Based on the regular season, the Chicago Blackhawks are favored to oust the surging Boston Bruins and win their second Stanley Cup in the last four years.
Then again, as the Los Angeles Kings showed last year, the regular season doesn't mean much in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Fact is, Boston - which had 15 fewer points than Chicago in the lockout-shortened, 48-game regular season - has been playing with a relaxed but focused attitude ever since it made the most remarkable Game 7 recovery in NHL history, way back in Round 1 against Toronto. As a result, no one would be surprised if the Bruins won their second Cup in the last three years.
The Finals will showcase two great Original Six teams that have momentum, talent, depth, superb coaching, and eye-opening goaltending.
Chicago advanced with a double-overtime win over defending champion Los Angeles in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
"We know there's going to be some more tough moments that we'll have to battle through," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "We're confident we can do that as a team."
The Finals start Wednesday night in Chicago.
Boston, seeded fourth in the East, is the more physical team and has a slight edge over the Blackhawks in most playoff categories, including goals per game (3.12 to 2.76), faceoff percentage (56 to 47), and five-on-five goal ratio (1.77 to 1.44).
Chicago has had a lights-out penalty kill (94.8 percent success rate, compared with Boston's 86.5 percent) and has gotten consistent playoff scoring from Patrick Sharp (eight goals), Bryan Bickell (eight), and Marian Hossa (seven).
The Blackhawks started the season by going unbeaten in regulation in their first 24 games - and they have not taken their foot off the pedal en route to the West's top seeding. Chicago overcame a three-games-to-one series deficit to eliminate Detroit in the conference semifinals before defeating the Kings.
The Bruins became the first team in NHL history to overcome a three-goal, third-period deficit and win a Game 7. They did that against Toronto, scoring two goals in the final 1 minute, 22 seconds of regulation with their goalie pulled for an extra attacker, and then winning in overtime, 5-4.
"You grow from those tough times," said Boston coach Claude Julien, whose team has been led in the playoffs by David Krejci (nine goals, 21 points) and Nathan Horton (17 points, plus-21 in 16 games). "You learn from those things and it makes you a better team down the road."
Since then, Boston has won eight of the last nine games, including a sweep of the favored Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals.
This series has all the makings of a tightly contested classic, especially when you consider the playoff performances of both goaltenders. Chicago's Corey Crawford leads NHL goalies in the playoffs in goals-against average (1.74) and is second in save percentage (.935). Boston's Tuukka Rask is first in save percentage (.943) and second in GAA (1.75).
It appears the teams are as evenly matched as the goalies.
The pick. It is tempting to go with Chicago because of the home-ice advantage, but the Bruins defense may be the difference. Boston in seven.
Breakaways. Bickell and Horton are pending unrestricted free agents. . . . This is the first Original Six final series since 1979, when Montreal defeated the Rangers in five games. . . . Because of the lockout, the Bruins and Blackhawks did not meet in the shortened regular season. Chicago is aiming for its fifth Cup, while Boston is going for its seventh. The Blackhawks defeated the Flyers in six games to win in 2010, and the Bruins won in seven games against Vancouver in 2011. . . . Boston has 17 of the 21 players who dressed during the 2011 Finals; Chicago has just eight players who played in the 2010 Finals. . . . Only two pro titles have been decided between these cities: The Bears pounded New England in the 1986 Super Bowl, and the Red Sox defeated the Cubs in the 1918 World Series. . . . Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr, a former Flyer, has 196 career playoff points, tying him for fifth with Paul Coffey in NHL history.