Stanley Cup 2013: How Chicago Blackhawks Are Winning Despite Being Outmuscled
The Chicago Blackhawks don't have the same size or toughness as the Boston Bruins, but that hasn't prevented head coach Joel Quenneville from boldly matching his team's speed and skill against his opponent's brawn.
It's a matchup he has won in the last two games of the Stanley Cup Final, which is why the Blackhawks are just one win away from eliminating the Bruins and winning the franchise's second championship in four years.
After doing his best to get Chicago's top two forwards, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, away from the Bruins' elite shut-down defense pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg through the first three games of the series—even splitting them up on different lines—Quenneville decided to fight fire with fire and forget about playing the "matchup game."
His decision to reunite Toews and Kane alongside power forward Bryan Bickell and play them against Chara has proven to be a major factor in the outcome of the last two games. The Blackhawks offense has erupted for nine goals after scoring just six in the previous three games, including a 2-0 shutout loss in Game 3.
If Quenneville had put this line together earlier in the series, Chicago might already be planning a championship parade.
To their credit, Toews and Kane were not intimidated by Chara and Seidenberg and relished the opportunity to use their speed and skill advantage to score goals against this duo. The top players in the world don't back down from elite competition and play well when matched up against the best opponents, which is exactly what this Blackhawks duo has done since failing to score in the first three games.
In Game 4, Toews and Kane each scored their first goal of the series and combined for a plus/minus of plus-four. On Saturday night in Game 5, Kane scored the Blackhawks' first two goals, both of which were assisted by Toews. Chicago's top line tallied five points on the night against the Chara/Seidenberg pairing, which has a combined minus-nine rating over the last two games.
Kane's goal to open the scoring in Game 5 began with Toews being able to keep possession of the puck despite taking some heavy contact from gritty forward Milan Lucic. The puck was eventually sent to the point where it was shot by Johnny Oduya and bounced right to Kane after deflecting off Seidenberg's stick.
Kane's second goal was a result of a good first pass out of the defensive zone to evade the oncoming forecheck, speed through the neutral zone, crisp passing and not being afraid to crash the net to capitalize on loose pucks and rebounds. This was an example of the exciting end-to-end pace that the Bruins struggle with because of their lack of speed on the back end.
One of the most effective ways to beat a physical team that forechecks strongly is to make quick passes and accelerate the tempo of the game. The Blackhawks do a great job of this, and it starts with their defensemen, most of whom have solid puck-moving skills and are willing to take a hit to make a pass.
The majority of the last two games have been played at the Blackhawks' pace, largely because they have consistently won faceoffs to control possession of the puck and have used their speed to get behind the goal line and fire passes to players driving hard to the net.
Kane now has nine goals and 19 points in the playoffs, making him the Blackhawks' top Conn Smythe Trophy candidate if they win the Cup. The 24-year-old is an elite forward who normally elevates his game in important situations, which he's done in the last seven games with nine points (seven goals, two assists).
"Kane has got high-end skill. He's dangerous with the puck, his anticipation without it offensively is high end," Quenneville said.
"I think reading off those guys in the offensive zone has been very effective for him. But guys that have that kind of innate skill of scoring and being a top player, they anticipate like the rest of us would like to."
When a player of Kane's caliber has the space with the puck needed to make plays and take shots from scoring areas, he's very difficult to stop. Toews and Bickell do a fantastic job creating room for him with their physical play and ability to win puck battles in the dirty areas. These three players complement the skills of one another quite nicely, and it's why they are capable of being successful against any type of team.
Unlike the Vancouver Canucks two years ago, who were beaten physically and mentally against the Bruins' grit and strength, the Blackhawks are able to focus on the task at hand and not worry about proving their toughness or responding to after-the-whistle jabs and trash talk from Boston.
"Physically I think we've got to respond the right way," Quenneville said. "I think we've got to utilize our speed going into puck areas, don't get distracted going into where we had to go. Bickell had a couple of big hits on one shift that really got things going, too, as well.
"But I think that they could be more physical than us, but at the same time just don't get distracted. We've got to go and travel, and I thought that's been the case."
Will Chicago win Game 6 and the Stanley Cup?
When the Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2010, they won Game 5 at home against the Philadelphia Flyers to take a 3-2 series lead into Game 6, where they clinched a championship when Kane scored about five minutes into overtime.
Four years later, the Blackhawks are in the same situation going on the road for Game 6.
Based on its previous experience and success winning at the end of a series (Blackhawks are 18-4 in Games 5-7 under Quenneville), Chicago should be supremely confident in its chances to win in Boston on Monday night and start a championship celebration.
"I think it's exciting to be back in that situation again," Kane said. "This is what you work for all year, all summer, when you're training throughout the year at training camp, whatever it may be.
"This is what you work for, this opportunity. We've got to seize the moment and take advantage of it."
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 or from NHL media notes.
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