They were scattered all around the room for media day at the Stanley Cup final, some of the greatest scoring talents, past and present, in NHL history. There was Jaromir Jagr, the future hall of famer, with 21 years between visits to the Stanley Cup final, charming as ever. There was his Boston Bruins teammate, David Krejci, who grew up idolizing Jagr but has a chance to do something Jagr never did – lead the league in playoff scoring twice in three years.
Earlier, during the Chicago Blackhawks’ appearance, you could sidle up to Marian Hossa, making his fourth trip to a Stanley Cup final in six years. In an NHL career that began in 1997-98 with the Ottawa Senators, Hossa has averaged almost a point a game and three times reached the 40-goal plateau. His lifelong friendship with the Bruins’ massive defenceman, 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara, is an interesting back story in an intriguing series, the first time Chicago and Boston have ever met in the Stanley Cup final.
From a purely strategic point of view, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville likes to flip Hossa and the mercurial Patrick Kane around on the right side, shifting them from the first to the second line and back again, whenever the need for a change arises. Kane, a 55-point producer in the shortened regular season, was stone-cold for much of the first three rounds, until he caught fire in the last two games against the Los Angeles Kings and popped in four goals.
There was Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeon, Patrick Sharp and Nathan Horton, all great offensive talents, all waiting to put on a show when the series begins here Wednesday night.
But will they?
Thus far in the playoffs, the goal-scoring is shrinking round by round, and if the trend continues, it may be down to zero in this series. Teams averaged a respectable 5.26 goals a game in the first round, 4.75 in the second round, but just 4.33 in the third round. If goaltenders Tuukka Rask of the Bruins (a minuscule 1.75 goals-against average) and Corey Crawford of the Blackhawks (1.74) continue to post stingy numbers in the final, this could be decided by the slimmest of margins in the tightest of games. Scorers tend to get all the ink and the financial rewards, but time and again, the lesson of the NHL playoffs is that defence wins championships.
“In playoffs, it’s so hard to score goals, or put up big numbers, or get to the net,” Sharp said Tuesday. “It seems like the more importance there is put on a game, the more tight-checking it is out there.”
The leading checker in the series is Chara, who plays more than 29 minutes a night for the Bruins, far more than any player in the series. It poses a challenge for Quenneville, who loaded up a line at practice Tuesday that featured Toews, Sharp and Hossa, which Bruins coach Claude Julien will unquestionably want to check. That would leave Kane to play with Michal Handzus and Bryan Bickell, two big bodies that could theoretically open up the ice for him.
If it goes that way for any length of time, it looks as if the Blackhawks will be counting on Kane to keep his hot streak going.
According to Kane, the closest the Blackhawks have come to facing anyone like Chara was in the first round against the Minnesota Wild and Ryan Suter.
“There were times [Toews’s] line would go out, [Suter] would play for the full shift, then myself, Handzus and Sharp would go out and Suter would stay on for that as well,” Kane said. “I don’t think we’ve played anyone with his reach yet, so you have to be careful with the way he uses his stick, and deflects pucks on the power play. For us, we want to use our speed, just try to play and not worry too much about Chara.”
The Bruins left the Eastern time zone Tuesday for the first time all season. It’s a far less challenging travel schedule than the one they faced two years ago when they went coast-to-coast to play a seven-game series with the Vancouver Canucks to decide the Cup.
Apart from Jagr, that Bruins championship team is mostly intact, whereas Chicago is down to eight bodies remaining from 2010.
The Blackhawks’ Michal Frolik played with the Bruins’ Krejci in junior in the Czech Republic and is from Kladno, Jagr’s hometown. But while Jagr and Krejci have developed into scorers at the NHL level, Frolik is mostly a checker. He and Sweden’s Marcus Kruger have been mainstays on the Blackhawks’ stunningly effective penalty killing, which makes up for their stunningly bad power play.
Two years ago, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup without getting any meaningful contributions from their power-play unit and they could easily do that again – just one more factor that will likely keep the offence down.
Hossa, meanwhile, has his own plan to throw off Chara.
“I try to joke with him because he likes to be serious all the time on the ice,” Hossa said. “I know he doesn’t like to talk on the ice, so I try to throw some funny stories on the faceoff to make him laugh a little bit.
“It’s going to be a really interesting. Obviously we are good friends. He’s my neighbour. He lives right across the street. But this coming up two weeks, that has to go on the side and we just have to play the roles. I’m going to play my game, he’s going to play his game. I’m sure right after we’ll be friends again. It’s going to be hard two weeks, a hard battle, but it’s going to be also fun. I really am looking forward to it.”