Putting aside their first championship way back in 1929, the Boston Bruins raised the Stanley Cup in 1939 and 1970, repeating as champions each time
two years later. Could it happen again?
1939 and 1941, 1970 and 1972, 2011 and 2013?
"Two separate leagues"
Before we proceed with breaking down the series, we need to stop and realize how difficult the task is this time around. Not only have Boston and Chicago not played against each other this season (what would have been one time per season in recent years, and what will be two times per season going forward), but neither conference has played against each other. At all.
Without knowing how the conferences have fared against each other in past years, we would just be guessing at the relative strengths of their teams and players. The Eastern Conference could be equivalent to the KHL or AHL, for all we would know.
As it is, we know the Western Conference has been stronger than the Eastern Conference. Therefore, we can only assume that any statgoals, assists, wins and losses, GVT, Fenwick close, and so onwould be marginally higher for Western Conference players and teams and marginally lower for Eastern Conference players and teams if interconference play had occurred in 2012-13. This has ramifications not only on my picking who is likely to win the Finals, but also should have been taken into account on postseason award ballotsI'd like to meet the voter who actually didand likewise should be considered by general managers in making offseason trades and free agent signings.
It has really been two separate leagues this yearlike major league baseball "back in the old days" before interleague playand we should think of both conventional and advanced stats for the 2012-13 season as being for two separate leagues.
That said, for simplicity's sake in taking a first glance at the stats below, we will suspend disbelief that the East and West were two distinct leagues in 2012-13. We'll keep it in the back of our minds for our overall evaluation, though.
Chicago Blackhawks close-game Fenwick: 55.8% (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Boston Bruins close-game Fenwick: 54.4% (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: Chicago Blackhawks, +1.4%
The Blackhawks were second only to the Los Angeles Kings' possession machine although they have carried that dominance throughout the playoffs, remaining 53.6% against the Wild, Wings, and Kings. The Bruins were second to only the hard-luck Devils in the East during the regular season, and have also retained a 52.7% form against the Leafs, Rangers, and Penguins.
While the Bruins are the most worthy possession squad the Blackhawks could be facing out of the East, we'll give Chicago's raw numerical edge an extra bump for being in the West. Still, it doesn't equate to much more than a push.
Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks offense vs. Boston Bruins defense
Chicago Blackhawks offense: 21.6 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Boston Bruins defense: 7.0 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Boston Bruins goaltending: 14.8 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: Chicago Blackhawks, -0.2 GVT
By the measure of offensive GVT, the Blackhawks were paced by Patrick Kane (14.5), Jonathan Toews* (12.8), and Marian Hossa (8.0). But as an illustration of the Hawks' fantastic depth, six more players (Bryan Bickell, Duncan Keith, Viktor Stalberg, Brent Seabrook, Brandon Saad, Nick Leddy) exceeded 4.0 OGVT despite the shortened season, with Patrick Sharp (3.7) missing due to only 28 games with which to accumulate stats.
In a nutshell, their high quality depth was why they won in 2010, and it's one of their biggest advantages in this series. If third liners like Rich Peverley (-9.1 Relative Corsi) and Chris Kelly (-12.7 Relative Corsi) and fourth liners like Daniel Paille (-12.4 Relative Corsi) and Shawn Thornton (-16.1 Relative Corsi) can keep from getting bombed, it's within the realm of possibility for the Bruins' top six to edge the Blackhawks' top six for an overall advantage. But that's far from a given.
Boston's defense is led by Zdeno Chara (7.5 defensive GVT) and Dennis Seidenberg (8.6 defensive GVT) and backstopped by Tuukka Rask (26.5 GVT), who is coming off a series for the ages against Pittsburgh. Rask leads all players with 10.4 GVT in the playoffs to date. If Boston wins the series, it is hard to see anyone but Rask raising the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Selke winner Patrice Bergeron and superpest Brad Marchand are well known for their two-way play, among the NHL's forward leaders in defensive GVT, at 6.4 and 6.3.
*Toews, as everyone should know, was the top skater in the NHL with 21.3 GVT. So if you didn't vote for Sidney Crosby by considering who had the most value (GVT) per game to his team, you should have voted Toews for Hart Trophy for the most overall value.
Boston Bruins offense vs. Chicago Blackhawks defense
Boston Bruins offense: -0.4 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Chicago Blackhawks defense: 17.1 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
Chicago Blackhawks goaltending: 10.0 GVT (6th in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, -27.5 GVT
The Bruins' offensive GVTs aren't as gaudy as the Blackhawks', led by Marchand (8.8), Bergeron (6.7), the now-demoted Seguin (5.7). Then again, that (former) trio controlled possession with outstanding Relative Corsi rates of 16.7, 19.3, and 20.6, respectivelyall among the top 30 NHL regulars by that measure. Of course, it's hard to miss that first liners David Krejci and Nathan Horton are on fire in the postseason, both in the top 10 in playoff GVT. Some big-time regression can be expected, though. Krejci's 21.4% shooting is nearly doubling his 11.8% career percentage while Horton's 22.6% is way ahead of his 14.6% career rate as well.
Boston's average offense will be facing Chicago's league-leading defense/goaltending, which only gave up 2.02 goals per game during the regular season. Corey Crawford trailed Rask .929 to .926 in the regular season (.938 to .934 at even strength) and trails Rask .943 to .935 in the postseason (.950 to .928 at even strength), which of course means that he has still performed well above average. But Crawford is fronted by many strong defensive players, including Toews (7.6 defensive GVT), Keith (7.4), Hjalmarsson (7.3), and Seabrook (6.8).
If the percentages come back down to earth as predicted, the Bruins should have more trouble scoring than the Blackhawks.
Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks power play vs. Boston Bruins penalty kill
Chicago Blackhawks power play: -4.4 GVT (Rank: 22nd in NHL)
Boston Bruins penalty kill: 10.5 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: Chicago Blackhawks, -14.9 GVT
Exercise in futility #1? For whatever reason, offensive talents like Kane, Toews, Sharp, Keith, and Hossa have struggled on the power play for the past two seasons, ranking 26th and 19th in the league. Facing a top-ranked Bruins penalty kill that is coming off shutting down the vaunted Penguins power play to the tune of 0 for 15 in their shocking four-game sweep, it seems unlikely that Chicago (13.7% in the playoffs) will gain much of an advantage here.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Boston Bruins power play vs. Chicago Blackhawks penalty kill
Boston Bruins power play: -3.9 GVT (Rank: 20th in NHL)
Chicago Blackhawks penalty kill: 10.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, -13.9 GVT
Exercise in futility #2? If you were to look for one solid criticism of head coach Claude Julien, you would likely point to the Bruins perennially lackluster power play, which struggles despite a number of skill players. Conversely, the Blackhawks were the best in the West at preventing man advantage goals, and have only improved in the postseason (94.8%)
although Crawford's .967 save percentage in these situations might be classified as a touch "fortunate".
Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks
Since there were no interconference games between the East and the West in 2012-13, we are going to look back over the last couple of seasons instead. On December 18, 2009, Chicago beat Boston 5-4 in a shootout, with Versteeg, Sharp, Toews, and Ladd scoring on Tim Thomas, and Krejci (2), Paille, and Boychuk scoring on Antti Niemi. On March 29, 2011, Boston defeated Chicago 3-0 with the Blackhawks playing the second game of a back to back after facing the rival Red Wings. Chara, Boychuk, and Horton scored on Crawford, while Thomas recorded a shutout in his Vezina Trophy winning campaign. On October 15, 2011, Boston won 3-2 in a shootout. Kelly (SHG) and Horton scored on Crawford, Bickell and Kane on Thomas.
Notably, Rask did not play in any of the games, so he will be an unknown quantity to the Blackhawks, and vice versa. That strikes me as more of a potential advantage for the Bruins.
And although it's ancient history, Andrew Ference had two bad turnovers leading directly to goals
and that's only from among six Chicago markers in three games. Ference has received significant praise for his postseason play in 2013, but I considered him a defensive liability in 2011. Will the real Andrew Ference please stand up?
Chicago Blackhawks faceoff percentage: 50.8% (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Boston Bruins faceoff percentage: 56.4% (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, +5.6%
Toews (59.9%) has been one of the league's best faceoff men for the past several years. Unfortunately, all of head coach Joel Quenneville's other options are well below average. Bergeron (62.1%) also has been among the elite for years, but Julien has many other options in Kelly (57.9%), Krejci (55.2%), and Peverley (58.4%).
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Injuries and Intangibles
Aside from the postseason-ending injury suffered by Gregory Campbell, both teams have their principals participating, although certainly all playing with their share of aches and pains.
Both teams have recently won Stanley Cups, and have retained their core players since.
Both teams have well-respected, Cup-winning coaches.
Both teams are on a roll, although you could argue that Boston (and Rask) are white hot versus Chicago being red hot.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Chicago Blackhawks: 53.0 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Boston Bruins: 22.0 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: Chicago Blackhawks, 31.0 GVT
Here is the case for Boston winning in seven games:
-The Bruins are a great team that is playing great. We are talking about the recent-enough 2011 Stanley Cup champions, who knocked off a highly-talented and favored Vancouver Canucks team. Boston went on to have a dominant first half of 2011-12
before fading away (maybe not a Cup hangover, but not being able to sustain the same high level of play indefinitely) in the second half of that season. The Bruins of the last two series have that same dominant look. Yes, they had more than their fair share of good fortune against the Penguins, but don't write it off as just that simple.
-The Bruins have a lot of similarities to the Detroit Red Wings, who came within a Game 7 overtime of eliminating the Blackhawks in round two: despite a middling offense and power play, they have a strong defense and penalty killing, excellent 5-on-5 play including controlling possession, and good goaltending. Though the Bruins' power play is a notch worse than that of the Red Wings, give Rask the nod over Howard and then you toss in the presence of Chara to boot. It could be the right recipe for an upset, with the right matchup.
But here is the case for Chicago winning in six games:
-They have been dominant in the better conference.
-Their depth will beat Boston's depth.
-The teams that pulled out the rare wins against the Blackhawks this season needed help from their power play to overcome Chicago's great even strength play. That formula is unlikely to work for Boston.
At the end of the day, I'm going with the latter scenario.
Chicago Blackhawks in six games
My previous finals predictions: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012. Going for five in a row.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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