Thursday marks the first time that the Blackhawks will visit TD Garden since Game 6 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final, when they came back from a 2-1 third-period deficit, thanks to goals by Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland just 17 seconds apart, to capture the 2013 title. The Blackhawks bested Boston in a 3-2 shootout decision at the United Center on Jan. 19, as Corey Crawford made 36 saves, plus two more stops in the shootout, to outduel Tuukka Rask for the victory.
It’s no surprise that both Chicago and Boston are among the top contenders to once again represent their respective conferences in this year’s Stanley Cup Final; though they have very different styles, both teams rank among the best in the league in most statistical categories. On top of the other numerous storylines swirling around Thursday’s game, the matchup also features the NHL’s most prolific offense against its best defense: The Blackhawks’ 3.27 goals per game ranks first in the league, while Boston has allowed just 2.07 goals a night, tied for the league’s best with Los Angeles. While the numbers say that Boston may have a bit of an edge on the penalty kill, it’s important to note that the Blackhawks’ PK has been trending upward lately, stopping 18 of their last 19 shorthanded chances.
It appears that a move to the top line has done the trick for Kris Versteeg; since joining the unit with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, Steeger has recorded three points (2G, 1A) in his past four games, including his 12th goal of the year against Dallas on Tuesday. The Lethbridge, Alberta, native now has 34 points (12G, 22A) this year, and 27 points (10G, 17A) since re-joining the Blackhawks in November.
Future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla has been rolling through milestones in his first season with Boston. The longtime Calgary Flames captain skated in his 1,300th NHL game on March 17, then netted his 556th goal the next night, tying Boston legend Johnny Bucyk for 25th on the NHL’s all-time scoring list. The 36-year-old leads Boston with 28 goals this year, including seven game-winners, and ranks second on the team with 58 points. He currently sits two goals shy of Guy Lafluer for 24th on the all-time goal leaders list.
The Bruins clinched the Eastern Conference’s first playoff spot this week after going on a tear for much of March; the B’s last lost in regulation on March 1, a span of 13 games, and just concluded a 12-game winning streak with a 2-1 shootout loss to Montreal. Boston’s 104 points is best in the East, seven points ahead of second-place Pittsburgh, and no team comes close to their +77 goal differential.
It’s been a tough task for any opponent to win at TD Garden this year, with the Bruins going 28-7-3 on home ice. However, if there is any team in the league that is suited to overcoming Boston's reliable defensive system and top-notch goaltending, it is the offensively skilled and deep Blackhawks squad. Chicago will have to rely on speed, crisp passing and hockey IQ to beat the B’s, who are as skilled, disciplined and effective as any team in the league. Both teams feature top-flight defensemen (Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara), Selke Trophy-caliber centers (Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron) and skill at virtually every position; whoever comes out of the game with two points will most certainly have earned them.