, his creativity with the puck has resulted in many scoring chances for linemates Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa.
The veteran has also made an impact defensively with physical play (nine hits) and good stick work to force turnovers and break up Bruins passes.
Sharp leads the playoffs with 10 goals scored and is currently among the top candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. Chicago needs consistent scoring production from him in the remaining games to win its second championship in four years.
The Bruins have gotten impressive scoring production from their third line in the Cup Final, and veteran winger Daniel Paille has been at the forefront of this success.
The former first-round draft pick scored the overtime winner in Game 2 to tie the series at 1-1, while also assisting on the Bruins' first goal of that game by making a sweet move below the goal line to create a scoring chance.
Paille also scored in the second period of Game 3 to give the Bruins an early lead, which they would protect in a 2-0 shutout victory. This goal ended up being his second game-winner of the series.
When head coach Claude Julien needed to reconfigure his lines after fourth-line center Gregory Campbell was lost for the playoffs because of a leg injury, he promoted Paille to the third line alongside Chris Kelly and Tyler Seguin. This has been the team's most effective trio since Game 1.
As a versatile player with impressive speed and underrated skill, Paille has given the Bruins some much-needed scoring depth as the team's top line has struggled to make an impact offensively.
Both teams' No. 1 defensemen have made a strong impact in this series.
Boston captain Zdeno Chara shut down the Blackhawks' top line of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell in the first three games, limiting this trio to just a single point. He also has five blocked shots, 10 hits and a total of two power-play points through four games.
Chara's work on the penalty kill has also been fantastic. His physical play, impressive stick work and willingness to block shots are a few reasons why the Bruins killed 14 straight penalties to start the series (14 of 15 overall).
As for the Blackhawks, Duncan Keith has anchored the blue line with strong defensive play while also making an impact offensively with an assist, 10 shots on goal and good first passes out of the defensive zone to start the breakouts.
Keith has done a great job shutting down the Bruins' top line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic, a trio that has tallied just three points since Game 1. One of the main reasons for the lack of success from Boston's first line has been the defensive work of Keith, whose responsible positioning, physical play and mobility allows him to dominate in his own zone against the opposing team's best forwards.
Both goaltenders have made clutch saves late in third periods and overtimes to give their respective team a chance to win each and every game of this series.
Here's how they stack up statistically through four games:
|Tuukka Rask (BOS)||2-2||.936||11||161||172||1|
|Corey Crawford (CHI)||2-2||.920||12||138||150||0|
Even though the Bruins and Blackhawks have scored a combined 23 goals through four games, which is a higher total than what was expected before the series, we have still seen some fabulous displays of goaltending.
Rask bailed out the Bruins in the first period of Game 2 with 18 saves on 19 shots after the Blackhawks spent the majority of the opening 20 minutes in the attacking zone. He then shut out Chicago for the remainder of the game and did the same in Game 3 to help the Bruins earn a 2-0 win on home ice.
Crawford has also been solid, especially in the overtime periods of Game 1, when he stopped a number of Grade-A scoring chances that the Bruins created. Without his clutch saves after regulation, the Blackhawks would not have won the series opener in triple overtime.
Both of these netminders will be looking to bounce back in Game 5 after giving up a total 11 goals on Wednesday (five by Crawford, six by Rask). Whichever player wins this matchup in the remaining three games of the series will be hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Bruins center Patrice Bergeron deserves to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP if his team wins the Stanley Cup.
He leads all players with four goals in the Cup Final (nine total in 20 games), which puts him one behind Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp for the postseason lead.
The veteran forward has also played a major role on special teams.
A good amount of the Bruins' improvement on the power play in the Cup Final can be attributed to Bergeron's performance. His two power-play goals with the man advantage are two more than the team scored in its sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the conference finals.
Bruins head coach Claude Julien has also given Bergeron a lot of short-handed ice time because of his elite defensive skills, which is one reason why Boston is 14-of-15 on the penalty kill through four games.
In addition to his offensive and special teams success, Bergeron has been exceptional as a defensive forward matched up against Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews. Chicago's captain has just one point in the series and also hasn't performed well in the faceoff dot against last year's Frank J. Selke Trophy winner.
Boston's second-line center has won 85 of 130 faceoffs in this series, which is the best success rate (65.4 percent) among all players.
This year's Cup Final has helped prove that Bergeron is the best two-way forward in the NHL. He's scoring goals, playing exceptional defense and dominating in the faceoff dot. The 27-year-old is doing a bit of everything to help the Bruins capture a second Stanley Cup in three years.
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.