There is a popular notion that players from the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins did not see each other this season because of how the lockout-shortened NHL year unfolded, with no interconference play.
This ignores the events of Dec. 12, 2012, in the Erste Bank Eishockeyliga, when the Blackhawks red-hot scoring sensation, Bryan Bickell, helped Orli Znojmo HC defeat the Salzburg Red Bulls, which featured Boston Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk.
The game went to overtime before Znojmo, the only Czech team playing in the Austrian league, secured the win. Bickell played 28 games for Znojmo, Boychuk 15 in Salzburg – and if nothing else, that little-known, pre-Christmas clash in a faraway corner of the hockey world is a valuable reminder that the game endured, even as the NHL ground to a halt during a lockout.
Zdeno Chara played for a Czech team in the KHL, a largely Russian league, while Jaromir Jagr had 57 points in 34 games for Kladno, the Czech team he partially owns. The Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane and the Bruins’ Tyler Seguin were teammates for Biel in the Swiss A league, where Boston’s Patrice Bergeron was among the enemies, playing for Lugano.
Once the puck dropped on Jan. 19, however, the NHL was like two separate leagues. East was East and West was West and ne’er the twain did meet – until now.
The last two teams standing haven’t played each other in more than 600 days, or since a regular-season game in mid-October of 2011, when the Bruins won a shootout in Chicago, with Tim Thomas (remember him?) between the pipes for Boston.
So Boston will largely be a mystery to Chicago when the best-of-seven Stanley Cup final opens Wednesday, and Chicago will be equally unfamiliar to Boston.
“I’m sure the rivalry could return instantly come Game 1,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think it’s good for the league and it’s good for hockey, two great hockey markets. We’re very excited to be a part of it.”
The last time the Stanley Cup final spilled this far into the late spring/early summer was in June of 1995, the other time the NHL played 48-game season because of a labour squabble. The final series began on June 17, and ended a week later on June 24, a mostly anticlimactic four-game sweep for the New Jersey Devils over the Detroit Red Wings.
If Chicago-Boston goes the distance, it could go until June 26, which would be the latest ending in history for an NHL season.
Ultimately, the on-ice test will be to see if great defence and goaltending can trump great offence, the way it did in the Eastern Conference final, when the Bruins limited the Pittsburgh Penguins to just two goals. Pittsburgh went into that series as the No.1 offensive team in the regular season.
The Blackhawks were No.2 in regular-season scoring, so the question becomes: Can Jonathan Toews, Kane and Co. do what Sidney Crosby, James Neal et al. could not?
Physically, the Blackhawks held their own in the last round against a Los Angeles Kings team that ran roughshod over the opposition a year ago. As important as Chicago’s skill set was, the reason they’re still playing now are the contributions made by their supporting cast up front – Marcus Kruger, Michael Frolik, and in particular, Bickell, who turned his point-a-game scoring process in the Austrian league into an unexpectedly successful NHL playoff run (13 points in 17 games), just a point behind teammates Toews, Kane and Patrick Sharp.
Bickell will get his turn in the spotlight on media day Tuesday – not just because of his potential impact on the series, but because when the playoffs end, he will become an unrestricted free agent.
Bickell will have to weigh the value of leaving to pursue free-agent riches against the value of staying and playing with the Blackhawks star-studded cast.
No one understands better than Jagr how rare it is for the 2010 (’Hawks) and 2011 (Bruins) champions to get a chance to win it all again so soon. Jagr played on back-to-back Penguins championship teams in 1991 and 1992, and had two rings by the time he was 20.
Pittsburgh seemed poised to win an endless number of championships, and didn’t. It merely took Jagr another 21 years to make his next trip to the final.
“These opportunities don’t come around all the time,” Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith said, “so we want to make the best of it.”