Before the 2013-14 season kicked off, there were plenty of NHL pundits and experts that thought that the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins had a good shot at having a rematch of their Stanley Cup Final series, and there were a myriad of reasons why.
For one thing, there was the continuity that both teams had. Both clubs have very stable veteran cores, with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith serving as three cogs of a two-time championship group for the Hawks and Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, and Tuukka Rask serving the same role for the Bruins, who won a title in 2011.
Another reason for the optimism was that both teams displayed serious talent on both ends of the ice. The Blackhawks are a team that emphasizes a two-way approach by all of their forwards, and everyone from Jonathan Toews to Brandon Saad buys into that style of play. As for the Bruins, they do enjoy forechecking as much as the next team, but what sets them apart is their brute physical style of defense, and they are able to wear a lot of teams into submission as a result.
As the current campaign has played out, most of the thoughts surrounding the two teams have come to fruition. The Blackhawks are a team that boasts scoring threats up and down their lineup, and they are either the best or second best (depending on how critics view the Pittsburgh Penguins) offense in the league. The Bruins meanwhile have not only the sixth-best offense in the league in scoring 2.9 goals per game (the Blackhawks are tops at 3.5 goals per game), but they also have the second-best defense in the league, only allowing 2.2 goals per game.
With those numbers floating around, the question becomes this: are these still the teams to beat in their respective conferences? Both teams are currently second in the standings at this point (the Blackhawks trail the Anaheim Ducks, while the Bruins trail the Penguins), but both teams have the playoff pedigree and the all-around talent to make a serious case to be considered the favorite in the West and East, respectively.
In the Bruins’ case, they are most assuredly neck-and-neck with the Penguins. One of the big knocks against Pittsburgh coming into the season was that they were an all-offense and no-defense bunch, but this season has turned that narrative on its head. The Penguins do score a lot, but they also have the league’s best power play AND the league’s best penalty killing unit, and their all-around play has them out in front in the Metropolitan Division this season.
As for the Blackhawks, there is an argument to be made that they aren’t even the best team in their own division, let alone the Western Conference. The St. Louis Blues may be trailing the Hawks by four points (with three fewer games played), but they have been astonishingly good against the Central Division this season. They are currently 13-0-1 against the six teams in their division and the Blackhawks have not been able to best the Blues yet in their three meetings this season, going 0-1-2 in those contests.
The Ducks also demand to be taken seriously as a contender to the throne of Western Conference favorite. Anaheim has won 18 of their last 20 games, and their mix of stellar offense and excellent goaltending makes them a formidable foe in every sense of the word. .
So are the Bruins and Blackhawks the respective favorites in their conferences? In the Bruins’ case, the answer is yes, but barely. They are a ridiculously deep team with proven talent everywhere, and until the Penguins can prove that they are capable of playing defense in the playoffs, then there is no way to declare them favorites over Boston.
In the case of the Hawks, they are in a dead heat with both the Blues and Ducks. It’s impossible to unequivocally declare one of those three teams the favorite, but it will be fascinating to see which teams steps up the most as the playoffs draw ever closer.
We’ll be chatting about the Blackhawks’ showdown with the Bruins on the Madhouse Enforcer Twitter feed during the game, so check out @Madhousenforcer if you want to follow along!