One year after watching the defense of the Stanley Cup they won in 2011 disappear in an opening-round upset, the Boston Bruins are four wins away from another championship.
The Bruins earned their second trip to the Stanley Cup Final in three seasons Friday night by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0 at TD Garden to complete a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference Final. It was their fifth consecutive victory and ninth in 10 games -- a streak that began with the now-famous third-period comeback in Game 7 of the opening round that led to a 5-4 overtime victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After that, the Bruins steamrolled the New York Rangers in five games before blitzing the top-seeded Penguins. They outscored Pittsburgh 12-2 behind a balanced attack, solid defense and checking -- and the play of goaltender Tuukka Rask, who stopped 134 of 136 shots, including 53 saves in a 2-1 double-overtime victory in Game 3 and 26 in the clincher.
Boston's domination was so complete Pittsburgh never led in the series. The Penguins did not score in the first period of any of the four games. Bruins center David Krejci, the NHL playoff leader with nine goals and 21 points, scored four goals in the series -- twice as many as Pittsburgh's entire team, which scored 47 goals in the first two rounds. Neither Sidney Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin had a point in the four games.
The Bruins were so good they were able to sweep the series despite going 0-for-13 on the power play -- going 15-for-15 on the penalty kill against the NHL's leading power play through the first two rounds of the playoffs didn't hurt.
Boston coach Claude Julien said his team appears to be peaking at the right time.
"The peaks and valleys of a season sometimes pay off a lot more than people give credit for because you certainly grow from those tough times, you learn from those things, it makes you a better team down the road," he said. "I thought this year had its ups and downs, it was a tough schedule. But right now we're probably playing some of our best hockey of the season."
Because of the truncated regular-season schedule, the Bruins haven't seen their Final opponent this season -- the 48 games included conference games only. The Chicago Blackhawks won the Western Conference Final in five games with a 4-3 double-overtime victory against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday. The Final will begin Wednesday night in Chicagio.
The Bruins and Blackhawks are meeting in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the seventh time in their history and the first since Boston's 4-0 sweep in the 1978 Quarterfinals. It's the first time in the long history of the two franchises they've met in the Final -- as well as the first all-Original Six final since 1979, when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the New York Rangers in five games.
Boston has won five of its previous six playoff series against Chicago; the Blackhawks' only victory was in a three-game preliminary-round matchup in 1975. They've played eight times in the past nine years, with the Bruins winning six, including the past two.
One hurdle for Boston should Chicago close out Los Angeles is that the Blackhawks will have home-ice advantage -- including the first two games at what's sure to be a raucous United Center. But Boston is 3-0-2 in its past five visits to Chicago; the last time they didn't get a point was an 8-5 loss on March 9, 2003.
This is Rask's first full season as the Bruins' starter in goal, so he has very little history against either potential opponent. Rask allowed one goal and did not get a decision in his only career decision against Chicago; he blanked Los Angeles in his lone appearance against the Kings.
Few Bruins have a substantial history against either the Blackhawks. Of the players who were on Boston's roster all season, only defensemen Andrew Ference and Zdeno Chara have played more than 10 games against either team, and no Bruins player who has seen action this spring has played for Chicago during his career. Trade deadline acquisition Jaromir Jagr has 13 goals and 27 points in 25 games against Chicago, though he was scoreless in two games this season with the Dallas Stars before being dealt.