The Stanley Cup final opens Wednesday in Chicago as the Blackhawks host the Boston Bruins. Here are five players to watch in the seven-game series:
1. Torey Krug
Boston has a hot-shot young defenceman playing a pivotal role in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and his name is not Dougie Hamilton.
Before last month, Krug’s NHL experience was made up of three games over the past two seasons. Now the 22-year-old is now a mainstay on the Bruins’ blue-line.
When injuries to defencemen Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden decimated the Bruins, Krug stepped up from the AHL and made an immediate impact. He had two goals and an assist in his first two games against the New York Rangers and played so well that coach Claude Julien couldn’t take him out.
Krug has six points in nine games and is a key component of Boston’s power play, passing not only Hamilton but Matt Bartkowski on the depth chart.
After spending most of the season in the minors, the undrafted free agent out of Michigan State University is an X-factor for the Bruins going into the Cup final, providing ample production on the back end without being a defensive liability.
2. Michal Handzus
One of just a handful of Blackhawks veterans without a Stanley Cup ring, Handzus seemed like a questionable trade-deadline pickup. Chicago gave up a fourth-round pick for a 36-year-old who had two points and a minus-9 rating in 28 games with the San Jose Sharks.
But in adding a veteran centre to an accomplished regular-season team, general manager Stan Bowman looks like a genius. Handzus has two goals and seven assists in 17 playoff games so far and has filled a key penalty-killing role for Chicago.
Handzus is the kind of player who can help a team capture a championship with little things, like blocking a shot or winning a defensive-zone faceoff.
Bowman wanted to get bigger down the middle and did so with the six-foot-five, 215-pound Handzus. He also got a guy with 950 games of NHL experience to help a team with plenty of young forwards like Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Viktor Stalberg.
3. Jaromir Jagr
The Eastern Conference final was all about Jaromir Jagr versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team he helped to two Stanley Cups in the early 1990s. Jagr played a role in setting up Patrice Bergeron’s double-overtime goal in Game 3, but he never scored in the series.
In fact, Jagr doesn’t have a goal in the playoffs. But it would be inaccurate to say the 41-year-old hasn’t been a factor.
Jagr has fit in better with the Bruins’ style that Jarome Iginla might have, even though the right-winger was a consolation prize of sorts when the former Calgary Flames star chose the Penguins.
A vigorous worker on and off the ice, Jagr sets the correct tone for teammates and brought to the locker room some winning experience.
With only two goals in 27 games for Boston since being traded from the Dallas Stars, Jagr doesn’t have the pressure to pile up stats as a second-liner, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he breaks out against Chicago.
4. David Krejci
It’s not like Krejci’s scoring touch in these playoffs came out of nowhere; he was almost a point-a-game player in 2011 during the Bruins’ Cup run.
But that Krejci is the key cog of Boston’s offence is a sign that the 27-year-old can step his game up when it matters most. He had 10 goals and 23 assists in 47 regular-season games and has nine goals and 12 assists in 16 playoff games.
Even given Tuukka Rask’s stellar goaltending, it’s hard to figure where the Bruins would be without Krejci. When he was injured in 2010, Boston coughed up a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Keeping Krejci on the ice and producing has to be a top priority. Along with Nathan Horton, the Bruins need their top guys filling the net while Zdeno Chara and defenders try to contain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa.
5. Bryan Bickell
Players like Bickell come along every so often: steady regular-season performers who break out in the playoffs. Remember John Druce or Max Talbot and impact they made in the playoffs.
That has been Bickell for the Blackhawks. At six-foot-four and 233 pounds, he’s a power forward but wasn’t considered much of a scorer.
That changed once Chicago got into the playoffs. He scored three goals in his first four games this spring, including a game-winner.
Bickell did enough to earn a spot on the Blackhawks’ top line alongside Toews and Kane and factor into the Conn Smythe conversation going into the final thanks to eight goals and five assists.
This breakout performance could also earn the 27-year-old, an unrestricted free agent July 5, a nice pay day. But first, he could earn Chicago another Stanley Cup.