Much of the talk leading up to the start of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final has centered around how complete a team the Chicago Blackhawks are, or just how magical Tuukka Rask has been this season and in the postseason. It's true that this is perhaps one of the more intriguing Cup Final we've had in quite some time, and almost assuredly will be much more entertaining that last summer's Kings and Devils farce.
It's true that Rask is having one of the best postseasons in recent memory for a goaltender, putting up an astounding .943 save percentage with the Bruins having lost just four games on their way to the Cup Final. It's also true that against the high-powered Blackhawks, who were so obviously the best team in the NHL throughout the regular season, the Bruins will have one heck of a challenge ahead of them even after dominating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals.
Yet there is one player on the ice that stands out above all others, both literally and figuratively, who could become the bigger deciding factor in this series even moreso than the impact Rask will have in goal.
Zdeno Chara has long been one of the most impressive defensemen in the NHL, although he had to wait until he arrived in Boston to truly leave his mark on the NHL. While Chara certainly enjoyed some big seasons in Ottawa, it is with the Bruins that he's been allowed to fully leave his mark on a hockey team. As captain of the Bruins, Chara has exemplified how leaders don't necessarily need to be the most outspoken in the media or the locker room to become one of the more effective captains in the NHL.
Chara is enjoying arguably his best postseason to date, with two goals and nine assists through 16 games so far. While his offensive output in these playoffs are the best of his career, it is Chara's play in his own zone and in front of Rask that has truly helped boost the Bruins back into the Cup Final. One need to look no further than the dominance over the Pittsburgh Penguins for evidence of just how dominant Chara and the Bruins defense have become.
Shutting down Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby seemed to be a nearly impossible task heading into the series between the Penguins and Bruins; four games later, both players were held pointless as Pittsburgh was swept in one of the more surprising upsets we've seen in an NHL postseason series since the 1995 Detroit Red Wings were swept out of the postseason. Chara led a defense that discombobulated the Penguins attack and left Pittsburgh fumbling and stumbling around in an embarrassing series performance that could cost coach Dan Bylsma his job.
The Chicago Blackhawks pose a completely different challenge, however. The star-studded attack from the Penguins was exposed when the depth of the team failed to hold up against the Bruins; the Blackhawks -- while certainly possessing their own star players -- will put a much more complete team on the ice as they attempt to win their second Stanley Cup in three years.
The Blackhawks were able to beat the Los Angeles Kings and Jonathan Quick -- arguably the best goaltender in the postseason aside from Rask -- by focusing on getting to the net and creating havoc around Quick's crease.
"In the last round, we faced [a goalie] as good as any we've seen in the last few years of the playoffs,'' Chicago coach Joel Quenneville told the media this week. ‘‘We did a good job of getting to the net. That's what we're going to have to do to be successful against [Rask]. We want to make sure it's challenging for him to find the puck.''
The Blackhawks are going to come hard and fast at the Bruins and take the puck directly to the net; Boston was able to push the Penguins attack to the outside and keep the dangerous players from truly finding the space they needed to succeed. The Blackhawks pose a much more team-oriented attack, from the blue line to the forwards, and the Bruins will almost assuredly not be able to succeed with the ease they experienced against Pittsburgh.
This is where Chara comes into play.
Chicago will want to create havoc once more around the crease, but will have a much tougher task ahead with the 6-9 defenseman with a giant's reach manning the area around Tuukka Rask. The Bruins' captain and his goaltender have formed a formidable partnership, with the gigantic defenseman capable of allowing his netminder the space needed to see and make the save while also not allowing opposing players the space they need to get to the rebounds and second chances they'll need to find success.
Now, Chara is just one player on a defense that worked incredibly well as a unit against the Penguins. Yet it is Chara, who routinely plays 25 or 26 minutes a night as a 36-year old veteran, that truly sets the tone for his team and played his role to near perfection against the Penguins. The Blackhawks love to send Andrew Shaw to the net to try and get in front of the goalie to lead that havoc-creating charge, and he'll have a much tougher time finding such success with Chara hanging on his back.
There's another interesting debate raging, comparing the leadership styles of Chara and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. There were even calls earlier this postseason that Chara was no longer worthy of the "C" on his chest, based solely on how he approaches his relationship with the media.
Where it really counts, however, is on the ice -- and this series features a clash of two of the best leaders-by-example we have in the NHL.
If the Bruins are going to fight off the Blackhawks, a team that most feel is overall superior to Boston, then Zdeno Chara will once again have to be at his very best. His presence alone and his performance in front of the net, will almost certainly be just as big a deciding factor in this series as the two great players who will be in net for each team.