Hockey fans who endured another lockout are in for a treat that'll cap a sprint of a season.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins are set to compete for the Stanley Cup for the first time in the NHL's first final featuring Original Six teams since 1979.
There have been seven champions in the salary-cap era, and the team that hoists the Cup this month will become the league's only two-time winner of the new era.
Here's a look at five things to watch when the puck drops Wednesday night in the Windy City for Game 1 of what will likely be a long, high-paced, hard-hitting series with a blend of jaw-dropping talent and wince-inducing grit.
SPEED VS. STRENGTH: Chicago has some of the fastest forwards and defencemen on the planet. Boston, though, is the toughest team in hockey. Something's got to give. Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane had a hat trick in his last game, the third goal 11:40 into double overtime eliminated the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. But if the cat-quick Kane runs into Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, he's in trouble. The 6-foot-9, 255-pound Chara is nearly a foot taller and more than 75 pounds heavier than Kane. Chara is also pretty agile as he showed, laying on his stomach and swatting away a shot with his left glove to seal a sweep of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals.
BETWEEN THE PIPES: No one wins a Stanley Cup without a great goaltender—or at least one who is playing great during the playoffs—and both teams have goalies playing their best hockey at a perfect time for teams that weren't counting on them the last time they won a championship. Chicago's Corey Crawford and Boston's Tuukka Rask are 1-2 and 2-1 in two key categories this post-season. Crawford has an NHL-low 1.74 goals-against average, just ahead of Rask's 1.75 GAA. The Bruins are still playing in large part because Rask leads the league with a .943 save percentage and likewise, Crawford has kept the Blackhawks in it to win it by turning away .935 per cent of the shots that make it to him.
SHINING STARS: David Krejci has been simply sensational, leading the league with nine goals and 21 points this post-season. When the Bruins won the Cup in 2011 for the first time since 1972, he led them with 23 points. Krejci is a versatile scorer, who can slap a shot into the net, flick a wrist shot in the blink of an eye or hack at a loose puck in front of the net. Jonathan Toews was tough to stop when Chicago ended its 49-year championship drought in 2010, scoring seven goals and leading the team with 29 points. He has to pick up the pace for the Blackhawks to win it all again. Chicago's captain has only one goal this post-season—ranking 12th on the team—and has tried to make up it with eight assists and leadership.
COACHING COUNTS: Joel Quenneville and Claude Julien won't play a shift, but they decide who plays when, and their choices will make for a game within the game each night. Quenneville will get to make the last change when the NHL's top-seeded Blackhawks are at home for Games 1 and 2 and if necessary, Games 5 and 7. Quenneville can keep Kane and Toews away from Chara and Dennis Seidenberg when they're on the ice for at least the start of shifts. The adjustments both Cup-winning coaches make on special teams will be pivotal. Both teams have scored a relatively modest seven goals on the power play. Chicago has been the best when short-handed, killing 95 per cent of its penalties.
X-FACTORS: Chicago's Bryan Bickell and Boston's Nathan Horton have set themselves up to cash in as free agents this summer. Bickell has scored eight times this post-season—tying Patrick Sharp for the team lead—and has produced 13 points after having just nine goals and 23 points in the 48-game regular season. Horton has seven goals and 17 points—five points shy of his total from the shortened season—to trail only Krejci in post-season scoring in the entire league. The under-the-radar player—Bickell or Horton—who can keep it up might help his team hoist the Cup.