Inquirer Daily News

Odd Man Rush: Bruins, Blackhawks ready for battle of unknown

By Michael Rushton, NHL Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The 2013 edition of the Stanley Cup Finals features a pair of teams in the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins who are no stranger to this stage. The Bruins are just two years removed from their first title since 1972 after beating the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to cap the 2010-11 campaign.

That came a season after the Blackhawks ended a 49-year Cup drought of their own with a six-game series triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Given the recent occurrence of those championships, it's not surprising there are some similarities for each club from their recent title-winning squads to now. Both have the same head coach -- Joel Quenneville for Chicago and Claude Julien for Boston -- and the captain of each team remains the same. Hulking defender Zdeno Chara will try to lead the Bruins franchise to its seventh Stanley Cup title, while young two-way center Jonathan Toews is looking to bring the Cup back to Chicago for the fifth time in franchise annuals.

But this series will still feature plenty of new and juicy storylines for fans to digest.

The biggest is in net, where the Blackhawks and Bruins showcase new and talented faces who weren't big players the last time these teams etched themselves into hockey immortality.

Boston's Tuukka Rask may have logged 29 games of action during the regular season of his team's recent championship march, but he was fully in the backseat once the playoffs began. That's because Tim Thomas was in the midst of an excellent campaign that saw him cap his Conn Smythe Trophy-winning postseason with a Game 7 series-clinching shutout of Vancouver.

Thomas, though, announced after the 2011-12 campaign that he was going to sit out the upcoming season and the Bruins did not miss a beat under Rask, so much so that Thomas' rights were traded to the New York Islanders in February.

The 26-year-old Rask isn't likely to be in Thomas' shadow in these Cup Finals either. His .943 save percentage is the best of any goaltender in these playoffs and he set a Bruins record for the fewest goals allowed in a four- game series after yielding just two over 275 minutes of action in a surprising sweep of the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final.

"You look at Boston, they don't give up a whole lot," said 'Hawks winger Patrick Sharp. "Doing what they did to the Penguins is impressive. Rask is a big part of that. They have a good team system and they all commit to doing that."

Then there is Corey Crawford, who was not on Chicago's roster when it bested Philadelphia for its recent title. And while like Rask, Crawford may not have been a household name at the start of the postseason, the 28-year-old's excellent regular season has been bettered in the playoffs, where he has a league-leading 1.74 GAA along with a .935 save percentage.

"It's a process for goalies, I think. We've always had confidence in his ability," Chicago general manager Stan Bowman said of Crawford's rise to the starting position. "I think it's just nice to see him getting the recognition that he deserves. The consistent play that we've had game in, game out, it's been that way from the beginning of the year.

"We know we're going to get a great performance from him every night. When your goaltender plays well, like he has, then it allows you to just play your game and not have to worry about goaltending."

Antti Niemi was between the pipes for Chicago during the 2010 playoffs, but he was one of a number of players the club had to move following the postseason due to a salary cup crunch.

In fact, only eight players return from that squad, but the names are some big ones, including Toews, Sharp, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook.

The Bruins, on the other hand, return 17 players from its 2010-11 squad, with Thomas, Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle all retired or playing elsewhere.

That is two different approaches to arrive at the same destination as either the Blackhawks or Bruins will become the first team with two Stanley Cup championships in the salary cap era.

But most exciting is the great equalizer between the clubs. That is the fact the two haven't played each other in over 600 days, since a 3-2 shootout victory for Boston on Oct. 15, 2011, because of the lockout-shortened schedule that saw only scheduled games between conference foes.

It's a sense of unknown not seen since pre-interleague baseball and should test both coaches in adjusting and matching up on the fly, even if neither team is buying into the unfamiliarity.

"I think the preparation is pretty much the same as always," Chara said. "We know that we haven't faced them this season because of the schedule and shortened season. But we have to prepare same way as we've been preparing for any team. Just do as much as we can.

"Obviously, I think once we start playing, we're going to have a better feel how we're going to approach next games, next shifts."

Quenneville agreed, saying tools such as video, scouts and just simple conversations help give teams fair assessments of each other. He also expects the unpredictability to be gone pretty early in Game 1.

"It's a pretty straightforward game. We have to play to our strengths, the realization of what they're capable of," he added.

If one team has the edge in scouting, it may be the Bruins. They do have one player who has seen the Presidents' Trophy-winning Blackhawks this season in Jaromir Jagr. He faced off against the club twice as a member of the Dallas Stars before his trade to Boston.

Jagr might not have many fond memories of the last encounter as the Stars were routed 8-1 at home by the Blackhawks on March 16 and he was quick to mention Tuesday that he felt at the time that Chicago was the best team in the West.

"They played different hockey than any other teams in that conference. They're quick; so talented up front, and quick on defense," Jagr said. "I think it was a huge difference compared to other teams. They're so fast and everybody can move the puck on their defense."

It all adds up to the first ever Stanley Cup Finals meeting between these Original Six clubs.

And it should be a good one.

06/12 14:24:30 ET