2013 Stanley Cup Finals


CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (1) VS. BOSTON BRUINS (4)

I’m throwing all stats out the window on this one. We’re in store for what’s probably going to be one of the better Stanley Cup Final series we’ve had in recent memory. Two Original Six juggernauts that have stampeded through this post season save a single test each. The similarities in each team’s runs are uncanny. For the Bruins, with the exception of a two game slide in the first round in which they relinquished a 3-1 series lead and nearly were eliminated by the Leafs, have otherwise been absolutely dominant dispatching of both the Rangers and the Penguins in just one game over the minimum. The Hawks have also been utterly dominant with the exception of a three game stretch against the Wings where they were outscored 9-2 and were nearly eliminated. 

For the Blackhawks to be triumphant, they’re going to have to get through Boston’s top rate defense. The fact the Hawks score a ton will certainly help them but Pittsburgh thought so too and they couldn’t get anything going against Boston in the neutral zone or on attack until it was far too late. What’s going for the Hawks is that they’re ridiculously hot right now. Even after LA stabilized in the last tilt and started to resemble the team that won it all last year, the Hawks were so on fire, they managed to outlast them courtesy of a Patrick Kane hat trick. With the top lines of Chicago getting goin’ at the right time, Boston knows it’s in for a dogfight. 

The Bruins have a lot going for them, too. They are getting a very pleasant surprise out of goal as Rask has been channeling his inner Tim Thomas and their defense is just giving everybody fits. Their top forwards are not only legitimate scorers (Krejci and Marchand have been tearing up the sheet) but also imposing, pesky and defensively stout. And here’s a fun bit: they have been getting a boatload of production from the blueline, too.

The advantages on paper go to the Blackhawks, honestly. Indeed, the Hawks have more scoring depth. Their top end forwards are “more” elite. If one of these teams has the firepower to make a difference on the power play against two of the finest penalty kill crews in the league, it would be the Hawks. They have a hot goaltender. They also get home ice advantage. 
But I did say I’d toss the “paper” out. The Bruins are going to win the Stanley Cup again and it’ll be because, as the old adage likes to remind us, defense wins championships. Their blueliners play elite defense. Their forwards play elite defense. Their goaltender has been playing probably the most elite defense of all. The Hawks dealt with a pesky, resilient bunch in the Red Wings and a big, strong bunch in the Kings. Combine those two traits and you have the pesky, resilient, big bodies of the Bruins.

A couple of weeks ago, I was convinced the Blackhawks were going to win the whole thing. That was until I watched Boston play Pittsburgh. Err… that was until I watched Boston sweep Pittsburgh. Everyone’s picking Chicago in this one; they were the trending pick all regular season, after all, especially after that torrid start. I’ve even seen it called as quickly as five games. I disagree. 

Bruins in 6

2013 NBA Finals

So it comes to this.

MIAMI HEAT (1) VS. SAN ANTONIO SPURS (2)

For stretches of the season, this was the match up that seemed most likely to happen. The Spurs lost the top position in the West near the end of the year when the Oklahoma City Thunder made a nice push to grab the one seed but did little with it when Russell Westbrook went down. Otherwise, it’s arguable that, like you’d expect in a championship series, the best two teams have made it to the very end.

There are sneaky match ups galore to be had here and plenty of questions. How will Kawhi Leonard deal with LeBron? Will the Heat guards be able to slow down Parker? Will Miami’s questionable perimeter defense struggle against San Antonio’s three point shot and, conversely, will San Antonio’s stellar perimeter defense shut down an integral part of Miami’s game, the dish and pop that makes Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Mike Miller so effective? Will Bosh come up big now that he faces big men in TD21 and Tiago Splitter that are not nearly as physical and abusive as Hibbert and West? Will Pops outcoach Spoelstra? Where is Dwayne Wade?

First things first. As you’ve probably been reading all over the internet and hearing all across radio stations and TV shows for the past few days, the match up everybody can’t wait to see is how San Antonio’s best pure defender, Kawhi Leonard, will deal with arguably the best basketball player on the planet. Truth is, the Big Three of the Heat have really been reduced to the ‘Bron show but that has been mostly due to a banged up Wade and a nullified Bosh (Indiana was about as physically taxing as any team can possibly get). That is likely to change in the finals; yet there’s very little doubt that the Heat will win or lose depending on how LeBron commands the games, especially down the stretch. Leonard is going to have to pick his spots in going with LeBron to the hoop and not pick up too many fouls though the task of keeping him to the outside may also backfire as LeBron has developed a pretty good shot to go with his freakish physical skills. Down low on the post, I have to give the edge to LeBron as he will still manage to outmuscle the deceptively tough Leonard who had harassed every assignment so far in the playoffs with his most masterful work having come against the elite guards of Golden State. That said, neither of those guys were physical specimens so his size, length and quickness was too dominating. Memphis had nobody who could score at an elite level so his defense effectively shut down any and all offense outside of their bigs which was a big reason why Memphis were handily dispatched. Leonard will do a n impressive job on LeBron, no doubt, but it won’t be close to enough. It might shave a little off his production and frustrate him into jacking up some jumpshots but if those start dropping, you can pretty much forget about the Spurs winning the championship.

The Spurs live and die with Tony Parker. Games where Parker was off (he had quite a handful of low field goal % shooting nights actually and the Spurs looked either vulnerable or were beat outright), it was evident that the game had to then run through Duncan in the low post where he often was able to get it going but in the twilight of his career, it won’t be enough to win four games. Duncan is at his best now as a complement to Parker and not the other way around. The trick for Miami will be to play Parker physical and stay with him although that’s a lot to ask because TP might be the quickest guard in the league (and Memphis who were supposed to be physical and great defensively, failed at this). Chalmers is pretty physical, though and I wouldn’t be surprised if LeBron even gets that assignment in late game situations as he is Miami’s best overall defender. Parker will be the leading scorer for the Spurs and his ability to draw double teams and dish out to the perimeter will be a very key component of this series.

Speaking of which, Miami has been shredded by three point shooting teams and the Spurs are one of those teams. Forget the Memphis series for a moment (that was about as definitive a match up fail as there ever is in pro sports, by the way) and take a look at the series against the Warriors. The Spurs took away the one thing that made the Warriors a threat to make a run at the finals; their three point game. Conversely, they hit threes with ease in all their wins because the Warriors were chasing the swing around the perimeter and giving up too many open looks. This spells doom for the Heat if they are a) unable to get back on the perimeter on the dish and swing and b) if they get eaten up on the outside by the very active Leonard, Green and Neal who have been harassing jumpshooters all postseason. The perimeter game does favor San Antonio in this regard but note this: only in terms of scheme and execution. Give Pops a ton of credit here. I wouldn’t count against Miami’s outside shot, exactly. In fact, if they get open looks, the Spurs are in a heap of trouble because, like Golden State, they can definitely hit them and if Ray Allen continues to shoot the way he has in the latter parts of the Indiana series where he seemed to be getting his range back, the Heat are going to rain threes on the Spurs. They have the better pure shooters. San Antonio has the better perimeter game as a team.

Down in the paint, watch for Bosh to finally get untracked. He is an undersized, agile big man with range (what’s up with dino jr. jacking up the three point shot anyway? I mean, he’s making them but wtf? lol) and against active, tenacious bigs like David West and Roy Hibbert, he was as good as useless out there. There were stretches where you’d see him active in the paint, trying to get contact and be physical but in the end all he could resort to doing was flopping and missing and flopping. Duncan still has game but he is not as quick as he used to be and Tiago Splitter can be dominated with Bosh’s skillset of taking the ball at midrange and working. I expect Bosh to have a much better series than he did in the last one. What doomed Memphis was the fact their bigs were more traditional bigs, slow, powerful and living closer to the rim. That isn’t Bosh’s game and it’ll give the Spurs a challenge they haven’t really faced yet this postseason (with the exception of Carl Landry who, surprisingly, was effective because he possesses much of the same skillset as Bosh albeit not at an elite level).

Dwayne Wade is having the lowest postseason production of his career. Truth be told, that may just mean he’s due and that would really suck for San Antonio as that suddenly gives them two explosive bodies to cover and they only really have one Kawhi Leonard. The next best thing the Spurs can throw at a strong, explosive scoring guard is Danny Green and while he is definitely capable (he frustrated the hell out of Curry when he was on him), I still have to give the advantage to Wade. This of course all hinges on Wade’s health and if he’s really over it (as it seemed with 21 points and 9 boards in the final and deciding game of the Pacers series), he’s going to be the factor that puts this in Miami’s favor. I’m going to go ahead and throw Manu Ginobili in this discussion; if the Spurs’ long time stud wing man is able to get out of his postseason funk and produce the way he has in the past, it’ll have the same effect as it would if Wade returned to form. Both of these guards are out of sorts although it is arguable that Manu is no longer the piece in the system that he used to be as Kawhi Leonard now has become the third option in the offense and has responded with solid offensive games. Manu still possesses the critical clutch outside shot and is the sort of guy that can literally go 0-12 in the game and then drop a three in the fourth quarter of a close game to turn a tide.

In the end, and I can’t stress this enough, the series is going the distance. Regardless of who wins out, this isn’t something that is going to be determined in four or five games. Six? Maybe. Seven, more likely. Miami’s home court advantage is significant especially if the series goes long. Much is being made of how handily San Antonio dispatched of Memphis but remember that the Grizzlies were a team that couldn’t score in bunches anyway and, while physical and defensive minded, were not explosive enough to stay with Parker when they needed to. The Grizzly series almost tells us nothing about what the Spurs are going to do in this one. The Heat can score a lot easier than the Grizzlies ever could and survived a series with a Pacer team that was balanced, physical and as defensively tough as the Grizz but with much more offensive ability. The Heat had the tougher test, outlasted it and to me, are the favorites here.

Heat in 7

Dig it.

2013 Stanley Cup Conference Finals

Three series went exactly as expected… the fourth went nothing even close to it. 

Now, it’s only fitting that we have the past four champions left in the field and set to battle for the honor of lifting Lord Stanley’s cup. This is puckhead territory so if you don’t know nothin bout nothin, find your way out because things are about to get FUN.

Eastern Conference
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (1) VS. BOSTON BRUINS (4)
The Penguins, as expected, steamrolled Ottawa with too much star power and Vokoun getting in a groove with a shiny 1.85 GAA stopping 94% of the shots he’s seeing. They look locked and ready. The Rangers never really showed up for their series with the Bruins. Whatever clicked for Boston late in Game 7 against the Leafs certainly awoke one of the Cup’s most serious contenders and it showed in how dominating they were against a hapless Rangers squad, that were so bad, they benched their highest paid player. Now we get the Conference Finals matchup most of us were expecting before the playoffs started.
The first thing that jumps out at me is that we have the two highest scoring teams in the postseason in Pittsburgh and Boston. What’s really scary about Pittsburgh and their better-than four goals a game average right now is that they still haven’t really played all that well in terms of controlling the puck, standing up opposing rushes at the blue line and have been outshot nearly every game so far. The fact they’ve somehow still outscored every other team in the field goes to show just how much firepower the Pens really have.  Not that Boston should be overlooked in this regard; their 38 goals are second only to Pittsburgh’s 47. The one area where this disparity will show the most advantage to Pittsburgh is on the power play where their immense star power up front is going to really test Rask who has been great when good and awful when bad.
The Bruins still maintain an edge on defense where the likes of Chara and the rookie Krug (who has literally come out of nowhere to post five points in five games) give them skill on the blue line. They also maintain a more subtle advantage in puck possession where they have understated speed and intensity in gaining the zone and putting shots on net (they’ve shot the puck more than any other team in the playoffs and it isn’t even close). The Penguins are frighteningly efficient (12% of shots go in!) and while the B’s have the superior penalty kill (especially with the return of Redden and Ference on the blue line), it’s still an area of concern as they haven’t looked good up to this point this postseason and the explosive Penguin power play is coming to town.
I hate to pick against Boston for a second straight series. The Rangers had no business in this round anyway and I should have known better than to pick against Boston to begin with. I wonder if the Penguins finally play up to their expectations when they added Morrow and Iginla earlier this season. The Bruins did acquire longtime Penguins legend Jaromir Jagr although he hasn’t done much in the playoffs. If this series is played mostly at even strength and Rask can stay big in net, I don’t see why the Bruins don’t go to the finals. If they spend a ton of time in the box, that isn’t likely to happen. The Penguins ran the table on the B’s during the regular season taking all three contests (although all three were decided by one goal). Either way, it’s going deep into the six or seven game territory.
This may be the toughest call yet.
Bruins in 7
Western Conference
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (1) VS. LOS ANGELES KINGS (5)
The Blackhawks had a much tougher time with the Red Wings than most “experts” had expected. It took the Hawks seven games, a spirited comeback from down three games to one and even overtime in the decisive tilt in order to get rid of their long time fierce rivals. The Kings also squeaked by their second round opponent in what was also a heated rivalry that went seven games. Five of the seven games were decided by a single goal and were it not for an incredible late flurry in game 2 where the Kings protected home ice and forced the Sharks into a 2-0 hole that took all of seven games to almost get out of, who knows how this series would have ended. Like the Hawks/Wings series, it really came down to the very end of it for one to move on and one to stay home.
Both teams now face opponents drastically different than their last round foes. In Chicago’s case, they now face a team that isn’t just fast and energetic like the young Red Wings whose third and fourth lines maybe made the most noise of all. Whereas Detroit had been giving up more goals than nearly any other team in the playoffs (and not due to the goaltending as Howard was absolutely stellar), LA’s strength lies in clogging up the lanes with big bodies and making entry into their own zone infuriatingly difficult. Just ask San Jose who could muster only 11 goals all series against Quick and Co. In LA, Chicago now faces a team that can buckle down with a lead and make it incredibly difficult to climb back into games… something they took for granted with the inspired but undisciplined play of the Red Wings who not only routinely gave up leads but also gave up the most important lead of all: three games to one and even more shockingly disturbing for the Wings, a 3-1 lead in the third period of Game 6 at home in Detroit. The Hawks should not look for LA to do anything like that.
That said, the Kings are going to find that the Hawks are an entirely different animal altogether than the Sharks were. The Hawks are far more explosive offensively, have four lines that can score at an elite level, loads of offensive skill on the blue line, plenty of big bodies themselves and a superior penalty kill than either the Blues or the Sharks. Crawford is about as tough as Niemi and won’t be tested as often as he was against the Wings who are more of an offensive side than the Kings are. The disparity in their offensive games is really going to be showcased here as the Blackhawks are going to be able to put the puck in the net more often than the Kings will be regardless of how good Quick can be. In fact, the most I think we can fairly expect of him is to limit the Blackhawks to about the same production as Howard had and that still yielded 15 goals.
  
The key in this series will be how the Kings play when trailing. They will need to consistently jump out in front and therefore play their game which is at its best with a lead. The Hawks don’t melt down often (if at all) and are one of the handful of teams in the NHL that can play with nearly any deficit due to the likes of Kane, Toews, Sharp and Hossa having the ability to put the puck past any goaltender on any given night. Repeating as Lord Stanley’s champion is one of the toughest things to do and more so in this era than in any other. The Sharks gave the Kings a real test but the Blackhawks will knock them out and probably win the whole thing.
Blackhawks in 6

Dig it.