TORONTO – The Stanley Cup final opens Wednesday in Chicago as the Blackhawks host the Boston Bruins. Here are five storylines to watch in the seven-game series:
1. Original Six returns
It’s the first time two Original Six teams are meeting in the Stanley Cup final since the Montreal Canadiens beat the New York Rangers in 1979. It’s also the first time two of the past three champions will play for the Cup since the Canadiens beat the Philadelphia Flyers in 1976.
More than anything else, Boston and Chicago being back in the final speaks to the revitalization of two historic hockey towns that until recently, hadn’t experienced this kind of success in decades. The Bruins’ last title before 2011 came in 1972, and the Blackhawks’ last before 2010 came in 1961.
Winning makes up for a lot of lost time, and since then Boston’s TD Garden and Chicago’s United Center have featured sellout crowds and electric atmospheres.
And while the careers of Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull made for plenty of Bruins and Blackhawks history, it’s the first time these teams are facing each other in a Cup final. For just the third time in major North American sports history, teams from Chicago and Boston will play for a championship.
2. Conn Smythe watch
David Krejci is scoring at a remarkable pace, but he’s still not the Conn Smythe front-runner for the Bruins. Krejci leads all players with nine goals and 21 points and Nathan Horton has 17 points of his own, but goaltender Tuukka Rask has been Boston’s standout performer.
Rask has a playoff-best .943 save percentage and two shutouts, and he stifled the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final. Following in the path of 2011 Conn Smythe-winner Tim Thomas, Rask is the reason the Bruins have got this far.
From Chicago’s end, it’s a wide-open race. Goalie Corey Crawford’s numbers aren’t far behind Rask’s, including a 1.74 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. His play hasn’t earned him as much acclaim as Rask, but Crawford outduelled Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings and has done everything asked of him so far.
Still, don’t forget about Patrick Sharp (14 points), Marian Hossa (14 points) and Bryan Bickell (eight goals), any of whom could earn the trophy with a strong series.
3. Goalie change
Rask was on the bench two years ago when Thomas carried the Bruins to the Stanley Cup with a 1.98 goals-against average and .940 save percentage. A year earlier, Rask was on the hook as the starter when the Bruins blew a 3-0 series lead to the Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
With Thomas taking a year off and being shipped to the New York Islanders for some welcome salary-cap relief, it’s Rask’s job as Anton Khudobin serves as the backup. Rask has a ring from 2011, but it’s not the same as winning the Cup as the No. 1 guy.
Crawford doesn’t have a ring from 2010, when he was the third goaltender watching Antti Niemi win the Cup for the Blackhawks. Crawford lost his two previous series before this year’s playoffs, stumbling to a sub-.900 save percentage in last season’s loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
But after splitting duties with Ray Emery during the regular season, Crawford has the reins for the Blackhawks in the post-season. He could start making a nice career for himself like Niemi after this impressive run.
4. Power outage
The Bruins and Blackhawks have plenty of offensive firepower, but the conference finals didn’t feature a whole lot of anything on the power play.
Even in breezing into the Cup final, Boston and Chicago combined to go 1-for-27 on the power play in the last round. The Blackhawks were 1-for-14, while the Bruins were 0-for-13.
Credit Quick and the Penguins’ Tomas Vokoun for some of that, but getting the power play back on track may be key in a series that could have a shortage of goals.
For Boston, it starts from the point. Rookie defenceman Torey Krug has a team-best three power-play goals despite playing in just nine games.
The Blackhawks count on Hossa, who has three, and on their penalty kill to stifle opposing power plays. Chicago has allowed just three power-play goals on 58 chances, good for 94.8 per cent.
5. Chara effect
Few defencemen can change the complexion of a game or series like the six-foot-nine Chara, who, despite a lack of mind-blowing stats, should be a Norris Trophy finalist every year.
Chara skates almost 30 minutes a game and is a factor in every situation. Along with Rask, he played a huge role in the Bruins holding Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to zero points.
The Blackhawks’ depth will test the Bruins, but Chara and Dennis Seidenberg thrive on heavy workloads. Unless coach Joel Quenneville can design a way to free his top players from Chara’s suffocating presence in the defensive zone, it’s a tall task to beat the Bruins.
And Chara is a factor offensively, as well. He has two goals and nine assists in these playoffs, and his blistering slapshot engenders plenty of fear.
Fear of Chara’s impact, on both ends of the ice, is well-deserved.