TORONTO – Never bet against the best goaltender.
The best team doesn’t always win a playoff series or a championship, but if you look at the past two Stanley Cup champions it’s difficult to argue that Conn Smythe winners Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick weren’t the best players on the ice.
That’s why, in a final that looks so evenly matched, the Boston Bruins deserve the edge over the Chicago Blackhawks. No disrespect to the excellent play of Corey Crawford, but Tuukka Rask is playing out of his mind and is the reason Boston could win its second Cup in three years.
In stopping 134 of the 136 shots he faced in the Eastern Conference final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Rask became just the third goaltender to give up two goals or fewer and win all four games in a playoff series. Terry Sawchuk and Jean-Sebastien Giguere aren’t bad company.
The Bruins have the firepower to outscore teams, with David Krejci and Nathan Horton leading the way, but they rely on Rask to win games. Two shutouts, a playoff-best .943 save percentage and more than a few highlight-reel saves have shown the 26-year-old Finn is more than up to that task.
Crawford hasn’t been quite as dominant, and he hasn’t had to be for the Blackhawks to reach their second Cup final in four years. He made everyone forget the debate of Crawford versus Ray Emery and was that much better than Quick in the Western Conference final to help Chicago dispatch the defending-champion Los Angeles Kings in five games.
The Blackhawks probably have more talent down the roster, at least when it comes to depth of scoring. Hold captain Jonathan Toews to just one goal, there’s Patrick Sharp (eight), Bryan Bickell (eight), Marian Hossa (seven) and Patrick Kane (six) to fill the net.
But defence wins championships. Boston has the most dominant skater in the series in defenceman Zdeno Chara, whose presence might be enough to take some of the lustre off the Blackhawks’ top offensive players.
If Chara can’t do it single-handedly, Rask might be able to. Consider that the Bruins held Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to zero points in the four-game East final sweep.
It’s unreasonable to expect that kind of roll to continue against Chicago, though if it does, there will be a parade in Boston sooner rather than later. More than likely, the Bruins and Blackhawks trade blows during a drawn-out series.
The longer it goes, the smaller the margin for error becomes. That’s where Rask makes all the difference, as he’s able to take over a game and frustrate opposing shooters.
Former NHL coach Harry Neale said that “a good goalie can make a bad team good,” and since Rask is a great goalie making a great team even better, it’s a recipe for another Boston championship.
Pick: Bruins in six.