Usually the two teams that get to the Stanley Cup Final have had to overcome something. The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins have both been tested. They've overcome the challenges and they're playing their best hockey right now. You don't get this far unless you're playing great hockey, and I think both these teams are playing the best hockey they've played all year long. They both have six excellent defensemen, they both play four lines and both teams are playing great, as you could see in their respective conference finals. To dominate two teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins the way Chicago and Boston did is just phenomenal.
The 2013 Stanley Cup Final is pitting two teams that are deep, talented, experienced and playing with a ton of momentum. You probably have to go back to the 1980s when the Edmonton Oilers were playing against the Philadelphia Flyers, or maybe when the Flyers faced the New York Islanders a few years earlier, to find two teams that are this experienced in the Stanley Cup Final. It's very unusual to have a Final with two teams that have each won the Stanley Cup so recently.
So, with all that said, who has got the edge?
The answer is probably that neither team has any edge, at least not one that's obvious. I think what you've got is a powerful offensive team like the Blackhawks against a team that loves to try and play matchups and match lines. I think that's exactly what Bruins coach Claude Julien is going to have to do. He's going to want Zdeno Chara out against Jonathan Toews' line and Patrice Bergeron out against Marian Hossa's line, and it'll go from there just like it did against Toronto, the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh. And don't forget, this team returns a lot of the players that shut down a big offense in Vancouver in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago.
That's what Boston does. The Bruins match lines. They want a lower-scoring game and a slow pace. They don't want a wide-open game like the Blackhawks do. The Bruins are a lot like the Kings in that way. They'll try to be physical and hold Chicago down. The Bruins also just look so comfortable playing tight games, playing in overtime; they feel like they can shut anyone down right now. Chicago has to prove them wrong, and the Blackhawks certainly have the weapons to do it, but no one has been able to do it so far.
The Blackhawks bring an offense that is really starting to roll. Patrick Kane has gotten tremendously hot over the past few games, Toews has ratcheted up his all-around play and Bryan Bickell has been a stud power forward for Chicago all postseason long. The teams play somewhat contrasting styles, but they're both so good at what they do, it's hard to see an edge.
As for the goaltending, I would actually rate that a push right now. Tuukka Rask has been tremendous all postseason and he has saved the Bruins whenever there is a breakdown -- though that isn't often -- but I don't think Corey Crawford gets enough credit for Chicago. He's won three series with one coming against the Detroit Red Wings, who were supposed to have better goaltending, and one against the Kings, who had last season's Conn Smythe Trophy winner in Jonathan Quick. Yet here the Blackhawks are, and Crawford has made a number of big saves to get them here. He definitely doesn't get enough credit for what he's done.
Special teams could be a major factor, however. Both teams are so good at the penalty kill that the odds of getting a power-play goal aren't going to be good. Power-play goals should be very hard to come by, and if one of these teams can take advantage of a mistake by the other team's PK unit, it could play a significant role in the outcome.
Ultimately, with two teams so evenly matched, this is a series that will depend on which team blinks first. It's not going to be won by tricks or gimmicks. This Stanley Cup Final is going to be won by execution. It's going to be won by shot-blocking. It's going to be won by discipline. Both Julien and Chicago coach Joel Quenneville know this and they'll drill it into their teams before the puck drops Wednesday night. These are two coaches who have been here before and know what they're doing. They're excellent motivators, excellent readers of the play. They always have the right guys on the ice. You never see one of them get caught with the wrong line out there in a crucial situation.
So who's going to win?
Well, with the way they're playing right now and the way they've shut down solid offenses all postseason, I think the Bruins are going to win the Stanley Cup, but I am not comfortable with this pick at all. Both teams are so good that it's really hard to pick one team to win it over the other. There are so many great matchups and so many great questions. Can Kane stay this hot? Can David Krejci's line continue to score the way it has? Will Chara be able to shut down another great forward? I think all of this will come down to execution, commitment and doing the little things you have to do to win. Both teams are capable of doing that, but I just love Boston. I think these will be close, low-scoring games, and that favors the Bruins. Still, I can't believe this won't be six or seven games. Both teams are just so evenly matched, so deep, so strong, I just can't believe this will be a short series.