The Boston Bruins will have more relevant stakes than retribution for 2013 when they host the Chicago Blackhawks this Thursday. A win would clinch the Atlantic Division, ensuring home ice for the first two rounds of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
For the record, the second-place Montreal Canadiens enter Thursday trailing Boston by 15 points with a maximum of 16 left to earn.
With another achievement within hooking distance, the Bruins cannot request a much more worthwhile obstacle. Chicago is approaching its own late-season milestone and has a habit of clinching without hesitation.
The defending champion Blackhawks need one point to cement their playoff passport. Dallas is ninth in the Western Conference and trails Chicago by 20 points with 10 games remaining.
With those variables, Thursday’s contest should instill a craving for more high-stakes hockey between Beantown and the Windy City. But how feasible is a Blackhawks-Bruins card renewal in the 2014 Cup final?
Minus back-to-back bouts between Pittsburgh and Detroit in 2008 and 2009, repeat finalists have been an extinct breed this century. That is unless you count the 2000-01 Devils, whose season touched two centuries.
Recent history yields a blizzard of evidence as to the difficulty the Bruins and Blackhawks face as their respective runs deepen. Residual wear-and-tear plus a shortage of intervening rest, especially for 2014 Olympians, make the foundation for hindrances.
But unlike other reigning finalists of recent memory, Boston and Chicago’s core groups have reached that stage twice. That wealth of experience can be each team’s foundation for factors to pave another road to the fourth round.
Still, there are a couple of cohabitants in the East and a handful of bigwigs in the West posing reckonable roadblocks. One member of the former group, the aforementioned Montreal, recently reiterated its capabilities when confronting the Bruins.
Monday’s 2-1 shootout decision underscored Montreal’s advantages in a prospective playoff encounter. If they drain enough discipline from Boston’s bench, the Canadiens can assume a position to steal at least one game from the Garden.
In that event, they would present a more stringent test to a Bruins team facing its share of questions on the blue line.
Will the long-injured Adam McQuaid be ready for action and sufficiently effective? Will minute-muncher Zdeno Chara be bumped off his game with facility? How will the stable of first- or second-year NHLers respond to the rigors of the postseason, especially if the Habs are dictating the tone?
Joe Haggerty of csnne.com assessed the worst-case scenario as follows after Monday’s contest:
“Les Habitants also proved once again they are the only NHL team that can routinely push the Bruins out of their game plan, and move the B’s players to distraction with their antics. It’s the kind of style of play that can be very problematic for the Bruins in the playoffs.”
And remember that, based on the shape of the standings, any Boston-Montreal best-of-seven would likely happen in the second round. By then, celestial trade deadline import Thomas Vanek ought to have assimilated into the Canadiens’ strike force.
Last year aside, the Pittsburgh Penguins are another credible blockade. While they are currently confronting several key injuries, per tsn.ca, they could have many pieces back for a better sense of normalcy if they reach the third round. Beau Bennett, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Evgeni Malkin come to mind.
That, too, would be a test of Boston’s energy and depth in each position.
None of this is to eject every possibility of the Bruins defending the Prince of Wales Trophy. When they are on their game, they are a torrid tide boosted by an injection of incentive via Jarome Iginla.
There is no cause to assume the Spoked Bs could not tip the scale for up to three rounds with the help of heart. The Blackhawks have the same cause for encouragement as they embark on the near impossible.
At their present pace, the Hawks are looking at a first-round fixture with the Avalanche, a resurgent team that is progressing ahead of schedule. Odds are Patrick Roy’s pupils will have to endure a dose of postseason growing pains in 2014—not unlike Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and company circa 2009.
That brings up the Blues, who are tightening their claim to home ice through the divisional rounds. In the four weeks since his arrival in St. Louis, goaltender Ryan Miller has composed an 8-2-1 tear.
The Hawks, however, are responsible for the biggest blemish in that stretch. They inflicted four goals on 27 shots in 47 minutes and 58 seconds against Miller, the eventual loser in a 4-0 final last week.
That guarantees nothing in the future; it is a harmless declaration of determination. It is not much different than Boston’s 4-1 triumph in Montreal on March 12.
In another Bruins-Canadiens parallel, the Blackhawks and Blues appear sure to wait until the second round if any playoff meeting happens at all.
If it does, the Hawks will face the Central’s top dog on top of five other playoff series and 130 regular-season games since mid-January 2013. To compound the mounting mileage, they sent essentially half of their roster to this year’s Olympics.
It is worth mentioning, though, that none of those Olympians were the Hawks' netminders, one of whom will naturally toil the most this spring. And if any core group is able to reap unlikely rewards from willpower, this team is.
With Toews as captain and Joel Quenneville as head coach, the Hawks are a peerless 7-3 when facing elimination and 10-2 when trying to snuff an opponent over the previous five playoffs. That includes 3-0 and 4-0 marks in those situations in 2013.
While the past alone cannot help their present, the Blackhawks can benefit from the same intangible boosters. If nothing else, their track record proves they need not be written off at any time in any series.
Besides manufacturing emotional and psychological energy as needed, Chicago may have a pure physical energy booster in store. Touted forward Teuvo Teravainen made his NHL debut this week upon shuffling over from his native Finland.
If he acclimates without delay, Teravainen will help to amplify the notion that, no matter how shagged-out they may appear, the Hawks can keep any playoff matchup competitive. That includes a potential bout with the Blues and any subsequent Campbell Bowl clash with a California club.
Of course, their status as mere mortals can emerge at any time. If they go down in one of the first three rounds with unprecedented valiance, that valiance will not change the result.
Likewise, the Bruins can concoct the same formula that has carried them for the better part of 2013-14, only to trip and spill it prematurely.
But the point here is the valiance and the formula are available to these teams. That comes as little surprise given that they converged on the last Cup final each looking to add to a previous title.
Neither the Blackhawks nor the Bruins are jutting out as prohibitive favorites to come out of their respective conferences or even their divisions. But whether it is a weak-looking Eastern Conference or an appreciable stable of leaders, they have inside and outside elements capable of compensating for residual fatigue.
In turn, for a change, fans can watch Thursday’s game and not feel utterly wishful envisioning more Cup final rematches one year after the fact.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics and past playoff results for this report were found via hockey-reference.com