Stanley Cup Final: Why the Chicago Blackhawks will win the Cup
The Chicago Blackhawks have been the best team in the NHL all season, and they're on the right track to win another Stanley Cup.
All Boston did was respond with a convincing four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference finals to move on to the Stanley Cup Final. That's where they're going to get yet another high-powered offense in the Chicago Blackhawks that's supposed to test the very same things.
The only difference in this series is that Chicago has a better defense to complement its offense and isn't likely to have a complete meltdown like the Penguins did in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Blackhawks have been the best team in the NHL from the start of the season and have shown little sign of slowing down in the postseason. Yes, they needed a three-game winning streak in the second round and were nearly eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings, but the same can be said on the other side of this series as Boston needed a historical Game 7 comeback in the third period to escape elimination against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Both teams have shown flashes of dominance. Both teams have narrowly avoided elimination.
The way Chicago knocked out the defending Stanley Cup champions (a Kings team that was perhaps even better than last year's) in five games was impressive. They had the look of a champion the entire series -- as they have for most of the season -- and I'm taking the Blackhawks in six. (I'm 9-5 on my picks this postseason, and 17-12 over the past two years).
The Blackhawks team that won the Stanley Cup back in 2009-10 was one of the deepest and most loaded teams the NHL has seen in the salary cap era. In fact, I'd argue it was the best team the NHL has seen over the past seven years. The cap, however, destroyed a lot of that depth the following offseason and forced them to dump players like Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Antti Niemi. Over the past couple of years, the front office has quickly re-assembled a lot of that depth through the draft and through some astute trades and free agent signings, again giving Chicago a roster that can roll four lines at teams and beat them in a variety of different ways.
Chicago finished the regular season as the second-highest scoring team in the league and as one of the best puck possession teams. The goal-scoring has dropped a bit in the postseason, but I think a lot of that has been the result of poor shooting luck, not poor play. There are perhaps no better examples than super star forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
The Blackhawks made it through the Western Conference playoffs getting little goal and point production from their two best players, and both received quite a bit of criticism for it. The criticism was a lot of times misplaced. Kane and Toews have still been generating a ton of chances and shots in the playoffs but simply haven't been getting anything to go in for them. Kane's luck started to change a little bit over the last two games against Los Angeles when he scored four goals, including a hat trick in Game 5.
Toews has continued to play a shutdown defensive game and has been one of the best possession players in the league, continuing to keep the puck moving in the right direction. When the Blackhawks won the Cup three years ago, Toews went from being a great young player to a household name considered to be one of the best players in the league. At the time, his performance in that postseason may have been a little overrated (keep in mind: overrated does not mean bad). This time around, he's being underrated as he's definitely a better player than he was in 2010. He just doesn't have the point totals this postseason to make his play stand out.
The Blackhawks reunited them on a line late in the Western Conference finals, and it led to great results, not only for them on an individual level but also for the team as a whole; whether or not coach Joel Quenneville keeps them together remains to be seen (they practiced on different lines on Tuesday). Whether or not he does, the Blackhawks' depth is going to be a lot for Boston to handle.
While Toews and Kane are the forwards who get most of the attention, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp have been perhaps the best players in the NHL this postseason. When you put them together with Kane, Toews, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and the surprising performance of Bryan Bickell, it's simply one of the most impressive forward groups any team in the NHL has.
And they have a solid core of players behind them to back them up.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have both been outstanding for the Blackhawks on the blue line, playing big minutes in every situation and helping to anchor a defense that allowed the fourth-fewest shots on goal during the regular season and has been just as stingy in the playoffs.
The Bruins looked invincible in the previous round in their sweep of the Penguins, and they're a worthy Stanley Cup finalist. But Chicago is the type of team that is more than capable of knocking them off. For as much talk as there is about Boston's defensive game, the Bruins give up their fair share of shots. When you combine that with Chicago's ability to create shots, you can be sure Rask is going to be challenged.
Chicago finished the regular season as one of the best puck possession teams in the league, finishing second in Fenwick percentage (a measure of attempted shots that help indicate possession) and second in shot differential (plus-4.9 per game). Few teams over the past decade have been as dominant with the puck as the Blackhawks have been, and the ability to control the puck and possession is a common trait that most Stanley Cup winners have.
About the only question Chicago had this season was concerning its goaltending. Over the past two years, Corey Crawford flashed signs of brilliance and the potential to be a No. 1 goaltender, but he completely self-destructed in the playoffs last year against Phoenix. The Blackhawks were the better team in that series, only to lose because Mike Smith badly outplayed Crawford.
It's been a completely different story this postseason.
Crawford isn't the best goalie in this series, but he enters the Stanley Cup Final with a .935 save percentage, a number that is second only to Rask.
I don't know that Crawford is the goalie who's capable of stealing this series, but with the way the Blackhawks team in front of him is capable of playing -- and has been playing all season and postseason -- they may not need him to.
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