How They Got Here
The Boston Bruins were such an inconsistent group during the regular season that few saw them getting past the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final.
They finished fourth in the East, 10 points behind the first-place Pens and then had to come back from a 4-1 Toronto Maple Leafs lead in the third period of Game 7 in the first round to advance.
Since then, backed by goaltender Tuukka Rask, the Bruins got better each time out. They polished off the New York Rangers in five games and stunned the Penguins by sweeping the conference final.
The Chicago Blackhawks had no trouble with consistency, as they cruised to the Presidents' Trophy with the NHL's best regular-season record (36-7-5).
After brushing off the Minnesota Wild in five games, the Blackhawks ran into unexpected trouble with the Detroit Red Wings and, like the Bruins, needed to reach back and pull themselves up by their skate straps to survive. The Red Wings muzzled Chicago stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa but couldn't hang on to a 3-1 best-of-seven series lead as other forwards, such as Bryan Bickell, stepped up.
The Los Angeles Kings gave the Blackhawks a good run in the Western Conference final, taking them to double overtime in the deciding game, but had too many injuries to handle a team with size and speed throughout the lineup.
How They Match Up
Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville showed he is well aware of how counterpart Claude Julien likes to nullify the opposition's best player. By breaking up the first-line duo of Toews and Kane in practice, Quenneville may be preparing for Julien's preferred strategy of matching centre Patrice Bergeron and defenceman Zdeno Chara against the opposition's best line.
Quenneville's shuffling did not stop there. Bryan Bickell and Kane went from the first line to the second with centre Michal Handzus. Toews played with Patrick Sharp and Hossa on the first line. Dave Bolland swapped spots with Handzus and centred the checking line. It also appears Viktor Stalberg is out, as Brandon Bollig skated in his spot on the fourth line Tuesday. By spreading his stars around, Quenneville is hoping to make it harder for the Bruins to shut them down.
Thanks to the Bruins depth, Julien can roll four lines, but the Blackhawks offer the best resistance to this the Bruins will face so far. Chicago survived the Red Wings series because the third and fourth lines produced some goals when Toews, Kane and Hossa were stymied.
The Blackhawks defence is more mobile than Boston's, but not as physical. But the Bruins have trouble with quick teams, so if Duncan Keith et al jump into the rush, it can be trouble.
Rask has been better than Chicago counterpart Corey Crawford so far, but the difference is not enormous.
Players to watch
Bickell went from ordinary in the regular season to monster power forward for the Blackhawks in the playoffs with eight goals and 13 points in 17 games. He is in the middle of every scrum, it seems, and if he crashes the net like he did in the first three rounds, the Bruins defence could finally meet its match.
With Toews tied up by Bergeron and Chara as often as the Bruins can manage it, the onus will be on Handzus as the Blackhawks No. 2 centre to outplay David Krejci. This is quite an order as only Rask's play has kept Krejci, the NHL offensive leader in the playoffs with 21 points, from being the de facto Boston candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Crawford's play in the Chicago goal is getting the Montreal native into the conversation about Canada's goaltending at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
But he will need to be better than Rask and his .943 save percentage.
Blackhawks win if …
Toews can finally dominate a series after three rounds of varying success.
Bruins win if …
Their defensive tightrope act holds just a little longer, shutting down the Blackhawks third and fourth lines, as well as the stars.
Bruins in seven games.