Back in September, a lot of hockey fans like me wondered if there was gonna be a NHL season. Then the waiting game happened between the players and owners as a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was being drafted and ratified. Then came the early hours of January 6, 2013. With half of the season cut short, it was literally a 4-month sprint to the playoffs for all 30 NHL teams. The biggest story that brought the NHL back to the forefront in a positive manner was the Chicago Blackhawks. They were playing all season with a chip on their shoulder after being ousted in the first round the past two years. Propelled by a historic start where the Hawks went 21-0-3 during the first half of the season, they eventually finished with a 36-7-5 record and won the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time since 1991. Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins started the season off with a 14-2-2 record. However, the Bruins were in a season-long dogfight with the Montreal Canadiens for the top spot in the Northeast Division, where they lost the division out by one point in a make-up game to the Ottawa Senators.
The Blackhawks began the Stanley Cup Playoffs against a team that irked its way into the playoffs: the Minnesota Wild. They dispatched the Wild easily in five games. The next round would be an even tougher challenge. Against the Detroit Red Wings, a team that ousted the Western Conference’s #2 seed Anaheim Ducks in 7 games the previous round, they were pushed to the brink of an upset when the Wings held a commanding 3-1 series lead after a 2-0 shutout in Game 4. The Hawks would win the next two games, and forced a Game 7; their first Game 7 appearance since 1995. Tied 1-1 with a minute and change remaining in regulation, a goal by Niklas Hjalmarsson was waved off due to referee Stephen Walkom blowing the play dead to call coincidental minor penalties to Brandon Saad and Kyle Quincey. The game would go to overtime, and Brent Seabrook would put the final words to the Red Wings-Blackhawks rivalry as we know it by bouncing the puck off of defenseman Niklas Kronwall and past goaltender Jimmy Howard to send the Hawks to the Western Conference Final to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. The Hawks held fort during the first two games, but came up to a daunting task headed to Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4. The Kings hadn’t lost on Staples Center ice since the end of March. The Hawks didn’t win Game 3, but they did end the Kings’ 15-game home win streak in Game 4, Like the series prior, the Kings-Blackhawks series ended in dramatic fashion. The Hawks were leading 3-2 in the dying seconds of the 3rd period when Mike Richards deflected a shot off his pants to tie the game with 9.4 seconds on the clock. In the end, a 2-on-1 ended the game and the series when Patrick Kane scored the game-winning goal at 11:40 of the second overtime period. That goal completed the hat trick for Kane, the first time a hat trick was scored in a clinching game of a Conference Final since Wayne Gretzky’s Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs 20 years ago.
The Bruins road to the Stanley Cup Final had the same feel to the Blackhawks route to the final. Their first-round series was against the Leafs, who were making their first playoff appearance since 2004. They had a commanding 3-1 series lead with a chance to wrap up the series on home ice in five games. However, the Bruins dropped Games 5 and 6 with back-to-back 2-1 losses. It looked like the Bruins were gonna be gone in 7 games when they trailed 4-1 in Game 7 with 14:31 left in the 3rd period. With less than two minutes left in regulation down by two goals, the Bruins pulled goaltender Tuukka Rask for a six-man offensive zone attack. Then this happened:
It was the first time in NHL history that a team won a Game 7 after being down three goals. And from that point on, the Bruins never looked back. In the next round, the emergence of defenseman Torey Krug helped bust out the New York Rangers in five games, and in their Conference Final series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they completely shut down the best offense in hockey, limiting the Penguins to only two goals and not make the dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin put their names on the scoresheet, en route to a four-game sweep of the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
And now, for the first time since 1979, two Original Six teams meet in the Stanley Cup Final; and for the first time ever, the Blackhawks and the Bruins play for the Stanley Cup. Both teams have been in the Final before, and both teams have players from their previous Cup championships eager to play for another Stanley Cup ring. Both teams are built almost identically. Both teams are well-rounded, evenly distributed between forwards, defensemen, and most importantly, goaltending. Both teams feature lethal top-six forwards. Both teams have a former Norris Trophy winner leading their defense. Both teams have agitators that their respective fans love, but hate to play against. In net, both Tuukka Rask and Corey Crawford have been solid. Both rank 1-2 in GAA and save percentage. It will be interesting to see how this series will play out. Due to the shortened schedule, there were no interconference games played. In recent history, 3 of the last 5 regular-season meetings between these two teams had to be decided in a shootout. In short, this series, in my honest opinion, is gonna be tightly contested. For the Bruins, can they shut down the Blackhawks offense much like they did to the Penguins Offense? And for the Blackhawks, can they find a way to slow down the Bruins defense and get pucks past Tuukka Rask? Two teams with storied histories, traditions, and passionate fanbases are ready for battle for the right to hoist Lord Stanley. Quite honestly, this Final matchup is something I have dreamed for my whole life, and it will soon become a reality.
Prediction: CHI in 7