One team will lose in the Stanley Cup finals, but it will not be for a lack of intensity.
Been there, done that – for both teams. The Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks seemed to have learnt their lessons this post-season.
This match-up of recent champions is not only about two successful, knowledgeable teams focused on regaining their glory of 2010 (Chicago) or 2011 (Boston). It will feature players awakened by near-elimination this past month.
For the Bruins, it was a sleepwalking venture in the first round against Toronto. After taking a 3-1 lead, Boston found themselves in Game 7, losing 4-1 midway through the third period. An improbable rally earned them an overtime victory and play-offs life.
"We played with fire in the first round and almost got burnt," the Bruins coach Claude Julien conceded in his post-game remarks after his team knocked off New York Rangers in five games in Round 2. "We knew we couldn't let our guard down … or they'd come right back on us."
Fear of complacency has served them well. They have won nine of 10 games now, including the eye-opening 4-0 sweep of Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals.
For the Blackhawks, who won the Presidents' Trophy for posting the best regular-season record, their moment of truth came in the second round.
The No 7-seeded Detroit Red Wings outworked the more talented Hawks and grabbed a 3-1 lead in games.
One attitude adjustment later, Chicago rallied to take the series, then out-gritted the defending-champion Los Angeles Kings in an efficient five games in the Western Conference finals. It has been a refresher course in play-offs hockey for Chicago, which followed up their 2010 cup title by losing in the first round each of the past two years.
"We know there's going to be some tough moments that we'll have to battle through," said Chicago's captain Jonathan Toews. "We're confident we can do that as a team."
Boston's story is focused on their goalie, Tuukka Rask, who has grown progressively stronger in the play-offs, culminating in the total eclipse of Pittsburgh. Rask had two shutouts and surrendered only two goals to the Penguins. But the Bruins also lead all post-season teams in goals scored, led by the playmaking centre David Krejci's 21 points.
Chicago found their defensive cohesion in time against Detroit, but the team's gifted offensive leaders – Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa – have been spotty this post-season. Just in time, perhaps, they may be getting a spark from their most exciting scorer, Kane, whose trio of goals finished off Los Angeles.
It will be the first finals meeting of two of the NHL's Original Six teams since 1979. These two have never before met on this stage. Indeed, the last time they played in the regular season was October of 2011.
That will not blunt their competitive enthusiasm.
"The rivalry could return instantly, come Game 1," predicted Joel Quenneville, the Chicago coach. "It's two great hockey markets. We're excited to be a part of it."
Partly because, like Boston, they almost were not.
NHL Stanley Cup finals: Boston v Chicago
Thursday, at Chicago, 4am (UAE)
Sunday, at Chicago 4am
Tuesday, at Boston, 4am
June 20, at Boston, 4am
June 23-x, at Chicago, 4am
June 25-x, at Boston, 4am
June 27-x, at Chicago, 4am
x – If necessary
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