A Playoff Preview of the Series Between Two Original Six Rivals
By: Joe Marraccino (@joecherry89)
And so it begins.
For the first time since 1957, the Bruins and the Red Wings will do battle in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals. Many Bruins fans wanted to steer clear of the Wings in the first round, but we cannot always get what we want. As winners of the President’s Trophy, many expect the Bruins to come out of the East when all is said and done, but the Red Wings surely will provide formidable first round opposition. With game one coming up on Friday night, here is a breakdown of the two teams.
Forwards – The Bruins were an offensive juggernaut in the regular season, boasting the third best goals per game with 3.15. One could argue that the Bruins have the most complete four lines in the NHL. After all, how would you feel as an opposing coach to have to game plan for a team’s THIRD line? (Never mind a top six including names like Bergeron, Iginla, Lucic, Krejci, Marchand, and Smith?) Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson have shown this year they are more than capable of making plays with Chris Kelly providing the grit on a third line that is one of, if not the best, third line in the NHL. Bergeron and Iginla were both 30-goal scorers this season, while Marchand, Lucic, and Smith all put up 20-goal campaigns. The “Merlot Line” of Paille, Campbell, and Thornton provide the occasional skill, but are the energy line filled with grizzled, tough veterans who can be trusted to start a game or play in a clutch situation. It’s the balance between the top six and bottom six that make the Bruins capable of rolling out four lines that can be trusted in any situation. And a nightmare for any coach to game plan against.
The Red Wings were middle of the pack in goals scored per game this year, ranking sixteenth at 2.65. Their top scorer did not even start out the year on the roster, but has caught fire since his call up to the Red Wings from Grand Rapids. Gustav Nyquist, the former Maine Black Bear, was far and away the team’s top scorer with 28 goals, providing a serious offensive threat for a team with a mix of younger talent and veteran experience. As for Pavel Datsyuk and captain Henrik Zetterberg, there is not much to be said. Coming back from injury recently, these two are extremely dangerous with their playmaking abilities and can give opposing defenses problems. In addition, both provide significant playoff experience along with offseason free-agent acquisition Daniel Alfredsson, the former Ottawa Senators captain. The Red Wings may be fairly young up front, but they still possess a serious offensive threat that the Bruins will have to be aware of.
Defense – The Bruins defense took a serious hit back in December after losing Dennis Seidenberg to a torn ACL. As Zdeno Chara’s playoff partner, Seidenberg’s absence opens up a potential void that the Bruins will need to fill. In the regular season, however, their team defense was outstanding, only allowing 2.08 goals per game, good for second in the NHL behind the Kings. The concern with Bruins fans is the youth of the blue line. With Chara ready to eat up minutes, the question is who will step up and take Seidenberg’s place. My guess would be Johnny Boychuk since his style is more of a stay-at-home type who has a booming shot and is not afraid to play tough. The other four defensemen likely to be included in the rotation are Torey Krug, Andrej Meszaros, Matt Bartkowski, and Dougie Hamilton. Do not rule out an appearance by rookie sensation and physical powerhouse Kevan Miller, whose toughness and grit may play a major role if one of the bottom four struggles to contain the Red Wings forwards. The youth of the blue line is probably the biggest concern for the Bruins entering the playoffs. The Red Wings forwards will provide a good early test to see if the young blue liners can rise to the occasion that is required in the playoffs.
As for the Red Wings, long time captain and defensive staple Nicklas Lidstrom is no longer on a team that has made the playoffs for twenty-three straight seasons. As for their current blue line, they are led by Niklas Kronwall, a hard hitting defenseman who tied for the team lead in points with 49. He also is a veteran of many playoff campaigns with the Wings, racking up almost 100 games worth of playoff experience. After him, the likely five defensemen to suit up alongside Kronwall includes young Danny DeKeyser, Reilly’s brother Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl, veteran Kyle Quincey, and Brian Lashoff. These are not exactly names that jump off the page, but they have done a serviceable job for a Wings team which was middle of the pack in goals allowed, ranking sixteenth giving up 2.70 goals a game. If there is a weakness, it may be on the back end for Detroit. Not too much experience outside of Kronwall, so in the same case for the Bruins, the Wings defensemen will be tested with Boston’s dangerous and skilled top six and a sneaky good third line.
Goaltending – The Bruins possess the best goaltender in these playoffs. Tuukka Rask should at the very least be a lock for Vezina consideration, if not win the Vezina Trophy itself. 36 wins in the regular season, a 2.04 GAA, and a league leading 7 shutouts is a pretty good stat line for a goalie who signed a long term contract extension in the off-season after carrying the Bruins within two wins of a Stanley Cup last year. His playoff experience spans 35 games over two playoff runs. He has 21 wins, a 2.06 GAA, and three playoff shutouts. Last year especially he showed how dominant he could be in the playoffs; ask the high flying offense of the Pittsburgh Penguins. His play was dominating in that series, holding the Penguins to TWO goals in four games. He gives the Bruins a chance to win every night and can steal a game or two if need be.
The Red Wings goaltending situation is a little more murky. Presumed playoff starter Jimmy Howard struggled this season. His GAA of 2.66 and his 11 overtime/shootout losses (second in the NHL) is not the sign of a confident goaltender who may need to play at his top level in order for the Red Wings to potentially win this series. His playoff record is average at best. In 42 games, he is 20-22 with a 2.60 goals against and two shutouts. Those eleven overtime and shootout losses may have counted for a point in the regular season, but they mean nothing in the postseason. In fact, there is an outside possibility of seeing the backup Jonas Gustavsson if Howard shows any sign of struggle. It is highly unlikely, but the possibility is there. Between the two teams, this may be the biggest advantage the Bruins possess over their rivals. Rask has played at a much higher level than Howard all season. Jimmy Howard will have to match that, if not better, the level of Rask in this series if the Red Wings stand any chance of pulling the upset off.
Coaching – If there is one thing both teams share, it is the championship pedigree and experience of their head coaches. Claude Julien and Mike Babcock are two of the best coaches in the NHL. Both guys have won championships; Babcock in 2008 and Julien in 2011. Both coaches have also won gold twice for team Canada in 2010 and 2014 with Babcock as the head coach and Julien his assistant. Both coaches have shown they can win championships at this level and keep their teams highly competitive. Babcock is a coach with a vast amount of playoff experience, which could come in handy for a Red Wings with a mix of veteran guys but also young kids, many of them with little to no playoff experience. He might not be able to physically play on the ice, but his smarts and knowledge of the game will benefit a hungry Red Wings team.
If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it will be the intensity of these games. Original Six rivals with two fanbases that travel really well will make for incredible atmospheres both at the Garden and Joe Louis Arena when the series shifts there next week. As for the series itself, in my last blog, I commented this was the only potential first-round opponent that might be able to upset the Bruins. I still think there is a very slight chance it might happen, but the Bruins have too much depth and firepower up front and a brick wall for a goaltender. The Bruins youth and inexperience on the blue line is probably their biggest concern and with Detroit’s three most dangerous forwards in Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Nyquist, they will face a stern test of their credentials for what could potentially lie ahead. Regardless, the Bruins firepower and depth offensively, coupled with Tuukka Rask in net, will be too strong for a Red Wings team determined to make things hard on the Bruins.
My prediction is the Bruins to win in six hard fought games. In addition, I expect to see at least one or two overtime games. Bruins fans may want to have 911 ready at all times in this series.
The human drama that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs starts in Boston on Friday night at 7:30.
The ecstasy of victory, the agony of defeat, and the rollercoaster of emotions await us all.
It’s playoff hockey in Boston. It’s time to chase Lord Stanley once again…
Joe Marraccino is a guest blogger for Chowdaheadz and can be reached on Twitter@JoeCherry89.
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